Rediscovering Beijing: The Ancient Observatory

The author of the the 1897 guide book charts the Astronomical Observatory as one of the must-sees of Old Peking. It’s his first stop on any three-day tour.

I’d always planned to pay a visit. But how would it look today?

This is what you see from the highway:

Almost identical, but…

In 1897 it wasn’t a museum. It was a working observatory, some 480 years old. You had to bribe your way in.

The Observatory, called Kwan-hsiang-tai by the Chinese, is generally open to European visitors with the help of a little money, although the admittance of visitors is strictly prohibited. Through the incautiousness of some travellers one of the instruments got damaged, and, on account of this, admittance has been of late somewhat more difficult.

In the 115 years that have passed, little appears to have changed. You still have to pay to enter. And what’s inside looks very similar.

Except for the yellow cranes, of course. Those are new.

The establishment is of ancient date and probably originates from Persian astronomers who followed Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor. It was erected in the 13th century and is already mentioned by Marco Polo. There are still to be seen three of the old instruments, two planispheres and an astrolabe, which are kept in the court below. They… doubtlessly are the best works in bronze that are to be seen in Peking, perhaps in the whole of Eastern Asia.

I don’t know my planisphere from my astrolabe, but it was pretty incredible. Sadly, the English-language explanations gave little insight into how these verdigris-covered tools works. Signs read statements like: “The simplified armilla is used for the same purpose as an armillary sphere.” And that’s it.

I was skeptical, though, about the age of these ancient devices. Would the rooftop globe be so perfect after a century of rain and pollution?

In 1898, just a year after this book was published, the Boxer Rebellion began. Kung-fu sorcerers harassed, besieged, and slaughtered foreigners and Christians across China. The “aggressors from eight foreign countries,” as the museum so kindle offers, responded by plundering the observatory of its treasures. Then there were wars, and the cultural revolution. Probably few originals remain today.

A man walked through the courtyard with authority, and I stopped him to ask which pieces were original. “I don’t work at the museum,” he said. His company, an expat relocation firm, rented half the museum’s space.

The only actual attendant was a teenage shopkeeper. She wore purple- and yellow-spiraled contact lenses, and large gems were pasted to her fingernails. She didn’t know which were originals either, but she did try to sell me an armillary sphere for $1,400.

“Foreigners like this one,” she said. I bet she says that to all the foreigners. I bet that one was a fake, too.

In 1897 this was a 500-year-old working observatory, and a great tourist destination.

In 1929 it was shut down.

In 1983 it reopened as a museum.

Today, it was empty.

“There are very few visitors these days,” the shopkeeper said. With Beijing’s ever-polluted cover, that’s not so surprising. After all, who wants to visit an observatory when you can’t even see the sky?

But even with the smog, there were incredibly groovy miniatures…

…and a spaceship, too!

It might have just been a water tower, though.

Score so far: one elephantine fail, and one astronomical success. Old Peking 1897 half-lives, and the campaign marches ahead!

Introduction: Rediscovering Beijing with an 1897 Guide
Part One: Finding the Elephants
Part Two: The Ancient Observatory

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