Wang Zhenyi (astronomer)

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Wang Zhenyi (simplified Chinese: 王贞仪; traditional Chinese: 王貞儀; pinyin: Wáng Zhēnyí; 1768–1797; styled Deqing(德卿), also known as the Jinling and Jiangning Lady Historian(金陵女史)) was a Chinese scientist from the Qing dynasty.[1] She breached the feudal customs of the time, which hindered women's rights, by working to educate herself in subjects such as astronomy, mathematics, geography, and medicine.[2] She was well known for her contributions in astronomy, mathematics, and poetry. She was an acclaimed scholar: "An extraordinary woman of 18th century China."[3]


Early life and family[edit]

Wang's ancestral home is in Anhui province, but her grandfather's family moved to Jiangning or present-day Nanjing.[1][2] She was very fond of reading when she was a child and was very clever.[1]

Her family consisted of her grandfather, grandmother, and her father. Her grandfather Wang Zhefu (王者辅), was a former governor of Fengchen county and Xuanhua District. He had a broad and profound intellect with a deep love for reading and had a collection of over seventy-five bookshelves. Her father Wang Xichen failed the imperial examination and instead studied medical science and recorded his findings in a four-volume collection called "Yifang Yanchao" (Collection of Medical Prescriptions).[1] Her grandmother's maiden name was Dong. Her grandfather was her first teacher in astronomy; her grandmother was her teacher of poetry; and her father taught her medicine, geography, and mathematics.[4]

From the age of 9, she was taught to write poetry and essays, showing a keen sensitivity to social and human conditions, and had unique thoughts and understandings of social realities. After the death of Wang Zhefu, she, along with her grandmother Dong and her father, went to mourn outside the Great Wall and lived in Jilin for four years, where she studied under the Lady of Bu Qianyao. Wang Zhefu died in 1782 and the family traveled to Jiling (close to the Great Wall) for his funeral. They stayed in the region for five years, which is where Zhenyi gained extensive knowledge from reading her grandfather’s collection of books as well as learning equestrian skills, archery, and martial arts from the wife of a Mongolian general named Aa.[1] At the age of eleven, Wang Zhenyi accompanied her grandmother to Jilin to mourn her grandfather. She lived in Xuanhua Prefecture for five years. Later, she also traveled with her grandmother and father to various places including Beijing, Shaanxi, Hubei, Guangdong, and Anhui. During these journeys, she visited numerous historical sites, gaining extensive experiences and exposure to various aspects of society.[5]

At the age of sixteen, Wang Zhenyi traveled south of the Yangtze river with her father until she moved back to the capital. She was able to see places like Shaanxi, Hubei, and Guangdong, broadening her horizons and enriching her experiences.[1] When she was eighteen, she made friends with female scholars in Jiangning through her poetry and began focusing on her studies in astronomy and mathematics, most of which were self-taught.[4] At age twenty-five she married Zhan Mei from Xuancheng in Anhui province. After her marriage, she became better known for her poetry and knowledge in mathematics and astronomy that she once taught to some male students.[4] Wang Zhenyi died at age twenty-nine and had no children.[1]

Academic achievements[edit]

Although she only lived to be twenty-nine, Wang Zhenyi was very accomplished in the academic world. She excelled in astronomy and mathematics. One of her contributions was being able to describe her views of celestial phenomena in her article, "Dispute of the Procession of the Equinoxes." She was able to explain and simply prove how equinoxes move and then how to calculate their movement. She wrote many other articles such as "Dispute of Longitude and Stars" as well as "The Explanation of a Lunar Eclipse." She commented on the number of stars; the revolving direction of the sun, the moon, and the planets Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, and Saturn; as well as describing the relationship between lunar and solar eclipses.[1] Not only did she study the research of other astronomers, but she was also able to do her own original research. At that time, there were few successors in the field of new astronomical calendrical knowledge. Moreover, due to the civil service examination system focusing on the eight-legged essay, scholars were disinclined to study natural sciences like calendrical astronomy, fearing its complexity and difficulty. As a result, the study of calendrical astronomy nearly became a "lost art" of the era. Additionally, the restrictions on women learning astronomical calendrics were even more stringent, as it was deemed inappropriate for them to study in their seclusion. However, Wang Zhenyi had a profound understanding of the social significance of astronomical studies. She bravely went against the current, persistently delving into both Chinese and Western astronomical knowledge, and authored several works on the subject. Of her works, only about ten papers, such as "Explanation of Lunar Eclipses" and "Explanation of the Starry Sky," have survived.[6]

