Brian Salter's Blogs:
Is This BJ's Most Boring Museum?


I first came across the name of Guo Shoujing on my visit to Gaobeidian just over a year ago. Many historians regard him as the most prominent Chinese astronomer, engineer, and mathematician of all time; so I guess it is better late than never!

I am wandering today in the area around Deshengmen looking for a museum (which I never do find) when my eyes fall on a local map:

Right near the top of the Sichahai lakes, which is where I am, is marked the site of Huitong Temple. Now, it turns out this entire area was demolished in the 1970s for the construction of subway line 2; and once the works had been completed it was decided in 1988 to rebuild the area – amounting to some 11,000 sq m – as a memorial to Gui Shoujing.

Guō Shǒujìng (郭守敬) lived from 1231 to 1314 during the Yuan Dynasty. He was an inventor as well as a mathematician and astronomer and applied his engineering skills to improve many of the instruments used to measure celestial bodies. Among these were the gnomon, square table, abridged or simplified armilla, and a water powered armillary sphere called the Ling Long Yi. About 27 major observatories were built during the Yuan Dynasty, many designed by him.

But Guo Shoujing also used his engineering skills on other projects, such as Kunming Lake, which later became the site of the Summer Palace and was designed both as a reservoir for the city and as part of a system of canals for transportation in the region.

Perhaps his greatest contribution was the development of the Shoushi calendar system in 1280 for which he used polynomial equations to the 4th order, the highest level equations ever used in astronomy and calendar calculation. The year was calculated to be 365.2425 days.

But none of this is much in evidence in the street along which I am walking. The first thing I notice is a sign to his memorial, and intrigued, I enter the complex.

In 1251, aged 20, Guo became a hydraulic engineer; and as a government official, he helped repair a bridge over the Dahuoquan River. In the late 1250s, Kublai Khan became the ruler of most of China, which was under Mongol rule in those days. Kublai Khan realized the importance of hydraulic engineering, irrigation, and water transport, which he believed could help alleviate uprisings within the empire, and he sent Liu Bingzhong and his student Guo to look at these aspects in the area between Dadu (Beijing) and the Yellow River.

To provide Dadu with a new supply of water, Guo had a 30 km channel built to bring water from the Baifu spring in Shenshan Mountain to Dadu, which required connecting the water supply across different river basins and canals with sluices to control the water levels. The Grand Canal, which linked the river systems of the Yangtze, the Huai, and the Huang since the early 7th century, was repaired and extended to Dadu in 1292–93. After the success of the project, Kublai Khan sent Guo off to manage similar projects in other parts of the empire. And this led him to becoming the chief advisor on hydraulics, mathematics, and astronomy for Kublai Khan.

According to, GuoShouJing statue is located in Xingtai City of Fountain Park. 4.1 m high, weighing 3.5 tons. December 6, 1985 completion. It is by the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Professor, National Urban Sculpture Committee, the Secretary-General Fu Tianchou Design, Beijing Institute of Electrical and casting. GuoShouJing shaped statue, the second head, his eyes, like bears infinite wisdom; hard and slightly curling beard, reflecting Guo Gongjian strong will and spirit of hard work; carrying four rolls of drawings, representing the four aspects of Albert GuoShouJing Technology , that is, astronomy, irrigation, mathematics, and instrumentation manufacturing; astronomical volume four dots, representing the constellation; wind robes, floating in the air if the move, said he is not only scientists, but was a practice-oriented activists.
Well, I’m glad they made that clear!

It turns out Guo Shoujing was a major influence in the development of science in China. Through his work in astronomy, he was able to more accurately establish the location of celestial bodies and the angles of the Sun relative to Earth. He invented a tool which could be used as an astrological compass, helping people find north using the stars instead of magnets.

On top of one of the hills here is an ancestral temple; and engraved in the north side of it is an article entitled the Annals of the rebuilding of the Ancestral Temple of Harmony and Circulation written by Wu Liangyong – not that any visitor gives it the slightest bit of notice, at least not this afternoon.

There is also a pavilion behind the ancestral temple. A stele inscribed with poems by Emperor Qianlong is set inside it. (Whenever I hear Qianlong’s name mentioned these days, I cannot help but think of the Vogon Captain in Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy! – and if you have to ask what that is, then your education, dear blog-fan, is sorely lacking!) The poem tablet was erected when Huitong Temple was rebuilt in 1761 and measures 2.43m high. It has a square pedestal and a Kui-dragon design on its top.

Just beyond the pavilion is an armillary sphere, used to measure the equatorial and horizontal coordinates of celestial objects without interference with one another.

Guo has been credited with inventing the gnomon, the square table, the abridged or simplified armilla, and a water powered armillary sphere called a Ling Long Yi.

A gnomon is used to measure the angle of the sun, and determine the seasons, and is the basis of the sundial; but Guo Shoujing revised this device to become much more accurate and improved the ability to tell time more precisely. The square table was used to measure the azimuth of celestial bodies by the equal altitude method and could also be used as a protractor.

Right at the top of the hillock, above the astronomical instruments, is the museum dedicated to Guo’s work on water projects.

Two bored looking guards glower at visitors, as if they resent the fact that without these visitors, they would be out of a job!

I am given a badge as I enter – for what I haven’t the faintest idea. I suspect it is making work for the sake of it, since no one is the slightest bit interested in whether I wear it or stuff it in my pocket – which is what I end up doing!

In the courtyard is a statue of Mr Guo. Don’t you just love those shoes he’s wearing? I’ll bet he never bought those off Taobao!

On one wall is a marble tablet inscribed with… what? I search the web in vain for enlightenment, before ending up once again at GuoShouJing life performance of large-scale ceramic memorial in front of the screen wall is located in Xingtai GuoShouJing, 11.2 m long, 4.5 meters high. Positive side engraved "elephant admired pioneer generation" is in October 1986, the CPPCC National Committee vice chairman, professor at Peking University Mr. Zhou Peiyuan inscribed.

The memorial museum actually has three halls, displaying the achievements of Guo, with a heavy emphasis on water conservancy during the Yuan Dynasty.

To be perfectly honest, this must rank as one of the most boring of BJ’s 150+ museums. Maybe that’s because everything is written in Chinese and nothing is put into English at all. In fact laowais tend not to be seen here, but maybe that’s a chicken-and-egg situation.

The main room has an exhibit of "Guo Shoujing and Dadu water resources". Guo, after all, went around half of China and harnessed over a hundred rivers and lakes; and he played a leading role in Dadu’s water supplies, taking charge of the development of the Baifuyan and Huihe Rivers to provide water to the city of Dadu.

There are a few pictures stashed up on the walls…

and a few splurges of explanatory text..

and there are even some enlargements of stamps that our beloved hero appeared on …

but boredom soon sets in and with tears in my eyes at the very thought of having to leave this waterworld paradise, I hand back my pass to the security guard who gives me not even a second glance; and I exit to the real world once more and a view over the Sichahai lakes…

In common with many open parks and gardens, this place makes poetic appeals to its ecologically minded visitors …

but probably the most impressive sight in this Guo memorial park is what mother nature herself provides (this being the last week in March).

Who needs to explore museums when you have displays like this all around you?