The Jesuit Astronomical Observatory at Beijing. With 105 Double-Page Woodcuts of Astronomical Instruments & the Observatory

Verbiest, Ferdinand, S.J. (1623-1688)

Ling-t’ai I-hsiang t’u or Hsin-chih I-hsiang t’u [trans.: A Newly Made Collection of Astronomical Instruments]

[Beijing: presented to the Emperor 6 March 1674


Small folio, Two Volumes: 39.5 x 19.9 cm. 106 double-page woodcuts.


Bound in two volumes in original golden-yellow silk over paper wrappers (spines perished & with a little fraying) with woodcut Chinese title labels on the upper covers as issued. 106 double-page woodcuts (the first opening is the Chinese Preface, the remaining 105 openings are woodcut illustrations of astronomical instruments and the observatory within frames, the images each measuring ca. 315 x 320 mm.), printed on thin white Chinese paper. A fine set preserved in a rather luxurious box.

First edition, printed by the Jesuits in Beijing, of this magnificent woodcut book depicting the observatory and scientific instruments designed by the Jesuits for the emperor of China. This is a very rare book and one of the greatest masterpieces of Sino-European printing. This is one of only 46 copies known (of which 3 can no longer be located) and is 1 of only 2 copies known to still be in private hands. For a detailed discussion of the copies, please see the final section of this description.

This copy, bound in luxurious yellow silk, was prepared for the Chinese market, probably for the use of the imperial court and the functionaries at the observatory. There was another issue prepared for export with an additional woodcut opening with the title in Latin, the “Liber Organicus Astronomiae Europaeae.”

The woodcuts were undoubtedly executed by a Chinese artist working after Verbiest’s drawings, or after his directions. While the Chinese artist’s name is unknown to us, a strong candidate is Chiao Ping-chen, one of Verbiest’s collaborators and an official on the Board of Astronomy, who was known to be a skilled painter and producer of xylographic prints incorporating traditional Chinese aesthetics and European perspective.

There are 118 different woodcuts on the 105 folded leaves (while the majority of the woodcuts are double-paged, some leaves have more than one image.) Like the preface, the numbering on the illustrations is in Chinese character, since the audience for this publication was Chinese mathematicians, members of the Board of Astronomy, the Mandarins and members of the Imperial court.


In 1669 the Belgian Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest, with the blessing of the K’ang Hsi Emperor, embarked upon a project to modernize the Imperial astronomical observatory of Beijing (Peking). By 1673, the observatory was complete, and Verbiest published a book, “A Newly Made Collection of Astronomical Instruments”, to mark and publicize this extraordinary achievement.

The new instruments were –and remain- monuments to the fusion of European mathematical and technological methods with Chinese techniques of craftsmanship and fabrication. The instruments were constructed of brass and bronze, which prevented them from warping. Their survival to the present day is a testament to their remarkable durability.

The construction of the new observatory, the replacement of the outdated and far less accurate Chinese instruments, and the introduction of European instruments that used the Western sexagesimal system of 360 degrees (rather than the Chinese system), marked, in a concrete way, the full adoption of European science by the Chinese, a process that had been underway since the beginning of the 17th century, and which had been fraught with set-backs, controversy, and violent opposition.

The arrival of European Science in China, and its reception:

“Very soon after his first visit to Peking in 1601, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the ‘founding father’ of Jesuit missionary efforts in China, was well aware of the Emperor’s fondness for European clocks and other instruments such as harpsichords, and the former presented an opportunity to enter the Chinese Court. Shortly thereafter, he would understand that European astronomy and mathematics were unbeatable challengers of contemporary Chinese science — for several centuries in a state of decline — in calculating a correct calendar and reliable eclipse predictions, both very important guarantors of social and dynastic stability and continuity. Apart from this, the mechanical sciences would also become a first class vehicle to penetrate the highly sophisticated circles of mandarins and courtiers, whose curiosity about European things never seen and about new astonishing techniques struggled with their loyalty to their own uncontested traditions, with highly varying individual attitudes as a result. By all this, European science appeared to be an appropriate vehicle to approach the Chinese upper class, and, implicitly, to introduce Christianity in China.”–Golvers, Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. (1623-1688) and the Chinese Heaven, p. 15.

