The pioneer of modern Chinese meteorology, astronomy and seismology

Yang Jian
Xujiahui Observatory and its adjunct Shenshan Hill site were forerunners in collecting and publishing scientific observations that won global recognition.
Yang Jian

Editor’s note:

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Shanghai. Once dubbed "the Paris of the East,” the city has evolved into a fusion of multiculturalism. Along the way, Shanghai has accumulated a repository of stories about the people and events that have shaped its history. Five areas of the city occupy pride of place in that journey: People’s Square, Jing’an Temple, Xujiahui, Lujiazui and Xintiandi. This series, a collaboration with Shanghai Local Chronicles Library, visits them all to follow in the footsteps of time.

The Xujiahui Observatory, often hailed as the “first meteorological observatory in the Far East,” holds a significant place in China’s scientific history and is considered the birthplace of modern seismology in the country.

Its legacy was recognized by the World Meteorological Organization, which awarded it the title of “centennial observing station.”

The roots of this observatory trace back to 1865, when French Jesuit missionaries began conducting meteorological observations in Shanghai.

In 1873, they chose a site near the tomb of Xu Guangqi, a notable scientist from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), to construct an observatory.

With only a few thermometers and barometers to begin with, the observatory officially commenced astronomical and meteorological observations on December 1, 1873.

The site comprised departments for meteorology, astronomy, geomagnetism, seismology and time service, with a special focus on typhoon research. In 1895, the site produced China’s first weather map for East Asia.

The observatory gradually gained advanced instruments like equatorial mounts and telescopes, along with additional buildings that had unique architectural features, transforming it from humble beginnings into a world-class facility.

The pioneer of modern Chinese meteorology, astronomy and seismology
Zhou Wenqiang

The historical building at 166 Puxi Road that once housed the Xujiahui Observatory has been converted to Shanghai Meteorological Museum.

To accommodate its growing operations, a new building was constructed in 1900, about 100 meters to the west of the original location. The new site, on what is today Puxi Road, began operation at the start of 1901.

That same year, a dome-roofed observatory was built on top of Sheshan Hill on the western outskirts of Shanghai. It held a 40-centimeter aperture double-tube telescope imported from France by the Jesuits but found to be too heavy for the soft soils of Xujiahui.

The new building of Xujiahui Observatory had a gray brick facade, round-arched windows with red brick frames and classical balustrades for outdoor stairs and platform. The Romanesque building stood three stories tall, with a wind-measuring tower made of brick and wood, rising 40 meters in the center.

The site was recognized as a standard time service station by the International Astronomical Union, making it one of the world’s key measurement points.

By the early 20th century, the observatory expanded to six departments spread across Xujiahui and Sheshan: astronomy, geomagnetism, atmospheric physics, seismology, time service and meteorology.

With its accurate data and stellar reputation, the observatory received more than 200 telegrams daily after 1915, helping to chart weather maps for China and its neighboring seas. It connected Shanghai to other Chinese coastal regions and the world, strengthening communication between ports and countries.

The observatory provided weather forecasts to Shanghai’s English-language newspapers, which featured the observatory’s meteorological reports every day from 1874. The weather reports earned global acclaim from seafarers.

The observatory, equipped with the best facilities, also provided services to shipping through its weather forecasts. With the advent of telegraph services, it reported maritime conditions for all ports in the Far East.

It could accurately warn shipping companies about approaching typhoons, saving many ships from disaster.

Its contributions also benefited local communities. Under its guidance, industrialist Zhang Jian established the Junshan Meteorological Observatory in the neighboring city of Nantong — the first modern weather station in China to be independently established and operated by Chinese.

The Xujiahui Observatory’s scholars also published numerous works, including “The Climate of Shanghai,” “Typhoons of the Chinese Sea” and “The Temperature of China,” providing a foundational understanding of climatology in China and the Far East.

The observatory’s weather forecasts and accurate time service had a significant impact on Shanghai’s economy and society, raising awareness about disaster preparedness.

Its contributions to earthquake research are also noteworthy. A Japanese seismometer capable of detecting earthquakes thousands of kilometers away was added in 1904, making it the first earthquake observatory on the Chinese mainland.

The observatory’s activities were halted when invading Japanese troops occupied the surrounding areas in 1940. Italian priest Ernesto Gherzi managed to protect the observatory’s staff from persecution.

After Shanghai’s liberation in 1949, the observatory’s meteorology section was merged into the Shanghai Meteorological Observatory, and the astronomy section integrated into the Purple Mountain Observatory.

The observatory’s buildings were listed as protected cultural heritage in 2004. For nearly 150 years, the observatory has continuously recorded meteorological observations, witnessing the long journey of Shanghai’s meteorological science.

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