Eclipse fever to draw hundreds of millions in China

July 20th, 2009 - 9:41 am ICT by IANS  

By Bill Smith
Beijing, July 20 (DPA) As astronomers and amateur stargazers stare heavenward at the total solar eclipse in eastern China Wednesday, at least one group of visitors, keepers and zoologists will be peering horizontally through the brief blackout at captive animals.

The city zoo in Changzhou, one of the best locations for seeing the total eclipse, will assemble elephants, monkeys and other animals deemed easy to control, to record the animals’ reaction to the disturbing changes of light and temperature during the eclipse.

The observation at Changzhou zoo is one of scores of special events in China to mark the solar eclipse.

Hundreds of millions of people are expected to watch the eclipse across China, most of them in major Chinese cities along the Yangzte river valley, and in India.

“Almost 300 million people live along the total-eclipse belt,” Li Jing, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Observatory, told DPA.

“With the current media publicity, if there is good, sunny weather, then we will see several hundred million people watching,” Li said.

Ancient astronomers first recorded solar eclipses in China 4,000 years ago.

One of the earliest legends concerns an emperor who ordered the execution of two court astronomers accused of failing to predict an eclipse.

A literal meaning of the Chinese characters for a total eclipse is a “complete eating”, reflecting primitive belief that a dragon was taking a bite out of the sun or moon during an eclipse.

Eclipses were once seen as a portent of doom, with superstitious Chinese believing they were followed by a major natural disaster or the collapse of an imperial dynasty.

Some such superstitions endure in Communist China, especially those linking earthquakes or other natural disasters with political change.

But the vast majority of Chinese who watch this week’s eclipse will expect nothing more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience of what will be the longest total eclipse this century.

The fact that the eclipse should be clearly visible in 42 major cities, broadly along the Yangtze river valley, has fuelled the excitement in China.

A partial eclipse will draw residents of many other cities, including Beijing and Hong Kong, which will see 73-percent and 75-percent eclipses, respectively.

In Chengdu, the furthest west of those cities, the total eclipse will begin at 9.12 a.m. (0112 GMT) and last for about three minutes.

Some tourists will climb the 3,000-metre Buddhist holy mountain of Mt Emei, not far from Chengdu, to watch it.

Others will go to Mt Putuo, a hill on a small island off the coastal province of Zhejiang south of Shanghai.

But according to weather forecasts, rain and cloud could spoil the party in many of those places, including Shanghai, Hangzhou and Mt Emei.

The duration of totality will average at least five minutes for most places along the Yangtze in central and eastern coastal areas.

The eclipse in Shanghai will last roughly from 8.30 a.m. to 11.30 a.m., with the total eclipse starting at 9.35 a.m. (0135 GMT) and lasting nearly six minutes.

Tour operators are offering trips to Yanshan island and eclipse-watching from cruise ships off the coast of Shanghai.

The nearby city of Suzhou, famed for its ancient courtyard houses, gardens and canals, is preparing to host 100,000 Chinese tourists and 10,000 foreign tourists for the eclipse, Wu Min of the Suzhou tourism bureau told state media.

“I heard that in the coastal cities, even the school classrooms have been booked,” Li said.

US astronomer Jay Pasachoff, head of the International Astronomical Union’s Solar Eclipse Working Group, arrived in China in mid-July to prepare for watching the eclipse in Zhejiang’s Anji county, state media said.

A group of Spanish scientists will provide a live internet broadcast from near the inland city of Chongqing, while state broadcaster China Central Television and the Chinese Academy of Sciences will also show the eclipse live online.

Li said he understood that some leading Indian astronomers planned to watch the eclipse in China rather than in their own country.

“Why? Because the time of the eclipse is earlier in India, and the sun will be lower in India than in China, so it is not so advantageous to watch it there,” he said.

“For professionals, this is a rare chance,” Li said. “For example, the Shanghai Observatory is right on the total-eclipse belt, so we can observe it on every waveband with all the equipment ready at hand.”

Li said many amateur eclipse-chasers planned to drive around the eclipse belt to ensure a good view.

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