China’s Stonehenge

 In August 2008, The Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco sent a team to China to film a total-solar eclipse.

While in China, Pauld Doherty, a physicist, teacher, author and rock climber, visited China’s Stonehenge of the Gobi Desert, a Stonehenge like structure in Xinjiang Province.

Pauld says, “The Gobi Stonehenge is made with a central pillar where a viewer stands and 6 pillars that mark the positions of sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes and the solstices. There are also pillars to mark due north and south. When the sun passes over the south pillar, it marks local-solar noon.”

“The shape of an observatory like this one depends upon the latitude,” he says, “and my calculations show that the excellent Chinese astronomer who designed this one did a superb job.”

Patsy Burns left a comment, “The Stonehenge and center of Asia markers note Chinese have long been studying the skies…. Have you been to the remnants of the Emperor’s observatory just east of Tiananmen Sq by the Gloria Plaza hotel…if it is still there? Supposedly Marco Polo’s star gazing Jesuits matched calculations with the Emperor’s people there and that knowledge gave Marco Polo guanxi, credibility.”

To answer Patsy’s question, yes, the Ming Emperor’s observatory is still there and a planetarium was added.

To study astronomy, the Ming Dynasty built an observatory in Beijing in 1442. The observatory covers 1,000 square meters (more than 10,000 square feet).

Eight bronze astronomical instruments stand on a platform. The design of the instruments reflects both the influence of oriental craftsmanship and the European Renaissance demonstrating an understanding of measurements and physics.

In 1955, a new hall covering 7,000 square meters (more than 75,000 square feet) was built, and it opened to the public two years later. It has an exhibition hall, a video projection room and observatory for everyone. 

In 2004, a new hall covering about 20,000 square meters (more than 215,000 square feet) was added.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

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