Wang Zhenyi: the creative genius who made science rule

From an early age, it was clear that science just wasn’t my thing. I really tried but my style of thinking couldn’t break down huge concepts to smaller levels. I loved watching “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and “The Magic School Bus” and I could grasp lessons pretty well by taking notes and memorizing facts but I just couldn’t perform well when it came to the application.

I was basically like:

Practically everyone in my family studies science either in the form of engineering, biology or medicine so I felt like it was something I was expected to be good at. Writing, acting and history just came more naturally to me because I could grasp the narratives of each easier than complex theories and experiments. There was even one moment when I was very little that I completely take back now when I told my biologist mother that she wasn’t creative because she was a scientist.

The truth, as I came to understand it, is science is just as creative as the arts, if not more. The out-of-the-box kind of thinking that is necessary to adapt and evolve over time requires a beautiful fusion of logic and creativity. I love studying the history of science because it’s fascinating to watch the ways of thinking change to advance scientific development. Not only that but I am so inspired by the way the right to study science and understand how the world works has shifted from highly-educated scholars to someone like me who needed to use Lucky Charms (and would most likely still need to) to understand how to balance chemical equations.

Wang Zhenyi is one such example of a scientist in history who embodied not only the shift of science from scholars to everyone but also an extreme creativity that broke all the conventions of the era’s thinking.

Image Credit: Astronomical Genius et al.

Wang was born in the Anhui province in China in 1768, during the early-Qing dynasty. As was the case for many cultures around the world at the time, women were not permitted to pursue an education beyond cooking and mothering. In fact, the least a woman was capable of, the better, or, as one old saying put it, “a woman is virtuous only if she is untalented.”

Because of the expectation that women were to be neither seen nor heard, Wang had to rely on teaching herself to quench her endless curiosity about the world around her. Thankfully, her family supported her eagerness for knowledge. Her grandfather was a former governor and shared with his granddaughter a collection of more than 70 books and the basic principles of astronomy while her father, a medicinal scholar, taught her math.

Besides her clear talents in science, Wang had a sharp wit and longed for a way to express herself. Her grandmother introduced her to poetry and Wang took to it right away, using it to document the many experiences she gained from her family’s frequent traveling in addition to expressing the inequalities she saw between the classes and the sexes.

In one of her poems, “A Poem of Eight Lines,” she described the differing effects of a drought on the rich and the poor:

Village is empty of cooking smoke

Rich families let grains stored decay,

In wormwood strewed pitiful starved bodies,

Greedy officials yet push farm levying

In another poem, out of her hundreds that filled 13 volumes, she stated:

It’s made to believe

women are the same as Men;

Are you not convinced

Daughters can also be heroic?

When her family moved to Jilin, Wang met Aa, the wife of a Mongolian general, who taught the young girl archery and horseback riding, two things that were certainly considered scandalous for a woman to attempt.

When she turned 16, she began to study advanced astronomy and math on her own, using both Chinese and European classic texts as her guide. Because she could not receive a formal education, there were times that she would become frustrated when certain concepts did not make sense upon first study. She noted that, “there were times that I had to put down the pen and sigh but I love the subject so I do not give up.”

She continued to study and began to make huge advances in the theories of the universe. Many Chinese scholars aligned astronomy closer to religion than science or math, believing the movement of the planets and the behavior of the sun and moon were controlled by the gods’ moods. However, by applying the ideas of science and math to what was known about astronomy, she was able to successfully demonstrate what truly caused the shifts in the universe.

Her most famous demonstration involved creating a model to explain a lunar eclipse. She used a lamp, a mirror and a round table to symbolize the sun, the moon and the earth, respectively. By moving the objects around, she was able to prove that a lunar eclipse was not caused by the anger of the gods’, instead, because the moon had passed directly behind earth and moved into its shadow.

She moved on to analyze the movement of the planets and stars, explain the equinoxes and suggest the nature of the revolutions of the sun, the moon and Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. She also tried to explain why it was that people did not fall off the Earth despite the fact that it was a sphere, a concept not easily grasped at the time.

During the Qing Dynasty, the Western calendar seeped into China. Wang believed that it, because it was based on the movement of the sun, was more precise than the ancient lunar calendar and argued for its adoption. However, many Chinese scholars rejected the idea, perhaps simply because it came from the West. Wang responded that, “What counts is the usefulness, no matter whether it is Chinese or Western.”

Wang believed that science should be accessible to more than just the well-educated elite. She spent many years working to take complex theories and principles and translate them into a simpler language for readers who were not as familiar with the concepts or were not permitted to study them. She began by breaking down renowned mathematician Mei Wending’s dense work into a five-volume text entitled “The Simple Principles of Calculation.” This work featured ways for beginners to approach methods of multiplication, division and the Pythagoras theorem. Many historians believe that she also tutored several male pupils because of the ease with which she explained equations and formulas.

When she was 25, Wang married a man named Zhan Mei and settled in Xuancheng, living happily until her early death at 29, the cause of which remains unknown. She must have known that she was dying, however, because she turned over all of her papers and manuscripts to her best friend, Madam Kuai, to preserve. Sadly, most of those works have become lost, including six books on math and astronomy.

In 2004, the International Astronomical Union recognized her bright spirit by naming a crater on Venus after her.

While I may still not be able to tell the seemingly-obvious difference between a lunar and solar eclipse without the help of Google, I greatly admire Wang Zhenyi because of her belief that men and women “are all people, who have the same reason for studying.” Science may not be my thing but I greatly treasure every opportunity that I had to experience the way the world works and every teacher whose patience made sure that I had equal chance to understand it. 

Image Credit: The World of Chinese Magazine