Home China Guide Beijing Attractions Beijing Ancient Observatory — One of the Oldest in the World

Beijing Ancient Observatory — One of the Oldest in the World

The Beijing Ancient Observatory is one of China’s nationally designated cultural sites and often called a “hidden gem” by foreign travelers. For insight into astronomy in ancient times and access to historical astronomical instruments and Chinese craftsmanship, Beijing Ancient Observatory is the best in the world.

In Brief

  • Chinese: 北京古观象台 Běijīng Gǔ Guānxiàngtái /bay-jing goo gwan-sshyang-teye/
  • Features: astronomical instruments spanning five centuries.
  • Area: 1 hectare (2.5 acres), including additional exhibits and gardens
  • Suited to: those interested in history and astronomy


Built during the Ming Dynasty (about A.D. 1442), the Beijing Ancient Observatory engaged in astronomical observations for nearly 500 years, from the Ming Dynasty to 1929. It has maintained the longest continuous observation records among all of the existing observatories in the world.

Construction: The observatory itself is on a 15-meter tall brick platform that is about 40 x 40 meters.

A Flemish Jesuit missionary named Ferdinand Verbiest created six of its instruments circa 1673, after being put in charge of the observatory. Verbiest used knowledge from the West, but had them beautifully crafted with Asian symbolism and images. The large instruments sit atop the brick platform.

Beijing Ancient Observatory belongs to China’s Key National Units of Cultural Relics Protection. Moreover, it has long enjoyed a good international reputation with its well-preserved buildings and complete instruments. The observatory not only holds practical astronomical observation tools, but also unique historical treasures.

The Beijing Ancient Observatory was rebuilt as the Beijing Ancient Astronomical Instrument Exhibition Hall, and still plays an important role in the fields of technology and science.


As one of the oldest observatories in the world, Beijing Ancient Observatory was the national observatory during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The large ancient instruments can be seen from a distance atop the tower.

The eight copper astronomical instruments made during the Qing Dynasty are large, attractive and exquisitely carved. Although their appearance, floriation and workmanship are traditionally Chinese, they also reflect the progress and achievements made by large astronomical instruments after the Renaissance period in Western Europe in aspects such as scale and structure.

Beijing Ancient Observatory owns the large bronze astronomical instruments copied by craftsmen during the Yuan Dynasty, as well as precise new instruments designed by Xu Guangqi (a famous Chinese scientists of Qing dynasty) and other foreign missionaries.

The instruments show the exchange of cultural achievements between Chinese and Western countries, and are vital pieces of information for studying ancient astronomical achievements. They have become historical witnesses of cultural exchange between the East and the West.

Eight Large Copper Astronomical Instruments

1) Elaborate Equatorial Armillary Sphere

This instrument is displayed in the northeastern area of the Beijing Ancient Observatory. It weighs 5,145 kilograms and is 3,379 meters high. This elaborate equatorial armillary sphere was the last large copper apparatus made during the Qing Dynasty, and reflects the development level at that time in terms of metallurgical manufacturing and carving mode.

2) Sextant

The sextant is on display at the southern area of the Beijing Ancient Observatory and is next to the equatorial armillary sphere. It weighs 802 kilograms and is 3.274 meters high. In China, such instruments were made during the Qing Dynasty.

3) Ecliptic Armillary Sphere

The ecliptic armillary sphere weighs 2,752 kilograms and is 3.492 meters high. It is China's first observation apparatus for an independent frame zodiac coordinate system.

4) Altazimuth

The altazimuth weighs 7,368 kilograms and is 4.125 meters high. It was the only astronomical instrument that adopted French decorative arts during the Western Renaissance period.

5) Horizon circle

Displayed at the southern end of the Beijing Ancient Observatory, the horizon circle weighs 1,811 kilograms and is 3.2 meters high.

6) Equatorial Armillary Sphere

The equatorial armillary sphere weighs 2,720 kilograms and is 3.380 meters high. It was often used as an astronomical observation instrument in ancient China, and has more than fourteen usages, mainly to measure right ascensions and declinations of stars.

7) Celestial Globe

The celestial globe weighs 3,850 kilograms and is 2.735 meters high. It is displaced at the middle-west side on top of the Beijing Ancient Observatory.

8) Quadrant

The quadrant is also called the zenith sector, and is displayed on the northwest side on top of the Beijing Ancient Observatory. It weighs 2,483 kilograms and is 3.611 meters high. The instrument is mainly used for measuring the distance of the stars on the horizon or the distance to the zenith.

Other Exhibitions

The Time and the Calendar

Mainly introduces the process of the formation and development of the time calendar and the main research achievements. It also exhibits other time measuring tools from ancient China, such as the sundial and its gnomon (which casts the shadow), among others.

Chronicle of Astronomical Phenomena

This mainly introduces some of the major historical events observational achievements of ancient Chinese astronomy. The exhibition also introduces achievements made in the area of astronomy research during ancient China, such as research on sunspots, Halley’s comet and the supernovae. It is also a base for educating teenagers and extracurricular activities.

Travel Essentials

  • Open: 9:00am to 11:30am and 1pm to 4:30pm; closed on Tuesdays
  • Address: Hutong 2, East Biaobei, Dongcheng District (东城区东裱褙胡同2号), located at the southwest of Jianguomen overpass
  • Subway: Line 1 (Batong Line) or Line 2 (circle line) to Jianguomen (southeast exit)
  • Buses: 1, 4, 8, 9, 20, 43, 44, or 57
  • See Beijing Weather: As much of Beijing Ancient Observatory is outside, plan around inclement weather.

Nearby Attractions

Beijing Ancient Observatory is east of Bejing’s historical city center, just four stops away on the subway’s Batong Line (Line 1). The historic city center includes Tian'anmen Square, Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall, and the Imperial Palace (Forbidden City).

Tour the Ancient Observatory with China Highlights

The Beijing Ancient Observatory is not a typical destination for foreign travelers. It does not appear as a stop on pre-designed tours of Beijing. China Highlights can customize a tour though, to include the Ancient Observatory and to best fit your interests. Create a tour from your requirements.