The Observatory at Beijing

VERBIEST, Ferdinand.  Ling-t’ai I-hsiang t’u or Hsin-chih I-hsiang t’u [trans.: A Newly Made Collection of Astronomical Instruments].  106 double-page woodcuts (the first opening is the Chinese Preface, the remaining 105 openings are woodcut illus. within frames, the images each measuring ca. 315 x 320 mm.), printed on thin white Chinese paper.  Two vols.  Small folio (395 x 199 mm.), orig. golden-yellow silk over paper wrappers (spines perished & with a little fraying), woodcut Chinese title labels on upper covers as issued.  [Beijing: presented to the Emperor 6 March 1674].

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 ; our copy was prepared for the Chinese market, probably for the use of the emperor and the functionaries at the observatory.

The newly arrived Verbiest (1623-88), became Schall’s assistant in 1660.  With Schall’s death in 1666, Verbiest was the only westerner commanding the astronomical knowledge needed at the Chinese Observatory; he was appointed director in 1669.  The Emperor K’ang Hsi was a young and intellectually curious ruler who was fascinated by European science and technology.  Verbiest was elevated to Mandarin rank and often accompanied the emperor on his travels around the country.

Verbiest designed and built a series of instruments for observation, including a quadrant, six feet in radius; an azimuth compass, six feet in diameter; a sextant, eight feet in radius; a celestial globe, six feet in diameter; and two armillary spheres, zodiacal and equinoctial, each six feet in diameter.  These were all very large, made from brass, and mounted on highly decorated stands contrived in the form of lions, dragons, flaming pearls, and other oriental motifs.  The technology is entirely European while the decorative features are very Chinese.

The inspiration and model for this book was clearly Tycho Brahe’s Astronomiae Instauratae Mechanica of 1598.  In the present work, the woodcuts display not only the instruments themselves, but show 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.  Other woodcuts depict navigational instruments such as the compass and cross-staff, and their use; astronomical principles; and mechanical powers, such as those of the inclined plane, lever, screw, pulley, winches, etc.

This work is one of the greatest masterpieces of Sino-European printing.  The woodcuts are undoubtedly done by Chinese artists working after Verbiest’s drawings, or after his directions.