In China, a thoroughly modern view of annular solar eclipse

Many Beijingers did not take note of the once-in-a-millennium annular solar eclipse, a sharp change from the time when Chinese were highly attuned to the movements of celestial bodies.

Shi Tou/Reuters
The moon passes between the sun and the earth during an annular solar eclipse in Chongqing municipality, China, on Friday. The longest, ring-like solar eclipse of the millennium started on today, with astronomers saying the Maldives was the best place to view the phenomenon that will not happen again for over 1,000 years.
Vincent Du/Reuters
The annular solar eclipse is seen over Tianjin municipality on Friday.

O tempora! O mores! There was a time when a once-in-a-millennium event like Friday’s annular eclipse of the sun would have struck terror into the hearts of the Chinese, attuned to the movements of celestial bodies and their earthly significance.

Today, however, nobody in Beijing seemed even to notice the fact that 80 percent of the sun was obliterated by the moon for more than 10 minutes, just before people went home from work.

Even in the Southwestern city of Chongqing, where the eclipse was full, leaving only a ring of fire around the moon’s black hole, life went on as normal, residents said.

This was mainly because unless you were actually looking directly at the sun, through a strip of unexposed camera film for example, you would not have been aware that anything was happening. In Beijing and Chongqing, the sun’s light was not noticeably diminished even at the fullest point of the eclipse.

Few people were even aware there was going to be an eclipse today, and paid it little heed when they were told about it or saw it for themselves.

Got news of eclipse by cellphone

“I heard about it from the news on my cellphone,” said Lei Yulan, a student in Beijing. “An eclipse is just a natural phenomenon. I studied physics so I know how they happen. I don’t believe in astrological interpretations.”

Qin Yanming, a young man in his twenties, took an equally materialist and dispassionate view. “I don’t pay it that much attention”, he said. “But eclipses can provide astronomers and archeologists with research material.”

Friday’s annular eclipse visible across a wide swath of China just before sunset, lasted longer than any other predicted for the next 1,000 years, according to Chinese astronomers.

For traditional Chinese astrologers, the event augurs ill. Eclipses indicate that yin and yang are in conflict, says Lao Yao, a fortune teller, and that makes itself felt on terrestrial affairs. He blames the Cultural Revolution and ten major earthquakes on the three solar eclipses visible in China between 1965 and 1968.

Between 2008 and 2012, he points out, there will be four solar eclipses. How much worse than the Cultural Revolution can you get? Perhaps China’s modern citizens are well advised to pay no heed to heavenly hiccups.

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