The forested slopes of Sheshan Hill rise a hundred meters above the plains of once rural, now suburban, Songjiang District in the southwest corner of sprawling Shanghai. At the top, China’s only Catholic basilica – an eighty-year old red brick building with an onion dome – is flanked on one side by the white dome of a modern telescope, and on the other by the century-old buildings that constitute the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory. Most mornings, the hilltop is silent but for a handful of priests and a few locals willing to climb the old stone stairways to go to mass. But this morning was a bit different: Sheshan was in the path of the century’s longest eclipse, and the local media had recommended it as one of three ideal locations for watching the event.
By 7 AM, tour buses were rumbling up the narrow cobblestone road that winds around the mountain. The site is a prime viewing spot, overlooking several miles of former rice fields, now turned to golf courses and the high-end residential compounds favored by the Party aristocracy. Yet despite the tour buses, media recommendations, and groups from as far away as Hong Kong, by 8 AM it was clear that the gathering was going to fall far short of the 5,000 visitors the government had anticipated. Weather, no doubt, was the culprit: local meteorologists had been warning for days that clouds and thunderstorms were likely to eclipse the eclipse.
Beijing’s superstitious State Council – the same people who scheduled the Olympics for 8-8-08 at 8:08 – might have preferred that no one take note of the event. In China, eclipses are traditionally harbingers of disaster and dynastic change. Over the weekend, the Council had issued a directive encouraging government science agencies to teach only the scientific meaning behind the eclipse, and to eliminate any superstitious discussion. As Shanghai’s 94-year old bishop recently told me, in the old days “the emperor, his priests, the whole court, they’d fast – fast until [an eclipse] was over.”