One of her experiments to study a lunar eclipse included placing a round table in a garden pavilion, acting as a globe; she hung a crystal lamp on a cord from the ceiling beams, representing the sun. Then on one side of the table, she had a round mirror like the moon. She moved these three objects as if they were the sun, earth, and moon according to astronomical principles. Her findings and observations were very accurate and recorded in her article, "The Explanation of a Solar Eclipse."[1]

In the realm of mathematics, Zhenyi mastered trigonometry and knew the Pythagorean theorem. She wrote an article called "The Explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem and Trigonometry," where she described a triangle and the relationship between the shorter leg of a right triangle, the long leg, and the triangle's hypotenuse all correctly.[1]

She admired the mathematician Mei Wending (1633–1721 A.D.). [1] He was famous in the early Qing dynasty and wrote the book, Principles of Calculation. Wang Zhenyi became a master of this book, rewriting it with simpler language, and made it available to others under the title, The Musts of Calculation. She was able to simplify multiplication and division to make learning mathematics easier for beginners.[1] She was very dedicated in her study of mathematics and wrote a book called The Simple Principles of Calculation when she was twenty-four. Her studies were difficult and she once said, "There were times that I had to put down my pen and sigh. But I love the subject, I do not give up."[1]

Wang Zhenyi's "Explanation of Lunar Eclipses" primarily analyzes the causes of lunar eclipses, with theories consistent with modern astronomical principles. In her work, she summarized various astronomical theories from Yu Xi to Guo Shoujing, and aligned them with Islamic, Western, and modern calendars. She corrected misunderstandings about the movement of celestial bodies and established the gradual shift of stars over decades, a concept nearly accurate to actual conditions.

Wang Zhenyi also clarified concepts of calendrical epochs and methods, differentiating between the starting point of calendar creation and the methods of calculation, including arithmetic, diagrams, and instruments. She argued that changes in calendars across dynasties were about epochs, not methods.

In "Theory of the Earth's Roundness," Wang Zhenyi refuted the thousand-year-old concept of a flat earth with a round sky, applying astronomical and geographical terms to advocate for the concept of a spherical Earth and revealing the idea of relative spatial positions, a significant advancement over traditional beliefs.

Her works, including discussions on the movements of stars and planets, addressed complex questions in an accessible manner, significantly correcting misconceptions and promoting astronomical knowledge.

Wang Zhenyi compared Chinese and Western astronomical knowledge, adopting a comparative approach in her research. She identified both similarities and key differences in Chinese and Western methods, contributing to the integration of these knowledge systems in the 18th century.

Despite limited experimental tools, Wang Zhenyi conducted simple experiments, like her innovative approach to understanding lunar eclipses using a lamp, a table, and a mirror. Her observational skills also extended to meteorology, where she recorded weather patterns and made accurate predictions.

Wang Zhenyi's contributions to medicine, although not encapsulated in a specific book, are evident in her prefaces to her father's medical works and her practical medical knowledge. She emphasized diagnostic precision, preventive medicine, and bespoke treatment strategies, showcasing her deep understanding and practical experience in medical sciences.

Wang's works and approach were groundbreaking for her time, blending Chinese and Western scientific knowledge, advocating for comparative research, and applying innovative methods in both astronomy and mathematics. Her legacy is a testament to her contributions to science and culture in 18th-century China.[7]


Her travel experiences as well as her academic research gave her plenty of ideas and material for her poetry. She left a lasting impression through her literature. She left thirteen volumes of Ci (poetry), prose, and prefaces and postscripts written for other works.[1] The famous Qing dynasty scholar Yuan Mei commented on Wang’s poetry by saying it, “had the flavor of a great pen, not of a female poet.”[1] Zhenyi’s poetry was known for its lack of flowery words, at the time believed to be common to feminine traits.[4] Her poetry included her understanding of classics and history and experiences during her travels, such as sceneries and the lives of commoners with whom she made acquaintances.

