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Beijing Day 12 - Beijing Ancient Observatory

The World's 2nd Most Famous Astronomical Cat. Timekeeping for Nocturnal Party Animals.

sunny 11 °C

The Beijing Ancient Observatory locates above Jiangoumen subway station, which is right next to Yonganli station where Fraser Suites is located. It takes me 12 mins to walk from Fraser Suites to Yonganli Stn, but with a sub 10 °C temperature and windy condition, I decided to take a cab straight to the Observatory. It cost ¥12. The flag-fall fare (¥10) just ticked over.


I do have a great interest in astronomy, but more in the theoretical (and much more entertaining) aspects like Black Hole, The Big Bang, Twins Paradox, white dwarf, pulsars and whatnot (anything that helps me to understand Hollywood sci-fi flicks). Not so much into astronomical instruments, which are bland and unexciting (I have yet watched a movie about astronomical instruments). Still, since it's in the neighbourhood, it's well worth the little trouble.

This is the oldest observatory in the world. And it built like 1 of those watch towers (only much bigger) that you would see in the Great Wall with the various instruments sit on top of it. You can easily spot these rustic ancient antiques from the streets.

One thing that the astronomy enthusiasts would be glad to hear, this place is very quiet as it’s not your usual sightseeing spot (probably busier in peak tourist season. Still, I doubt it would be very crowded). I spent about an hour there, and saw no more than 6 visitors.

The upside of this sundial is that it’s green as it ‘powered’ by the sun; the downside is that it too big to put it in your pocket, and too heavy to wear it on your wrist. The sundial says 2 o'clock while the timestamp of the photo says, wait for it, 1:59pm. It still keeps pretty accurate time after a few centuries. It's made in ancient China.


This Chinese sundial has Chinese time markings. The 2rd or middle ring marks the time of day. Chinese divides the day into 12 "hours". Each Chinese hour is represented by an animal zodiac. The same animal zodiac that marks each year. The innermost and outermost rings divide the Chinese hours into 2 halves, which equals to the duration of the hour that we use today.

The 2 sundials above are photographed within a minutes of each other. So they both should say 2pm. I read this as 3pm. But I think I just read it wrong.

While both China and Greek both came up with sundials independently, it took China to come up with the moondial. China is a Moon culture. It uses a lunar calendar. It celebrates Mid-Autumn Festival by eating moon cakes, and entertained by the folklore of the Moon Rabbit (=月兔), and the story of Moon Goddess Chang'e or Chang-O (嫦娥). To time all these, we need a moondial for all these nocturnal activities. I'm not just talking about nocturnal party animals, there were also the many sanitary workers who disposed the city's wastes. A good timekeeping is important.


In ancient China, every night somebody would walk around the city streets, announcing time. It would go something like this, "It's 3 o'clock. Watch out for fire hazard". And it would strike the gong a number of times that represents the hours. Where did they get the hours from? Moondial, I presume. What about moonless night? You got me there. They probably used something that doesn't rely on either sunlight or moonlight like the steelyard clesydra. It's basically a water clock.


This is probably the most well known astronomical cat in Beijing. Maybe in the world after

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Posted by FrancisQ 09:56 Archived in China Comments (0)

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