An arrow hits a target as a fifteen year old girl on a horse goes galloping victoriously by.  It is not an unusual sight in late eighteenth century China – learning equestrian and martial skills was considered as normal an accomplishment to upper class women of that era as pianoforte playing and embroidery were to their European contemporaries.  The girl riding that horse, however, was decidedly an unusual character, one who set herself to grapple with all of the fields of endeavor offered by her time, from mathematics to poetry to martial arts to astronomy, and made a name for herself in all of them.

That name was Wang Zhenyi (1768-1797) and had she lived longer, there is no telling what her place in the world’s intellectual pantheon might have been.  As it was, she managed to carve for herself a national reputation in three separate disciplines within the space of three short decades, and was one of China’s leading voices advocating a heliocentric conception of the solar system.  Her grandfather, Wang Zhefu, was a former governor with a library boasting seventy five bookcases of texts, and her father was a doctor and the author of a four volume treatise on medical prescriptions.  

Brought up in modern day Nanjing, at the age of eleven she and her father traveled to Jiling to attend her grandfather’s funeral. They remained at Jiling for five years after the funeral, where Wang Zhenyi occupied herself studying from her grandfather’s extensive library, taking breaks to learn martial and equestrian skills under the instruction of the wife of a Mongolian general.  Soon, she was able to perform archery and martial arts with her horse at a gallop as deftly as she was able to compose poetry or analyze the classics of Chinese literature, and by sixteen she was ready to accompany her father on trips all across China, absorbing what she saw of local economic and social conditions, and employing her observations of injustice and suffering to deepen her poetic output.  

Wang Zhenyi left behind thirteen volumes of poetry, which deserve their own analysis altogether, but today we are going to focus on her contributions to mathematics and astronomy, and to feel the impact of those, we need to ask the question, just where was China scientifically by the mid-to-late Eighteenth Century?  I think we have a tendency, particularly in the West, to think of Chinese science as consisting of an explosion around the Song Dynasty (960-1279), then a steady decline into medieval stasis that was not reversed in any substantial way until the tail end of the Qing Empire.  In reality, by the Eighteenth Century the Chinese astronomical revolution was well underway, supported by three successive waves of imported experts who brought with them the most advanced insights of their scientific traditions.  

Once Buddhism started making its way into China across the Silk Road in the first century CE, carried by Indian missionaries, it was not long until other aspects of Indian culture began making inroads into Chinese intellectual life as well, and principle among these was India’s preeminence in mathematics and astronomy.  This tradition reached its culmination in the work of Aryabhata (476-550) whose development of trigonometry and application of its principles to spherical trigonometry allowed a powerful mathematization of the night sky a millennium before the efforts of Galileo and Newton.

The Chinese Imperial government took note of the accuracy of Indian astronomical techniques and in the seventh century a number of Indian astronomers could be found working in the provincial capital of Chang’an.  Their work was then amplified by a wave of Islamic astronomers brought in by the Yuan/Mongol Dynasty in the Thirteenth Century as part of their racial policy of staffing the upper echelons of the Chinese bureaucracy with as many non-Chinese individuals as they could get their hands on.  Persia was one of their particularly preferred hunting grounds for imperial administrators and officials, and from Persia came Jamal ad-Din in 1267, carting with him a terrestrial globe, an armillary sphere, and an Islamic astronomical almanac.  His command of astronomical technology, and success as the director of Beijing’s Islamic observatory, impressed the Yuan, who took to importing more Islamic scientists and inventing their own variations on Islamic astronomical instruments, a practice which continued to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), with the erection of more observatories and compilation of new observation charts and calendars.

