Chinese background

Updated: Dec 3, 2019

For the Asian character, I have chosen for a familiar cliché combined with a less known type of ancient technology.


Taikonaut Wang

The most recognizable animal figure for China would be of course: the panda. Like in most names I try to include some reference in the name to a celestial object or a cultural aspect and a hint about the animal character. For those who know some Chinese will recognize the common family name Wang (王), the elegant structure of using three syllable names, being the first as family name and second and third as given name. The given name reveals what kind of animal we are talking about: Xiongmao (熊貓), meaning panda in Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua). The choice of Wang (in essence meaning 'king') is more than picking a common Chinese family name. This character is female and is inspired by the second Chinese female Taikonaut Wang Yaping (王亚平). Although she is not the first one, she might be the most famous one among teachers and kids in China because of her space lecture experiments.

My kungfu father is Chinese and I spend living 5 years in China, while learning Chinese for even longer years, so I am kind of proud witnessing the Chinese advancements that China is doing in space. My master thesis was focused on ancient Chinese astronomical instruments, so witnessing the footsteps this country is taking into the future is very exciting to me. I am not a China-lover in the obsessive sense, but spending a lot of time being immersed into its culture, makes me kind of feel like China is a part of me, like families do. Even though, in the past I had a love-hate relation with China, especially its mentality in individual restrictions stemming from its communist trademark. That is mainly a socio-cultural difference in political awareness and education. Other than that, I consider myself to be 50% European, 30% Chinese and 20% Indonesian. Genetically I am half European and half Asian, although not Chinese. Nevertheless, to me this woman is special, because she brings China and space eduction to life like never before.

Wang Xiongmao (王熊貓), AstroNavigator for Asia (Diego Sanchez)

Taikonaut Wang Yaping was born on 27th January 1980 in Yantai, Shanong Province, China. She is the second Chinese female astronaut. She has become the most femous space teacher in China, after live streaming experiments for over 80,000 Chinese schools on Chinese space station Tiangong 1. (Chinanews.com)



Astronomer Wang

For the astronomical instrument I went back to the Yuan dynasty where the Silk Road flourished during Marco Polo's adventures, but where the rule of China fell under the Mongolian rule of Kublai Khan (忽必烈), a grandson of Genghis Khan. During this period different cultures gathered for trade and stimulated new inventions. During the Mongol reign, the original Chinese were kept from high ranking positions as to avoid venerable uprisings. So to assist the reign of this Eastern Khanate (Mongol empire region), Kublai invited scholars and scientists from other Khanates, such as the Persian Khanate. Since astronomy has always been an important discipline for the empire for social and economic order concerning calendars and farming, this discipline has become multicultural as well.

Photograph of a sculpture of Guo Shoujing in the Huitong Temple on the shore of West Lake in Beijing, China (Wikimedia), Torquetum (Richard Paselk), Kublai Khan (Wikipedia)

The very famous Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing (郭守敬) came into contact with Persian astronomer Jamal al Din, who was appointed a seat in the Beijing Astronomical Bureau by the Khan himself. Thanks to this cross cultural exercise, for building Guo's simplified observation instrument, al Din suggested the use of a torquetum, which in essence works like an astrolabe. The astrolabe will be discussed in another blog, but for al Din it is a common device use in the Persian Khanate. An astrolabe is focussed on the ever-changing coordinates of stars according to the observers' location. Today these are called Altazimuth (Az/Alt) coordinates; for altitude and azimuth (=horizon). On the Jian Yi (简仪) or Simplified Instrument, it is the small ring we are referring to with a vertical axis and a ruler, corresponding to an alidade of an astrolabe.

Jian Yi or Simplified Instrument by Guo Shoujing (Springer-'Our Place in the Universe')

The other rings hold a movable ring around a polar star pointing axis in angle with the horizon according to the altitude of the observer. The movable ring is able to track a star without changing the ruler aimed at a 'fixed' star. If however this point wasn't in a fixed circle around the equatorial axis, the object would be a planet or a comet in most cases. This way of encompassing the Earth's rotation to fixed coordinates of stars on a star map refers to the fixed star coordinates called Right Ascension and Declination (Ra/Dec). These coordinates are comparable to fixed positions on a world map of the Earth, expressed in longitude and latitudes.

Overview Jian Yi parts (AstroNavigators)

This way we notice an equatorial mount invented in the 13th century! 300 Years before Tycho Brahe's equatorial mounts in Europe in the 16th century. Many historians regard Guo Shoujing as the Tycho Brahe of China, regarding observation skills and engineering. Chronologically it would be better to call Tycho, the Guo of Europe.

Altazimuth (Az/Alt) system and Equatorial (Ra/Dec) system (vik dhillon - phy217)

The actual mechanical configuration of the device can be seen in 19th and 20th century observatories, before the computer age, where the equatorial mount (Ra/Dec) is still used as guiding axis and the dome or cupola as the Az/Alt. These mechanical differences are also found back in the mounting differences among amateur telescopes. Modern professional observatories are computerized and try to minimize the size of the mount. This is why huge telescopes today will work with Altazimuth mounts, although the star map coordinates are still dominating the search system, while using computing power to convert the Ra/Dec input into Az/Alt coordinates.


Wang Xiongmao (王熊貓), AstroNavigator for Asia (Diego Sanchez)

To end I want to honour some spacewalkers:

On Friday the 18th of October 2019 the first all-female spacewalk took place, conducted by Jessica Meir and Christina Koch at the International Space Station (ISS). More than seven hours these ladies have been fixing their temporary habitat in space. This is a great stimulation for girls attempting to follow STEM orientated studies at school anywhere in the world.

Christina Koch and Jessica Meir (NASA)

This occasion is also good to honour the first spacewalker in history, Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov. He passed away recently a week prior to the all-female spacewalk at the age of 85, on the 11th of October 2019. Leonov was a Soviet Russian cosmonaut who on 18 March 1965 became the first human to conduct a spacewalk ever, exiting the capsule during the Voskhod 2 mission for 12 minutes and 9 seconds. In July 1975, Leonov commanded the Soyuz capsule in the Soyuz–Apollo mission, which docked in space for two days with an American Apollo capsule. This occasion marked the age of cooperation between nations that led to the ISS.


Aleksej Archipovitsj Leonov (ESA history, NASA, sciencemuseum.org.uk)

Bye for now.

Vincent V.


Interesting links:

Stars, orientation and culture

Above the Pacific Ocean

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