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Tourist Destinations in China: The Beijing Ancient Observatory and Planetarium

Updated on October 1, 2014

The Beijing Observatory and Planetarium

The ancient observatory found in Beijing was erected during mid-15th century (c.1442). This ancient structure is one of the world's oldest observatories; it covers a staggering 107,639 square feet while containing a brick platform that is approximately 49 feet in height and 17,222 in square feet. This platform represents a remaining portion of the city wall that encompassed Beijing during the Ming Dynasty (r.1368-1644). Moreover, found on this platform are several bronze instruments that were used for astronomical purposes. These instruments include sundials and armillary spheres (models of the known cosmos). Many other astronomical instruments are located in areas surrounding the observatory. Possessing a long history of over 500 years, the Beijing Ancient Observatory is known by over 500 tourists each week for being both historical and interesting.

Things to Know Before Visiting the Beijing Ancient Observatory and Planetarium

Once one finds him or herself in any part of Beijing, the observatory is always just a convenient subway ride away. The nearest station is known as Jianguomen Station. Only one hour is recommended to visit the observatory. Therefore, it is the ideal place for tourists who are already in the area and looking for something to add to their itineraries. The observatory is available year round while being open during the summer from 9am-6pm; during the winter it is open from 9am-4:30pm. Tickets can only be purchased at the site. They are reasonably priced at ten Chinese Yuan per adult (or just $1.20USD); children and senior citizens are admitted free of charge. There are no tour guides available while visiting the observatory. However, it should be noted that ticket prices include admission that permits a guest to stay as long as he or she wishes. Since the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the planetarium and observatory have officially been considered a part of each other. As such, they fall under the same jurisdiction.

The planetarium, unlike the observatory does offer tour guides and instructional videos that clearly explain the cosmos. Headphones used for translating to a number of languages are included in the price of admisssion. Admission to the planetarium is valued at 30 Yuan or $4.76. These tickets are available through the planetarium's website or onsite. The building seats 600 guests and there are often seats available on the same day of visiting. Visiting the planetarium coupled with the observatory could possibly occupy nearly an entire day to see and do all that is offered.

Equatorial Armilla
Equatorial Armilla | Source

What to See While Visiting the Beijing Ancient Observatory

All of the large, highly visible, and easily accessible astronomical instruments in and around the observatory are ornately carved. These instruments are indicative of Chinese craftsmanship paired with influence from the European Renaissance in terms of physics and measurements. The architecture of the structure is of a traditional Chinese style. However, the observatory and its surrounding areas mark a significant cultural exchange between the Eastern and Western worlds.

The observatory is split into two parts, the platform as well as affiliated buildings. To get a full appreciation of the astronomical technology used during Ming China, it is essential to have at the very least a basic understanding of the functions for each instrument displayed in the observatory. Perhaps the most notable of these instruments is the armillary sphere. This large circular instrument was once used to determine the precise locations of celestial bodies. The instrument is comprised of bronze disks. One of these disks is for tracking the sun, while the other was used for tracking all other celestial bodies throughout the cosmos.

The sextant, constructed in 1673 was used for determining the distance between any two objects found in the heavens that are less than 60 degrees apart. It was also used for showing the angular diameters of both the moon and the sun. Sextants, including this one slightly resemble the appearance of a bow and arrow.

Two instruments that are similar in appearance and function are known as the Azimuth Theodolite and the Altazimuth. The former, built in 1715 was used for finding the azimuth and altitude of various stars, planets, and other celestial bodies. The Altazimuth, constructed in 1673 was only able to determine the azimuth of such astronomical objects.

Another spherical instrument, built in 1673, known as the Ecliptic Armilla served the purpose of finding ecliptic longitude in relation to latitude. The spherical New Armilla was built in 1744. It was (and still is) able to accurately determine true solar time.

The year 1673 was an important one in terms of how many instruments were rebuilt and added to the observatory. During this year, the Celestial Globe was constructed. It was used to tell how long it takes for a given celestial body to rise and set. In addition, the Celestial Globe was also used for discovering azimuth and altitude of celestial bodies at any time. Also completed in 1673 was The Quadrant. While being incredibly accurate for its period, this instrument was able to find altitudes and distances of celestial bodies.


A Brief History of the Beijing Ancient Observatory

Many Chinese historians believe that the country’s first observatory was built in 1227. This observatory, located just north of the current observatory was used until 1442 when the current structure was completed. It was used by the emperor’s government to discover information concerning the heavens. This was important data to have for the government as they commonly linked the behavior of the cosmos to that of the emperor’s well-being. Traditional Chinese beliefs consider the heavens to be a good indicator into the overall health of the society.

Another important function of the observatory was to aid in sea navigation. Muslim scholars were imported to offer their expertise in this area. In 1673, the emperor ordered the rebuilding of many of the instruments found within the observatory. This explains why several of these instruments were added to the observatory in that year. Sadly, as the First World War reached its conclusion, European troops hailing mainly from France and Germany stole all of the instruments that are seen today. All of these stolen items were returned after war’s end in the late teens and early 1920s. However, some of the items dating back to the Ming Dynasty are now found at the Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing.

Convenient Public Transportation

Once one finds him or herself in any part of Beijing, the observatory is always just a convenient subway ride away.


What to See While Visiting the Beijing Planetarium

The Beijing Planetarium is comprised of two modern buildings which include a large science museum. Also included in these buildings are a digital space theater, 3D theaters, 4D theaters, two observatories, as well as several exhibition halls displaying a various number of items relating to man's relationship with space. The Beijing Planetarium is the oldest of its kind in all of Asia.

For those deeply interested in astronomy, the planetarium offers seminars that discuss the cosmos in great detail. The lectures have previously included discussions on the Milky Way galaxy via artwork done by artists from around the world. Other lectures often include presentations about the study of the universe. Some lectures discuss the planets, gravity, asteroids, and any number of other celestial beings. While the planetarium is designed to be kid friendly, it is also constructed with adults in mind. Therefore, it is perfect for individuals and families to visit. Those familiar with planetariums found in the Western world will feel comfortable with the Beijing Planetarium as it constructed in a Western style while also not limiting itself only to astronomical discoveries done by Chinese. This offers a nice contrast to the nearby observatory which solely represents the scientific advancements made throughout Chinese history.

Visiting the Ancient Observatory

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The Beijing Ancient Observatory along with the Beijing Planetarium represents the ideal places to see for anybody interested in either Chinese history or the study of space. They are both perfect locations for travelers visiting on a budget as admission costs are kept at a minimum while being well worth the price. The planetarium and observatory are great places to visit when time is short. Many tourists visit the area on their last day in China. It is a wonderfully convenient destination located in Beijing not far from trains, subways, highways, and a large international airport. The area surrounding the observatory and planetarium is filled with fine restaurants, luxurious hotels, and plenty of transportation options. Beijing is an extremely large city packed with fun and educational things to do and see. The Beijing Ancient Observatory and the nearby planetarium only represent one of the many highly recommended sites in the city.

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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Enjoyed the info.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 5 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      very interesting info on china's tourist destinations.