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Located off the Chang’an (Eternal Peace) Avenue in a former watchtower at Jianguomen near the Beijing Railway Station, Beijing Ancient Observatory is a pretelescopic observatory first built in 1442 during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). It is one of the oldest observatories in the world. It houses a reproduction of a Ming Dynasty star map, and stargazing instruments like armillary spheres, a quadrant altazimuth and some other bronze astronomical instruments. The observatory itself is sited on a 15 meters tall brick tower, one the top of which is a platform with 20.4 meters wide form south to north and 23.9 meters long from west to east, which an extant portion of the old Ming dynasty era city wall that once encircled Beijing.

Beijing Ancient Observatory used to be a Royal Observatory in Ming and Qing dynasties, and it is now a witness to Eastern-Western astronomy exchanges in history in Ming and Qing dynasties. The observatory is internationally renowned for well protected buildings (including the body of the observatory itself and the affiliated station buildings) and completed ancient astronomical instruments. Here displays eight magnificent and beautifully forceful Qing Dynasty ancient astronomical instruments with delicate carving on the top of the tower. On the ground level are the simple, elegant and charming subsidiary buildings, which are historical treasures. The eight copper instruments of Qing Dynasty not only contains Chinese traditional features in style, floriation, craft and so on, but also reflects progress and achievements of large astronomical instruments between after the end of the Renaissance of Western Europe and before the invention of telescope. Therefore, this giant set of ancient and completed telescope copper astronomical instruments is unique in the world. If you are interested in astronomy, you can not miss this interesting place while traveling in Beijing.

History of Beijing Ancient Observatory

It was said that in 1227, the Jin dynasty moved the ancient astronomical instruments from Kaifeng to the first observatory in Beijing. In 1279, the succeeding Mongols under Kublai Khan built a new observatory just to the north of the current observatory by Kublai Khan’s chief adviser of hydraulics, mathematics and astronomy, Guo Shoujing, director of the observatory at that time, and another astronomer Wang Xun. Its original name was the Administration of Heavenly Observatory. After the foundation of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of Ming dynasty, moved the instruments from Beijing to Nanjing. Then the Yongle Emperor (the third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty,) took the throne in 1403 and moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1420. He did not dare to move these instruments because the tomb of the first Ming Dynasty’s Emperor was in Nanjing. Instead he sent some artisans to the city in 1437 to make wooden copies of the Song armillary sphere and the Yuan guibiao (a type of sundial) and abridged armilla (a symplified form of the armillary sphere). A new set of bronze instruments was then cast in Beijing modelled after these wooden copies. In 1442, a new observatory was constructed on the site of the water tower to the southeast of the old capital. It was during that period that the Ancient Beijing Observatory took on its present scale and layout and was equipped with such traditional instruments as abridged armilla, armillary sphere, and celestial globe on the observatory platform, as well as the guibiao and the water clock under the platform.

In 1900, the Allied Forces of Eight Powers invaded Beijing. The aggressors from Germany and France grabbed the eight magnificent astronomical instruments together with the armillary sphere and abridged armilla. Each of them stole five of the instruments. French shipped the instruments to the French Embassy, but it returned them in 1902. The transported the other five instruments to the Potsdam Palace for display. After World War I, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germany returned and shipped back to China in 1921, and resettle in the observatory.

After the Revolution of 1911, the Observatory was renamed the Central Observatory. In 1927, after the foundation of Purple Mountain Observatory, the Beijing Ancient Observatory is no longer used for observational studies. In 1929, it was reformed to the National Museum of Astronomy. After “September 18th Incident” in 1931, the Japanese militarists launched a large-scale invasion to North China Plain. To protect the cultural relics, the armillary sphere, abridged armilla, clepsydra and other seven instruments were shipped to Nanjing. Today they are displayed at Purple Hills Observatory and Nanjing Museum respectively.

The observatory was renovated in the early 1980s and reopened to the public in April 1983. After renovation it is very much as it was when it served the imperial court in Ming and Qing Dynasties. Nowadays, on the platform of the Ancient Beijing Observatory as the visitor climbs it from right to left are displayed an armilla, a quadrant, an ecliptic armilla, a celestial globe, an altazimuth, a sextant, an azimuth theodolite and an equatorial armilla.

How to Get to Beijing Ancient Observatory

It is accessed by Beijing Subway Lines 1 and 2 to Jianguomen Station (get out through Exit C). Or you can take Bus Routes 25, 39, 43, 44, 52, 122, 434, 637, 638, 750 and 特2 to Jianguomen South (建国门桥南), or take Bus Routes特2, 9, 10, 20, 29, 37, 39, 52, 120, 122, 403, 420, 72, 729, 802, 938 to Beijing Railway Station East(北京站东). The Beijing Railway Station and the Ming City Wall Relics Park are a short walk to the south. It is recommended to spend about 1 or 2 hours to tour around