The ground was set, then, for the third wave of foreign inspiration, as European astronomy made its way to China by way of the Jesuits in the Sixteenth century.  They brought with them the telescope, and the complicated mission of introducing China to the great advances being made in post-Copernican European astronomy without, however, betraying the Catholic Church’s strict adherence to a geocentric model of the universe.  Eventually, some Jesuits broke ranks and shared the work of Copernicus, Galileo, and Brahe with their Chinese colleagues, creating new tensions in Chinese scientific life.  Some, like Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) not only eagerly advocated the new Western ideas, but converted to Catholicism as well.  Some, like Mei Wending (1633-1721) advocated for a fusion of Chinese and Western practices that recognized and utilized the best of both traditions, while others, like the Yongzheng Emperor (1678-1735), who proscribed Catholicism outright in 1724, thought the whole friendship with the Jesuits and their Western innovations was a mistake that needed to be quashed if China was to return to its habitual stability.

This was the intellectual climate into which Wang Zhenyi strode as a woman in her early twenties possessing depths of both life experience and scholarly learning that few could claim even in their sixties and seventies.  She studied Mei Wending’s Principles of Calculation and distilled its lessons into a more approachable format she called the Musts of Calculation.  She also authored Supplementary Information on Western Calculations, which demonstrated her firm advocacy of any body of knowledge which worked, regardless of the ideology of those who created it, as well as the five volume Simple Principles of Calculation and four volume Beyond the Study of Mathematics.  In this same spirit, she argued for the adoption of Western calendrical systems, stating, “What counts is the usefulness, no matter whether it is Chinese or Western.”

Similarly, when approaching the cosmos, Wang Zhenyi did not chain herself to any intellectual ideology, but seems to have followed where her reasoning and study led.  She described lunar and solar eclipses from a heliocentric perspective, and built a model of the Earth-Sun-Moon system in her garden pavilion as a way of testing and demonstrating how eclipses worked under Copernican assumptions.  She also argued for a spherical Earth, and took pains, without the benefit of the Newtonian theory of gravity (the Principia wasn’t available in a Chinese edition until the 1850s), to explain how the world’s population could live on a globe without half of them falling off.  Even more than her work in mathematics, her work in astronomy contained not only helpful and accessible summaries of past research, but bold new ways of thinking about the cosmos from the perspective of mathematical analysis that answered existing mysteries while posing fruitful new questions.  In addition to her articles on equinoxes, eclipses, and the shape of the Earth, she wrote a larger text, The Explanations of Constellations.

This was a remarkable body of work for a person not yet 30 years old, and it is one of the great tantalizing questions in the study of science as to what she might have accomplished given a longer life – would her knack for mathematics and astronomy, and her curiosity about the workings of what we now call gravity have made her the Newton of the East in her time?  We’ll never know, and truthfully we’re lucky we know as much as we do about her, for as she was dying she entrusted her life’s work to her best friend, who passed on those manuscripts in turn to the scholar Qian Yiji, who arranged for the publication of the Simple Principles of Calculation and preserved (most of) the rest to ultimately land in the private collection of Zhu Xuzeng.  With so many priceless documents being transferred between so many hands over so many centuries, we should rest grateful for having as much of her output as we do, with its daring breadth of scope and refusal to bow before any manner of convention, be it social or academic.  She trusted the evidence of her eyes and the guidance of her reason, and became one of the greatest scholars and writers of her era on the strength of them.  In the words of one of her own poems, which also ranks as a mic drop of world-historical proportions,

Are you not convinced
Daughters can also be heroic?

FURTHER READING: In English, there’s pretty much just one book that every article about Wang Zhenyi pulls from, and that’s the account of her in Barbara Bennett Peterson’s Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century.  It’s pricey, and if you’re looking solely for women in science, she’s the only one in it, but the other portraits, of scholars and poets and performers and warriors, are fascinating as well.  If you can read Chinese then Shen Yu Wu’s Female Scientists in the Qing Dynasty is likely the book for you. Currently, it looks down from the shelf at me with accusation, but someday perhaps two decades hence I’ll scratch together enough fluency in Chinese to make a start on it, then I’ll tell ya how it is!

Lead image credit: original art by Dale DeBakcsy

Want to know more awesome Women in Science? Check out my WYSK column archive and my books: A History of Women in Medicine and Medical Research – Exploring the Trailblazers of STEM (December 2022, pre-order), and Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 1Volume 2 and Volume 3.