In 1629 the Jesuits, having impressed the Chinese with their specialized knowledge of European science, succeeded in establishing an academy for western mathematical sciences in Beijing. The newly established Ch’ing Dynasty nominated Adam Schall von Bell in 1644 as acting director of the ancient Imperial Board of Astronomy, which had the sole authority to calculate and promulgate the yearly Chinese calendar. More significantly, the Emperor officially adopted the Western method of calendric computation used by Schall as the official method, and demoted the traditional Chinese computational method, which was full of inaccuracies. As a result, Schall and his fellow Jesuits acquired considerable prestige in the highest levels of Chinese society and government.

Verbiest arrives in China and assumes Schall’s mantle:

In 1658, the Belgian Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-88), who was to become even more influential than Schall in promoting Western science in China, arrived in Beijing. Verbiest brought with him knowledge of the latest advances in ballistics, engineering, acoustics, optics, geodesy, and astronomy and within four years had designed the instruments that would later grace the new Imperial observatory.

However, the political climate changed drastically. Some traditional Chinese astronomers, seeking to regain prominence, accused Schall of manipulating the calendar to his own missionary ends. After a trial, Schall and several of his companions were thrown into prison and sentenced to death by mutilation (fortunately, a series of inauspicious earthquakes frightened the Chinese into revoking the death sentence.) Verbiest was placed under house arrest and, while he was still permitted to work, his observatory plans were put on hold.

With Schall’s death in 1666, Verbiest was the only westerner commanding the astronomical knowledge needed at the Chinese Observatory. Fortunately for him and the mission, the young Emperor K’ang Hsi was an intellectually curious ruler who was fascinated by European science and technology. Verbiest, by successfully proving yet again the superiority of the Western calendar and mathematics, was elevated to Mandarin rank and was appointed director of the Imperial observatory in 1669. In that same year, the Emperor approved Verbiest’s plans for the new observatory, and construction began.

The New Observatory:

Verbiest designed and built a series of six large instruments for observation: an equinoctial (equatorial) armillary sphere, six feet in diameter; a celestial globe, six feet in diameter; a zodiacal (ecliptical) armillary sphere, six feet in diameter; a horizontal azimuth compass, six feet in diameter; a quadrant, six feet in radius; and a sextant, eight feet in radius. The technology is entirely European while the decorative features are very Chinese. These instruments were all very large, made from brass, and mounted on highly decorated bronze stands contrived in the form of lions, dragons, flaming pearls, and other oriental motifs (We know from Verbiest’s letters that the elaborate decorative elements in some instances proved a hindrance by making important parts of the instruments inaccessible.) While modeled on instruments developed by Tycho Brahe in the late 16th c., Verbiest’s instruments included many modern advances, such as the use of geared setting adjustments and pulleys for his sextant.

Although the telescope was known in China, telescopic lenses were not adapted for use on Verbiest’s instruments. By the time Verbiest left Europe in 1658, micrometers and telescopic sights were not yet used in place of traditional sighting mechanisms (and when they began to be used, in the 1660’s, even some of the most advanced telescope makers, such as Hevelius, refused to use them on his quadrants, sextants, etc.). Moreover, the highly specialized technology of grinding precision lenses was unknown in China.

“The graduations on Verbiest’s instruments are of great interest. All of them were engraved within 360-degree circles, as opposed to the 365.25 digit circles of Chinese usage… We are also informed by Louis Le Comte in his 1696 description of the Peking observatory that ‘The circles are divided both on their exterior and interior surfaces by cross lines [transversals] into 360 degrees and each degree into 60 minutes and the latter into portions of 10 seconds each by small pins.’ This was the same mode of subdivision, using dots and lines, as that used by Tycho, his followers, and Johannes Hevelius.”(Chapman, “Tycho Brahe in China: the Jesuit Mission in Peking and the Iconography of European Instrument-making Processes: in Annals of Science, Vol. 41 (1984), pp. 417-43.)