Some examples of her work are:

“Transiting Tong Pass”

So important is the doorway,
occupying the throat of the mountain
Looking down from the heaven,
The sun sees Yellow river streaming[1]

“Climbing Tai Mountain”

Clouds overcast the hills,
The sun bathes in the sea.[1]

She also depicted the hard lives of commoners, especially those of laboring women in poems like “Woman Breeder of Silkworm” and “Clothes Washing.” In addition, she portrayed corruption and the polar contrast between the lives of the rich and poor in poems like “A Poem of Eight Lines,” which contained:

Village is empty of cooking smoke,
Rich families let grains stored decay;
In wormwood strewed pitiful starved bodies,
Greedy officials yet push farm levying.[1]

Wang Zhenyi's poetry is renowned for its simplicity, directness, and emotional depth. Her verses often reflect social realities, shedding light on the conditions and sentiments of her time. She utilized poetry as a medium to express her thoughts on various themes, including the status of women in society, the value of education, and her love for scientific inquiry. Her work is notable for its blend of traditional literary forms with progressive ideas, making her a unique voice in Qing Dynasty literature. Her poetic legacy, though partially preserved, remains a testament to her intellect, empathy, and pioneering spirit as a female scholar in a male-dominated era.


Wang Zhenyi died at the age of twenty-nine. There is no exact record of how she died. When she knew she was dying, she gave her works and manuscripts to her best friend, Madam Kuai (1763–1827 A.D.) who eventually passed them on to her nephew, Qian Yiji (1783–1850 A.D.), who was a famous scholar of the time.[1] He compiled her work into Shusuan Jiancun or Simple Principles of Calculation.[1] He described Wang Zhenyi as the "number one female scholar after Ban Zhao."[1]

In the second year of the Jiaqing era, Wang Zhenyi suffered a relapse of malaria and fell seriously ill. During her illness, she and her husband Zhan Quan sorted through her writings, "deleting and burning much, with only about twenty to thirty percent preserved." Before her death, she entrusted her husband to deliver her remaining manuscripts to Lady Kuai, expressing her wish for Lady Kuai to commemorate her after her passing. Unfortunately, Wang Zhenyi's last wishes were not fully realized. In the fourth year of the Jiaqing era (1799), Wang Zhenyi tragically passed away at the age of only 30. A few years later, her husband Zhan Quan also passed away unexpectedly, leaving no children.[7]

During the Qing Dynasty, it was extremely difficult for women to study, and even more so to excel in natural sciences such as astronomy, mathematics, and medicine, which were considered exceptionally rare fields of study.[8] Young female scientists like Wang Zhenyi were extremely rare in feudal society. The Qing scholar Qian Yiji praised her in the preface of "Shu Suan Jian Cun," likening her to Ban Zhao, a prominent female scholar of ancient China. Wang Zhenyi was not only accomplished in natural sciences but also progressive in thought. From a young age, she dedicated every moment to studying and reading extensively, believing that "one's pursuit of learning knows no bounds, and every moment is precious." Her travels with her father broadened her horizons and expanded her mind. However, in the feudal society, women like her, despite their ambitions, had limited opportunities to express themselves. She expressed strong dissatisfaction with the feudal society's denial of education and learning opportunities for women and protested against the societal norm of undervaluing women in academics. She yearned for freedom and hoped that women could harbor the ambition and intellect of men. Unfortunately, many of her scientific works were not recognized by society or even understood by her relatives, some of whom mocked her pursuits. Most of her scientific works have been lost, and only some of her general readership writings remain. Wang Zhenyi was a well-rounded talent with achievements in literature, history, poetry, and lyrics, mainly self-taught. Later scholars described her as versatile in both literary and martial arts, excelling in a wide range of subjects, and unparalleled in her comprehensive expertise, particularly in astronomy and understanding both Chinese and Western methods.[6]


Wang Zhenyi believed in equality and equal opportunity for both men and women. She wrote in one of her poems:

It's made to believe,
Women are the same as Men;
Are you not convinced,
Daughters can also be heroic?[1]


She was pleased in her marriage, and she believed social feudal values were inappropriate "when talking about learning and sciences, people thought of no women," she said that "women should only do cooking and sewing, and that they should not be bothered about writing articles for publication, studying history, composing poetry or doing calligraphy."[1] [Men and women] "are all people, who have the same reason for studying."[1]

In 1994, the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature approved naming crater on Venus Wang Zhenyi after her.[9]

Wang Zhenyi's legacy is marked by her remarkable achievements as a female scientist, poet, and scholar during the Qing Dynasty, a period when women's education was highly restricted. She defied societal norms by excelling in fields traditionally dominated by men, such as astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Her dedication to learning and extensive travels allowed her to gain a broad perspective and deep understanding of various subjects. Despite the challenges she faced as a woman in a feudal society, Wang Zhenyi persisted in her pursuits and expressed her thoughts on gender equality and the importance of education for women. Her poetry and few surviving scientific writings reflect her intellectual depth and progressive thinking. Wang Zhenyi is celebrated as a pioneering figure in Chinese history, remembered for her contributions to science and literature and as an inspiring example of women's capabilities in scholarly and scientific fields. Her life and work challenged the gender norms of her time and set a precedent for future generations.


