With the lunar eclipse coming up on January 31st I wanted to mention an astronomer, mathematician, and poet that I’d only recently heard of. Her name was Wang Zhenyi (1768-1797) and in her terribly brief 29 years she covered a lot of ground.
Wang Zhenyi was born in 18th century China to a family that valued education. Her grandfather had a library of some 70 books, and when her father failed his imperial exams he studied medicine on his own and recorded his research, making a living as a travelling pharmacist. Her father taught her about medicine, mathematics and geography, her grandmother taught her poetry, and her grandfather shared his library and his love of astronomy.
When she was ten her grandfather died (he left them nothing but those books) and her family moved to a city near the Great Wall. There she learned horseback riding and martial arts from E (I’ve not been able to find her full name), the wife of a Mongol general. At sixteen she traveled the south Yangtze River with her father.
Through her life she authored 13 volumes of poetry. Many were about scenery and these her travels as a teenager, but she also touched on feudal society and how both men and women have an innate desire to learn:
‘It’s made to believe,
Women are the same as Men;
Are you not convinced,
Daughters can also be heroic?’
On her viewing a drought while traveling, she wrote of the contrast between rich and poor in her ‘A poem of eight lines’:
Village is empty of cooking smoke,
Rich families let grains stored decay;
In wormwood strewed pitiful starved bodies,
Greedy officials yet push farm levying.
She married at 25 and became a teacher herself. She even took on male students, rare in most eras and almost unheard of in the conservative Neo-Confucian Qing Dynasty.
In a time where most mathematical texts were intentionally difficult and used language aimed specifically at the aristocracy, she felt math and science education was important for all people, so she wrote two books on math for beginners. (A five volume guide was published after her death.) One was a simplification of an earlier work to make it more accessible, the other was fresh work developing easier ways to learn multiplication and division. She focused on trigonometry and wrote on the Pythagorean Theorem.
Wang Zhenyi also wrote articles on astronomy, including a paper on gravity, and why people don’t fall off of a round planet.
Another article was “The Explanation of a Lunar Eclipse.” Despite the fact that much earlier Chinese astronomers had tried to show that eclipses were natural phenomena it was still common to attribute them to angry gods and the supernatural.
Using historical records she measured and calculated and tried to recreate an eclipse using a room with a center table standing in for earth, a hanging lamp representing the sun, and a mirror representing the moon. By moving them the way they move through the sky she illustrated that a lunar eclipse happens when the moon moves into the Earth’s shadow.
In her ‘Journal of Listening to the Moon Pavillion” she wrote “Some would say, “the moon cannot be heard.” Alas, honestly, it cannot be heard. Yet something at its center may enlighten its listeners. Therefore the moon can be listened to.”