Publishing his Achievements: Verbiest’s “Newly Made Collection of Astronomical Instruments”(1674)

The inspiration and model for Verbiest’s book was clearly Tycho Brahe’s “Astronomiae Instauratae Mechanica” of 1598. However, in the present work, the woodcuts display not only the instruments themselves (as in Tycho’s book), but show also, in great detail, the processes of their manufacture, with the tools and implements used to produce them; the alignment and adjustment of their flat and curved surfaces; details of the gearing and screws used to adjust and direct the instruments; the civil engineering machinery and processes used in building the instrument mountings and the great observatory tower itself. Between plates 23 and 57 in the Chinese numbering sequence are a series of woodcuts showing the casting, finishing, graduating, and assembly of the parts of the armillary spheres and the great globe. This aspect of the book makes it invaluable to historians of early modern science since there is no equivalent in European publications of the time.

Verbiest’s expertise extended far beyond astronomy and the other woodcuts in the book depict navigational instruments such as the compass and cross-staff, and their use; and mechanical powers, such as those of the inclined plane, lever, screw, pulley, winches, etc.

The Later History of the Beijing Observatory:

Verbiest’s instruments were installed on a platform atop a tower in the old wall of the city and were used to make observations into the mid-18th century. Remarkably, the instruments remained in their original positions until the beginning of the 20th c., when they were carted off to Potsdam as war booty. They were subsequently returned under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and re-installed on the Observatory platform, where they can be seen today.

Extant copies of Verbiest’s book:

In his census, Noël Golvers describes 47 “copies” of this book, 1 of which is in fact a unique manuscript compendium of elements relating to the printed book but not the printed book itself.

Of the 46 printed copies listed, 3 can no longer be located (they are known only from catalogue entries of the 18th and 19th centuries.) Of the 43 copies whose whereabouts are known, 9 are incomplete and 1 other, heavily damaged in the devastating 1966 Florence flood, should also be counted as such.

Of the 33 complete copies only 14 (including ours) are confirmed as being bound in their original bindings of decorative silk over thin paper. (N.B. There are 6 copies for which no binding information is available.) 3 copies in the census are bound in (apparently original Chinese) wooden boards, and 3 others are in contemporary Chinese paper wrappers. The remaining copies either lack bindings, are bound in later or modern European bindings, or are preserved in modern frames or boxes.

In its classic form, the book consists of 106 folded folio leaves, 105 of which are double-paged woodcut illustrations, while the remaining 1 leaf consists of the Chinese introduction. In some cases (19 copies in Golvers’ census), copies intended for export to Europe were given an additional woodcut Latin title page. Some of those copies also included paper title labels in Latin (instead of Chinese.) Our copy corresponds to the copies intended for Chinese distribution (i.e. without the Latin title and with the original Chinese title labels on both volumes.)

Of the 14 complete copies in silk bindings, only 4 (including our copy) have all the marks indicative of those that were for domestic Chinese consumption. 2 are ambiguous, and the other 8 have Latin title pages and in some cases the Latin title labels on the bindings.

Our copy, therefore, is one of the few extant copies that are complete, are bound in original silk bindings, and were meant for Chinese (rather than European) recipients, such as the Imperial court officials, the Mandarins, or members of the Imperial Astronomical Society.

Moreover, ours is 1 of only 2 copies in Golvers’ census in private hands. The second privately held copy is also complete, is bound in two volumes in their original paper (rather than silk) wrappers with Chinese title labels. As in our copy, the spines of the paperbound copy have also perished but were repaired (by rebacking) in the 18th c.

It should be noted that, as Golvers himself remarks, his census cannot be considered a definitive reckoning of all of the surviving copies of this book, especially since many Chinese libraries remain inaccessible.

Chapman, Allan, “Tycho Brahe in China: the Jesuit Mission in Peking and the Iconography of European Instrument-making Processes: in Annals of Science, Vol. 41 (1984), pp. 417-43–(gving a detailed technical exposition of the illustrations in this work). Cordier, Sinica, 1451. Golvers, Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. (1623-1688) and the Chinese Heaven, no. LO 12 in his census. Sommervogel VIII, 575.