Power in Numbers: Wang Zhenyi

Dr. Talithia Williams is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College and cohost of the PBS series NOVA Wonders, premiering in April 2018. Her upcoming book, Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics, takes aim at the forgotten influence of women on the development of mathematics over the last two millennia. Here’s a look at the story of Qing Dynasty Astronomer Wang Zhenyi.

Wang Zhenyi


1768 – 1797
Qing Dynasty Astronomer and Mathematician Who Explained Both Lunar and Solar Eclipses

“There were times that I had to put down the pen and sighed. But I love the subject, I do not give up.”—Wang Zhenyi

Wang Zhenyi accomplished so much in such a short time on Earth—a mere twenty-nine years—it is fitting that she is remembered beyond it. There is a crater named for her on Venus, a nod to her expertise in astronomy. She is renowned for her abilities in the fields of poetry and mathematics as well.

Born during the Qing dynasty, Wang grew up in the Chinese province of Anhui nurtured by a family of scholars. Her father, Wang Xichen, a doctor who published four volumes about medicine called Yifang yanchao (Collection of Medical Prescriptions), taught her about medicine, geography, and mathematics. Her grandmother, Dong, gave her poetry lessons, and she learned astronomy from her grandfather, a former governor.
Wang spent a lot of time in her grandfather’s large library poring over its many volumes and establishing a basis for her rich and varied education. When her grandfather died in 1782, the family moved to Jilin, near a portion of the Great Wall. During the five years they spent there, Wang became a well-rounded student with the assistance of her family and the wife of a Mongolian general named Aa, who taught her archery, martial arts, and equestrian skills. In her mid-teens, she traveled extensively with her father and befriended female scholars of modern day Nanjing; these relationships enhanced her study of poetry.

On her own, Wang studied astronomy and mathematics, feeling thwarted at times by the difficulty of texts written in obscure, aristocratic language. She once wrote, “There were times that I had to put down the pen and sighed. But I love the subject, I do not give up.” This frustrating experience made her aware of how important it was for scientific texts to be clear and accessible to everyone, not just aristocrats. With this in mind, she rewrote mathematician Mei Wending’s Principles of Calculation, calling her simpler version The Musts of Calculation. At age twenty-four, she devised a simpler method of performing multiplication and division and created the five-volume guide The Simple Calculation Principles. Wang also wrote the article “The Explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem and Trigonometry” as well as a paper about gravity that describes why people don’t fall off the Earth even though it is a sphere.
Wang’s desire to educate, and in particular to simplify complicated material extended to her astronomy studies, where she explained how equinoxes move and how to calculate this movement. In addition to analyzing the movement of the moon, she sought to remove some of the mystery of lunar and solar eclipses. In the eighteenth century, there were many legends and myths associated with eclipses; one legend described them as a sign of angry gods. “Actually, it’s definitely because of the moon,” Wang wrote of eclipses in one of her books, and she set out to demonstrate the phenomenon in a way that people could understand. Her exhibit of an eclipse, set up in a garden, was made up of a round table signifying the Rarth, a lamp for the sun, and a round mirror for the moon. By moving the objects, she showed how a lunar eclipse occurs as the moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, making its path clear even for the youngest observers. Wang’s related article—“The Explanation of a Lunar Eclipse”—remains highly accurate for its time.
Wang turned her travel experiences—informed by history and the classics—into “ci,” or poetry, commenting on social issues such as the gap between poor and rich and the importance of giving equal opportunities to women and men. And she did so in a direct, unembellished style. One famous scholar remarked that her works “had the flavor of a great pen, not of a female poet.” Wang married Zhan Mei Xuan Cheng at age twenty-five and continued to work as a poet, mathematician, and astronomer until her death at age twenty-nine. Her contributions have endured, and in 1994, the International Astronomical Union celebrated the naming of the Wang Zhenyi crater on Venus.

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Power in NumbersPrepare to be inspired. Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics is a full-color volume that takes aim at the forgotten influence of women on the development of mathematics over the last two millennia.

You’ll see each eminent mathematician come to life on each page, women like the astronomer-philosopher Hypatia, theoretical physicist Emmy Noether, and rocket scientist Annie Easley.

Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics is an affirmation of female genius and a celebration of the boundless applications of mathematics. See their stories!