1636 The China Venture – Snippet 23

Beijing, China

Beijing, the Northern Capital, was really four cities in one. At the center was the Forbidden City, a north-south rectangle, where the imperial family and the eunuchs who served them lived. It had been constructed in the fourteenth century, at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. Around it lay the Imperial City, which held the many service buildings of the bureaucracy. Around that was the Northern City, a square with a dent in the northwest corner. Here the common folk lived.

The Northern City was defended by walls twelve to fifteen meters high and up to twenty meters thick. It was easy for a visitor, standing close by and looking upward, to imagine that its parapets were sharp mountain peaks, rather than mere city walls.

Finally, there was the Southern City. Here were wealthy suburbs, as well as the great imperial temples of Heaven and of Agriculture. The Southern City had been walled off in 1615 in response to the Mongol raid of 1550, but its wall was only six meters tall.

When news came of the disaster at Fengyang, the emperor donned mourning clothes, abstained from sex for a time, and ordered the execution, exile, corporal punishment, or imprisonment of various officials deemed responsible, whether they in fact had any responsibility or not. More practically, he ordered troops rushed in from other theaters to protect Nanjing and China south of the Yangtze. Hong Chengchou, the imperial commander in the northwest, was given the ceremonial double-edged sword and ordered to crush the bandits within six months.

Naturally, the emperor was keenly interested in what the heavens had to say concerning these events and plans. And it was up to the imperial astronomers to interpret the heavenly portents, preferably without incurring the imperial wrath in the process.

For the time being, there was no comet hanging in the sky, portending change. However, there was the normal cycle of astronomical phenomena to be observed and reported, on pain of punishment if errors were made.

The Imperial Observatory lay just behind the east wall and near the southeast corner of the Northern City. One could walk from its rooftop onto the battlements, and an old watchtower had been incorporated into the observatory structure. The Chaoyangmen–the Gate Facing the Sun–was to the north, giving access to the countryside. Much of the grain that fed the city came through Chaoyang. The Chongwenmen–the Gate of Respectful Civility–was to the southwest of the observatory, around the corner, so to speak. It was the easternmost of the three gates between the Northern City and the Southern City. There were many distilleries to the south, in Daxing, and the price of beer was less at the market beside the Chongwen Gate than anywhere else in the city.

Through both of these gates, there was a constant stream of peasants with oxcarts and donkeys. But the Chongwen Gate also had a richer clientele of merchants and officials, as it was the final tax station for the Grand Canal. It was, in fact, the busiest gate of the Northern City.

The Jesuits had predicted that the umbral shadow of the Earth would begin to creep across the lunar disk at 2:36 AM on March 4, 1635. That was, according to the Chinese calendar, day sixteen of the first month. The protocol at the astronomical bureau was to begin observing three hours before the predicted start of an eclipse. Hence, the Jesuits and their Chinese counterparts were out on the roof of their observatory at the “hour” of the rat–Chinese hours were two European hours long, and the “hour” of the rat began at 11:00 PM.

The moon, of course was full–that was a prerequisite for a lunar eclipse–and they could see the street below them clearly.

The place where they stood was called the Terrace for Observing the Stars; it was constructed in 1442, on the orders of Zhengtong, the sixth Ming Emperor. It was part of an astronomical complex that included the Hall of Celestial Abstrusity and the Sun Shadow Hall.

Since they had to be out anyway, the Jesuit astronomers tried to spot the penumbral shadow. The umbra was the dark part of the Earth’s shadow, where the Earth completely hid the moon from the sun. It was a cone that narrowed as it extended from the dark side of the Earth. Whereas the penumbra fell where the Earth only partially blocked the sunlight; it was a cone that widened with distance from the sun.

This being a total eclipse, at eclipse maximum, the Moon would be fully immersed in the umbral shadow.


“I think I see it,” said Giacomo Rho. “It’s like a wisp of cloud.”

Johann Adam Schall von Bell shook his head. “I don’t see anything different yet.”

“My eyes are younger than yours.”

“By one year! Perhaps you are seeing what you want to see?”

Nicholas Longobardo clicked his tongue several times. “Gentlemen, please, the penumbral passage is merely the prologue; let us not argue and spoil our enjoyment of the play.”

In the course of their argument, the three Jesuits had taken their eyes off the celestial protagonist. But their lay guest hadn’t.

“There,” said Brother Diogo Aranha. “The Earth has taken its first bite out of the Moon.”

The Jesuits looked up hastily. “Our new librarian is right!” said Longobardo. “What’s the time?”

There was a European-made astronomical clock on the rooftop, and Rho consulted it. “I have 2:22.”

Schall shrugged. “Fourteen minutes late. Fairly typical for us. I wonder how the Mohammedans are doing.” There were four separate and competing offices within the astronomical bureau: Jesuit, Mohammedan and two different Chinese ones.

“They are usually off by an hour,” said Rho. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

By now, the beating of drums could be heard in the street below. The gates of course had closed at sunset, but this part of Beijing had no lack of nightlife.

“What are they doing?” asked Aranha. He was newly arrived in China, and had not had the opportunity to spend several years in Macao to acclimate himself because of the death of his predecessor at the Beijing mission.

Longobardo smiled. “The Chinese believe that during a lunar eclipse, a great dragon attempts to swallow the Moon. They beat the drums in an attempt to scare the dragon away. We must endure these superstitious practices until they adopt the True Faith.”

“But you predicted that this would be a total eclipse. So they will be disappointed, won’t they?”

“You’re right.”

More and more of the face of the Moon was engulfed. At last, the entire face was a dark red color. The stars in night sky all seemed brighter, too.

“We have totality. What’s the time? It should be 3:34 a.m.”

‘It’s 3:30 in the morning. Only four minutes off.” The astronomers were grinning. “Less than a third of a ke.” The Chinese also divided the day into 100 ke, so each ke was 14.4 minutes. The calendar published by the emperor on the Chinese New Year, that February, only stated eclipse times to the nearest ke. Another blow to the competition!

The accuracy of the calendar presented to the emperor and distributed throughout the realm was politically important; it confirmed that the emperor had the Mandate of Heaven. The first observatory that had stood on this spot, built in the days of Kublai Khan, had aptly been called the Terrace for Managing Heaven.

The hubbub down on the streets had increased. “Now what are they doing down there?” asked Diogo. “It’s hard to see.” That wasn’t surprising; with the moon fully eclipsed, it was no brighter than if it were the time of New Moon. “I think I hear banging sounds.”

“Yes, they are banging on mirrors,” said Longobardo. “Which, here in China, are made of bronze. The mirror symbolizes the Moon; they are trying to get the dragon to cough back up the Moon it swallowed.”

“The world’s largest hairball,” said Schall.

When the shadow began to withdraw from the lunar disk, there was cheering from the street below, but not on the observatory rooftop; the discrepancy for the end of totality was thirty-eight minutes.

Nor was the Jesuits’ mood improved by their timing of the end of the eclipse; that was also thirty-eight minutes off. At that point, the Moon had nearly set. They watched it sink below the horizon, and then headed down the stairs and back to their residence.