Portrait of Shen Kuo (or Kua) from the MacTutor History of Mathematics website.
There is a fascinating account of pearl-like UFOs seen repeatedly in the city of Yangzhou during the reign of Emperor Jiayou (1056-1064) of the Song Dynasty. The case is significant because a record and commentary on this “strange happening” was included by Shen Kuo (1031-1095) in his classic “Mengxi Bitan” Dream Pool Essays of 1088. Little known in the West except for specialists in Chinese history, Shen Kuo (also known as Shen Kua or Shen Gua) is revered in China as one of the greatest polymaths of the Middle Ages—a high government official in the Soong Dynasty, Imperial Astronomer, surveyor, cartographer, and much more.
We owe this tip to Win Lane, an Open Minds visitor who left the following comment in a recent posting of the “Your Need To Know” series:
Shen Kuo (1031–1095), a Song Chinese government scholar-official and prolific polymath inventor and scholar, wrote a vivid passage in his Dream Pool Essays (1088) about an unidentified flying object. He recorded the testimony of eyewitnesses in 11th century Anhui and Jiangsu (especially in the city of Yangzhou ), who stated that a flying object with opening doors would emit a blinding light from its interior (from an object shaped like a pearl) that would cast shadows from trees for ten miles in radius, and was able to take off at tremendous speeds.
Bust of Shen Kuo (1031-1095) at the Department of Philosophy at Beijing University. (Image credit: Bejing University)
Alejandro Rojas and I checked this tip right away, finding that the source, Shen Kuo, was indeed as reliable as you can possibly wish to back any UFO account. I actually had read about this incident long time ago in the books on Chinese ufology by Paul Dong (The Four Major Mysteries of Mainland China, 1984) and by Shi Bo (A China e os extraterrestres, a Portuguese translation of an important book written in French by the former Chinese diplomat, La Chine et les extra-terrestres, published in Paris in 1981). There are so many rich accounts of possible UFOs in old texts from China—whether literary, scientific, historical or religious—that I used other, equally interesting stories, in previous postings about UFOs in classical China during the Jin and Yuan dynasties and the Ming dynasty.
Who was Shen Kuo
There are several lengthy biographical profiles of Shen Kuo (1031-1095) in English on the web (and I am sure many more in Chinese). The Shanghai Daily, for instance, describes Shen as “way ahead of his time in many fields,” noting that he was known “as a gifted mathematician, astronomer, geologist, zoologist, botanist, agronomist, archaeologist, engineer and inventor. He was also a famous poet and musician. In addition, he served as a high-ranking government official in many positions, including diplomat, finance minister and head of the Imperial Department of Astronomy.” A more comprehensive assessment is provided by Dr. Nathan Sivin, Professor Emeritus of Chinese Culture and of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, with a Ph.D. from Harvard and other degrees from MIT, the U.S. Army Language School (in Chinese) and elsewhere. In his 2005 paper, “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China—or Didn’t It?,” Dr. Sivin called Shen Kua “one of the most versatile figures in the history of Chinese science and engineering.” He then goes on:
Just to give a few examples, he is famous for the first discussion of magnetic declination and of printing with movable type, the only application of permutations in traditional Chinese mathematics, a proposal for daily records of the lunar and planetary positions, the first suggestion in East Asia of a purely solar calendar, an explanation of the process of land formation by both deposition of silt and erosion, and an important book on the theory and practice of medicine. In addition to his technical activities, his writing has to be consulted by every student of early Chinese archeology, music, art and literary criticism, economic theory, and diplomacy. He made his early reputation as a land reclamation expert. He was deeply involved as a high official in the 1060’s in the most important political reform movement for some centuries.
Emperor Shenzong of the Soong dynasty, one of the protectors of Shen Kuo. (Image credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei)
Shen Kuo was born in Qiantang (now Hangzhou) in 1031, the son of Shen-Zhou, a provincial official. Traveling with his father as an older boy allowed Kuo to see first-hand how the Imperial bureaucracy functioned. As was customary in China in those days, the young Shen inherited a position in government service after the death of his father. His brilliance and efficient improvements in agriculture, canal supervision and land reclamation got the attention of Wang Anshi, the Chancellor who led the Reformers wing. Sheng Kuo’s career soared for many years under the protection of Anshi and particularly during the reign of Emperor Shenzong, who supported reforms. But after Anshi’s retirement, court intrigues by the new Chancellor and the traditionalist wing, falsely implicated Kuo in some military defeats, resulting in his banishment from court.
Nevertheless, as pointed by J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson in their lengthy biographical profile of Shen Kuo for the MacTutor History of Mathematics website, “this seems to have been fortunate as far as science is concerned since after he was banished he wrote his scientific works.” He was practically under house arrest but “was free to undertake scientific work,” including a project “to produce maps of all Chinese territory.” Shen wrote many books but his most famous one is the Brush talks from Dream Brook, named after his property Dream Brook on the outskirts of Zhenjiang in Jiangsu province in eastern China; the book is now generally referenced as Dream Pool Essays. Shen explained the original title, “because I had only my writing brush and ink slab to converse with, I call it Brush Talks.”
A star map published in 1092 featuring Shen Kuo’s corrected position of the pole star. (Image credit: Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 3)
The book became a milestone in Chinese medieval science since it’s a kind of encyclopedia with chapters on mathematics, astronomy and calendar, meteorology, geology and cartography, physics, chemistry, engineering, metallurgy and technology, irrigation and hydraulic engineering, architecture, botany and zoology, medicine and pharmaceutics, archeology, philology, music, etc. It also includes areas which nowadays would not be considered scientific like the I Ching (the Chinese Book of Change), divination, magic and folklore. It finally has a section titled “Strange Happenings” for miscellaneous observations and Forteana, which is where we can find the UFO story.