Wang Zhenyi, a renowned Qing Dynasty female scholar, continues to be remembered and honored in modern times for her contributions to various fields. Some significant instances of her modern remembrance include:

  1. Crater Naming on Venus: In 1994, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) acknowledged Wang Zhenyi's achievements in astronomy by naming a crater on Venus after her. This honor is bestowed on deceased women who have made outstanding contributions to their fields, especially in astronomy.[10]
  2. Interest in Women's History and Science: As research into women's history and the contributions of females in science grows, individuals like Wang Zhenyi are receiving the recognition they deserve. Her story and achievements are increasingly cited as inspiring examples of overcoming societal barriers to contribute significantly to science and literature.[11]
  3. Cultural and Literary Influence: Wang Zhenyi's life and works have influenced modern literature and are often referenced in discussions about women's roles in science and society. Her pioneering spirit and intellect continue to inspire many, particularly in the context of women's historical contributions to fields traditionally dominated by men.

These tributes and references highlight Wang Zhenyi's enduring legacy as a trailblazer in science and a symbol of women's intellectual capabilities, particularly in a historical context where such achievements were extraordinary. Her story continues to inspire and be celebrated in various forms, contributing to a richer understanding of women's roles in science and history.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Peterson, Barbara Bennett (2000). Notable Women Of China: Shang Dynasty To The Early Twentieth Century. New York: M.E. Sharp. pp. 341–345. ISBN 9780765619297.
  2. ^ a b Shen, Yu Wu (2011). 清代女科学家 (Female scientists in Qing dynasty). Zhejiang: Zhejiang Education Press. ISBN 978-7-5338-8976-0.
  3. ^ Li, Zigang (1982). 安徽历史述要 (History of Anhui). p. 631.
  4. ^ a b c d Lee, Lily Xiao Hong; A.D. Stefanowska. Clara Wing-Chung Ho (ed.). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: The Qing Period, 1644–1911 (v. 1 ed.). M.E. Sharpe, Inc. pp. 230–231. ISBN 0-7656-0043-9.
  5. ^ "王贞仪 - 《中国大百科全书》第三版网络版". Retrieved 2023-11-14.
  6. ^ a b "De feng ting chu ji; De feng ting ji; 德風亭初集; 德風亭集; 13 juan; 13卷". Chinese Rare Books - CURIOSity Digital Collections. Retrieved 2023-11-14.
  7. ^ a b 沈 (2004). "论清代女青年科学家王贞仪". 杭州师范大学学报(自然科学版). 3 (003): 213–216. doi:10.3969/j.issn.1674-232X.2004.03.019.
  8. ^ "清史稿 - 中国哲学书电子化计划". (in Chinese (China)). Retrieved 2023-11-14.
  9. ^ "Planetary Names: Crater, craters: Wang Zhenyi on Venus". Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature. Retrieved 2020-09-09.
  10. ^ Mehta, Devang (2017-11-03). "The prolific life of Wang Zhenyi, autodidact, astronomer, and poet". Massive Science. Retrieved 2023-11-14.
  11. ^ "Badass Ladies: Female Chinese Mathematician and Astronomer Wang Zhenyi". The World of Chinese. Retrieved 2023-11-14.

Other sources[edit]

  • "The Preliminary Collection of Defeng Pavilion" by Wang Zhenyi
  • The History of the Qing Dynasty, the 508th vol.: The Biography of Wang Zhenyi
  • The Biographies of 700 Noted Personages of the Qing Dynasty, Book Four, the biography of Wang Zhenyi by Cai Guanluo
  • The Supplementary Collection of Biographies on Stone Tablets: the 509th vol.: The Biography of Wang Zhenyi by Min Erchang
  • "The Third Edition of the Biographies, seventh vol., by Zhu Kebao
  • "The Preliminary Collection of the Classified Readings of the Dynasty," the 228th vol.
  • Textual Research into Works by Women Writers in History, seventh vol., by Hu Wenkai