Chen Zungui 陈遵妫

Chén Zūnguī (陈遵妫) was born in 1901 and died at the age of 90 in 1991. His life spanned some of the most tumultuous history in China and the world.

As a young man he attended Beijing Normal Universiyy and studied mathematics. At the age of 20 he was admitted to the Tokyo Higher Teachers College, agai to study mathematics. Had things been different he might have spent a fulfilling life teaching mathematics at a college or university, but chance changed his life.

On a trip home from Japan he happened to sit next to Gao Lu on the train. Gao Lu was a close friend of his father and the chief astronomer of the Central Observatory. Gao Lu was impressed with him and suggested that he combine his study of mathematics with astronomy. He offered him an internship at the Central Observatory and presented him with a book on mathematical astronomy he happened to have with him.

After he finished his studies in Japan, Chen Zungui returned to Beijing and began teaching at his alma mater as well as a number of other schools. In addition he worked part-time for the Central Observatory on the compilation of a calendar. In 1928 he was given a full time research position with the National Institute of Academia Sinica at the Purple Mountain Observatory. He worked with Gao Lu and others to design and build the new modern facility. It was finished in 1937.

In August of 1937 the Japanese crossed over the Lugou Bridge to the west of Beijing and occupied the city. From there they began an advance to the south. On December 13th they entered and devastated Nanjing. Many of the ancient instruments and documents had been moved from Beijing to Nanjing earlier for safe-keeping and following the Lugou Bridge Incident in 1937 as many as possible were hidden in caves or other depositories. The staff of the Purple Mountain Observatory moved to Kunming in the southwest of China.

The Japanese carried the war to Kunming with air strikes. In one bombing attack Chen Zungui was left with nothing as his home was destroyed in the raid and his wife and three children were killed. He was devastated but friends came to his aid and eventually he was able to begin working again.

In 1941, he remarried. His wife had lost everything when fleeing Shanghai during the war. Together they built a new life. The next year they went to Guiyang to observe an eclipse. Their daughter was born there.

Following the war, the astronomers returned to the Purple Mountain Observatory and Chen Zungui was appointed acting director. He also assumed the post of editor of the journal Universe.

In 1955, he was given the job of building the Beijing Planetarium. In addition, he became the director of the Ancient Beijing Observatory and began to restore it and modernize the exhibits. He published extensively on the history of Chinese astronomy. His works were a major source for Needham's account of astronomy in his Science and Civilization in China.

During the Cultural Revolution, his prominent positions made him a target and he was removed from all official duties, dropped from committees, and lost his position as editor. He turned to history and writing. Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution he was restored to many of his former positions, in part due to the continued support of his fellow-scientists and astronomers.

Toward the end of his life he began to loose his eyesight due to disease. That didn't stop his writing. Over his career he produced 30 books including translations and innumerable articles on astronomy and the history of astronomy. Both his writings and the institutions he helped to create or preserve bear the mark of a remarkable man. He died in 1991.

In 2006, the Shanhai People's Press brought out a three volume edition of his History of Chinese Astronomy (Zhong Guo Tian Wen Xue Shi) 中国天文学史.
Last update: May 2007
© Marilyn Shea, 2007