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July 29, 2016

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The lingering legacy of a celestial almanac

XU Guangqi, who might be called the patron saint of Xujiahui, was a man of science and religion in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Among his many achievements, he translated Euclid’s “Elements” into Chinese and wrote China’s first treatise on modern agriculture.

But what really mattered the most to this distinguished man, for whom Xujiahui is named?

Editing the “Chongzhen Almanac,” says Jiang Xiaoyuan, dean of the Science History Department at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

“It was the most important, most effective accomplishment in his life,” adds Jiang. “This almanac was one of the most influential books about European astronomy in ancient China and was used in official astronomy for more than 200 years.”

With the help of four European Jesuits schooled in astronomy, Xu headed up a group that sought to update and modernize the old existing China almanac.

The 137-volume “Chongzhen Almanac,” which covered 46 areas of astronomy and mathematics, was finally completed in 1634, a year after Xu’s death.

“His work surpassed merely rectifying the old almanac,” Jiang says. “Xu introduced what was modern European astronomy of the time to China through this work. The almanac adopted the Tychonic system, a model of the solar system published by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1588, and updated that with the research of mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler.”

Xu’s almanac proved to be the best work of the four schools of Chinese astronomy competing at the time for the favor of the imperial court.

Professor Deng Kehui from Donghua University describes Xu’s role in this undertaking as “supervisor of a large-scale national scientific research.”

“Xu managed this project to the smallest detail,” says Deng. “He paid attention to accuracy, and referred to both Western and ancient Chinese star catalogues. He also employed staff according to their capability rather than according to their official status, classifying them in three grades of proficiency and evaluating their performance every three months.”

Xu made wooden models of astronomical instruments before they were cast into copper, to avoid mistakes and save costs.

“His work turned out to be marvelous,” Deng says. “The star catalogue of the ‘Chongzhen Almanac’ contained 1,362 stars, which surpassed both Western and ancient Chinese star catalogues of the time in terms of numbers and accuracy of coordinates.”

The almanac had repercussions beyond Xu’s death. It was first roundly criticized by the other three astronomical schools in China, who competed by issuing their own predictions of events, such as solar eclipses, 10 years after the almanac was published.

In the end, the accuracy of the “Chongzhen Almanac” trumped them all, and Emperor Chongzhen had it formally adopted for official use shortly before the collapse of his reign in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

“Johann Adam Schall von Bell, one of the four European Jesuits with whom Xu worked, subsequently submitted the almanac to the succeeding Qing emperor, who renamed it ‘Western New Law Almanac’ and used it as the official almanac,” says professor Jiang.

“Bell was appointed as supervisor of the Qin Tian Jian, or Imperial Board of Astronomy,” he says. “His job was to gaze at the stars and pick special days for the emperor’s political activities, according to location of the sun, the moon and other celestial entities. For the next 200 years, the tradition of appointing a European Jesuit to head this institution prevailed.”


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