Wu Shiying builds his own observatory. Photo:IC

At the age of 70, Wu Shiying, a farmer who lives in the mountains of Shiyan, Central China’s Hubei Province, has suddenly become an online icon due to his deep love of astronomy. 

A photo of Wu wearing shabby clothes and carrying a box of telescopes in a mountainous area was uploaded online with an introduction explaining that he has travelled all across China to observe solar eclipses. 

The contrast between Wu’s living environment and his hobby surprised many netizens, with many commenting that his situation reminded them of Oscar Wilde’s words: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” 

Chasing the Sun

Born into a poor family in Shiyan, Wu became obsessed with the stars after seeing a magnificent meteor shower when he was 13. Working as a farmer after graduating from middle school meant he had little financial support for his passion, but that never stopped him from wholeheartedly pursuing it. 

Despite living in a place where information on the subject was scarce, Wu tried his best to search for books about astronomy. In 1967, he wrote a letter to the Purple Mountain Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences based in Nanjing, East China’s Jiangsu Province, asking for advice. Months later, an expert surnamed Tang wrote back to recommend some specialist books for Wu. 

Wu went to a store in Shiyan to buy the books, including a dictionary on astronomy, and devoured every sentence to fill the gaps in his knowledge. 

In 1997, Wu began travelling around China to observe the solar eclipse. On March 9 that year, taking a single-tube telescope, Wu went to Mohe in Northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province.

Along with hundreds of strangers, he observed the solar eclipse. The crowd gasped when the sky went dark and sunlight began to appear little by little. “At that moment, I felt that I was not alone,” Wu said. 

After this trip, Wu would travel around the country during times when there was not much to do on the farm. In 2008, he went to see the solar eclipse in Altay Prefecture in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with a new binocular telescope he bought for 200 yuan ($30). In 2009, he went to Central China’s Wuhan. In 2010, he went to Southwest China’s Yunnan Province. In 2012, he was in Putian, Southeast China’s Fujian Province, and in 2016, he bought a plane ticket to Jakarta in Indonesia.

Over the past 20 years, Wu has travelled to almost every province and region to see the solar eclipse. When newspapers began to write about him in 2015, he was dubbed the “Kua Fu of modern times.”

Kua Fu is a figure in Chinese mythology who wanted to capture the Sun, so he followed it from east to west, draining the Yellow River to quench his burning thirst. As he continued his search, he died of dehydration. 

Wu said that most people never get the chance to see a total solar eclipse in their lifetime, but he has seen it four times, an achievement that gives him a feeling of satisfaction and pride. 

Apart from chasing after the Sun, Wu has also set his sights on the stars. On July 27, 2018, Wu went to Delingha in Qinghai Province to observe the longest total lunar eclipse, during which Mars could also be seen.

None of these trips were easy for Wu. To save money, he slept in railway stations or in the street, and mostly ate instant noodles. The journey to Indonesia cost him 3,700 yuan, which he could only afford with his children’s help. 

Wu spends almost all his money on his hobby. Apart from grains, Wu also plants sesame. He uses the money he makes from selling his sesame to subscribe to the magazine Mature Astronomer. The postman who delivers the magazine told him he is the only person in the town who has a subscription.

Wu Shiying with one of his telescopes  Photo: IC

Passing on knowledge

Many people in the “astronomy circle,” from experts in the field to primary school students, know about Wu.

Wang Li, vice president of the Beijing Academy of Science and Technology, gave high praise to Wu, saying, “He is the coolest old boy in the astronomers’ circle.”

Pan Xiaoqing from the Astronomy Association in Fujian was impressed by Wu’s knowledge on the subject. 

A lot of the telescope equipment Wu possesses were given to him by friends he has made over the past years. One friend from the astronomy association in Hubei Province gave him an astronomical telescope and helped install it in front of his house. 

Some children in the town like to play with the telescope, and Wu is happy to teach them how to observe the stars. He always tells these children that “the world is bigger than the place you live.” 

Speaking of his future plans, Wu said that he wants to turn the house which he rebuilt from a discarded residence on the mountain top into an astronomy club for people around town. He also wants to set up an astronomy primary school to teach children in the town about astronomy and nature.

Global Times
Newspaper headline: Star in the making