Close encounter with a bright pearl
As the Chinese-American ufologist Paul Dong pointed out in his 1984 book, The Four Major Mysteries of Mainland China (which had a foreword by Dr. J. Allen Hynek), the Shen Kuo reference was discovered by Professor Zhang Longquiao of the Chinese department of the Beijing Teachers College, who published it in Beijing’s Guang Ming Daily in February 1979 in what is probably the very first article about UFOs in China’s ancient history to appear in the Chinese press. For historical context, this was the crucial period of the beginning of modern Chinese ufology when the subject was allowed to be discussed in the press and a group of scientists from Wuhan University created the China UFO Research Organization (CURO). Prof. Longquiao was “pleasantly surprised and immensely intrigued” by his discovery, believing that “a flying craft from some other planet once landed somewhere near Yangzhou in China.”
For the “UFO” paragraph from Shen Kuo’s Dream Pool Essays, we’ve consulted Dong’s English translation (which seems to be taken from Longquiao’s article), Shi Bo’s translation of Chapter 369 in the section “Strange Happenings” (French and Portuguese versions), and finally the most recent version contained in Wonders in the Sky by Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck. We used mostly this last version, but occasionally blended it with additional paragraphs from the two other versions:
The Five Pavilion bridge of Yangzhou; it was in an area of marshes and lakes near this city where the “pearl” UFO wave took place in the 11th century. (Image credit: Gisling/Wikimedia Commons)
In the middle of the reign of Emperor Jia You [1056-1064], at Yangzhou in the Jiangsu province, an enormous pearl was seen especially in gloomy weather. At first it appeared in the marsh of the Tianchang [or Tienzhang] district, passed by the lake of Bishe and disappeared finally in the Xinhai lake. The inhabitants of that region and travelers saw it frequently over a period of ten years. I have a friend who lives on the edge of the lake. One evening, he looked through the window and saw the luminous pearl near his house. He half-opened his door and the light entered, illuminating the room with its brightness. The pearl was round, with a gold-colored ring around it. Suddenly, it enlarged considerably and became bigger than a table. In its centre, the luminary was white and silvery, and the intensity was such that it could not be looked at straight on. The light it emitted even reached trees that were some 5 kilometers away and as a result these cast their shadow on the ground, the faraway sky was all alight. Finally, the round luminous object began to move at a breathtaking speed and landed on the water between the waves, like a rising sun.
Yibo, a poet of Gaoyou and a frequent eyewitness of the moonlike pearl, wrote a poem about it, but after some years the moonlike pearl disappeared.
As the pearl often made its appearance in the town of Fanliang in Yangzhou, the local inhabitants, who had seen it frequently, built a wayside pavilion and named it, “The Pearl Pavilion.” Inquisitive people often came from afar by boat, waiting for a chance to see the unpredictable pearl.
The amount of useful ufological data in this old historical account is truly remarkable. We have second-hand testimony collected by one of China’s great medieval scholars and imperial astronomer that describe a whole UFO wave in the Tienzhang district lasting some ten years! The pearl-like UFO liked the lakes in the area and one witness interviewed by the scientist Shen Kuo had actually a CE-I (Close Encounter of the First Kind), with the light illuminating the trees being so bright that you could not look at it directly. The area became what we would call nowadays a UFO hotspot with “inquisitive people” coming from all over, “waiting…to see the unpredictable pearl.” Poems were written and a building, “The Pearl Pavilion,” was built in its honor.
But wait, there is more…
Abduction by the goddess Zigu
The Zigu Shen goddess which appears in an abduction-like experience recorded by Shen Kuo. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shen Kuo’s Dream Essays contain more Forteana in its section of “Strange Happenings,” specifically a case in Taichang in 1036 which Vallee and Aubeck classify as “Bedroom visitation, abduction.” This is the same district where the “pearl” UFO wave was reported. Quoting again from Shi Bo’s translation of Shen Kuo in his book China and extraterrestrials, we read that
The old custom establishes that gods must be received in the month of January on the lunar calendar. Yet the goddess called Zigu can be received at any time… Under the reign of Jinyou [in the years between 1034-1036] a scholar from Taichang named Wang Lun saw (goddess) Zigu flying down into his daughter’s bedroom. This goddess knew how to write and was very pretty. A cloud floated under her feet, and she moved fast without effort. Zigu asked Wang Lun’s daughter: ‘Do you want to travel with me?’ She agreed with a sign from the head. At once clouds formed in the courtyard and the girl was lifted, but the clouds could not carry her. Zigu said at once: ‘There is dust on your shoes, take them off before coming up.’ The girl did as she was told and she rose in the clouds that lifted her to the sky.
This is undoubtedly quite a remarkable account when it comes to the topic of abduction-like experiences recorded in ancient folklore and mythology. My first question was, who was the goddess Zigu? As it turns out, in the grand scheme of world mythology, she is not precisely on top of the hierarchy of deities. There are very few entrances about her on the web, and that may be because Zigu Shen (as she is usually known) is considered to be the goddess of concubines and latrines! According to the legend, she was a peasant girl who was sold to a man as a concubine, forced to live near the latrine, and treated cruelly and eventually murdered by the man’s jealous wife. Upon hearing about Zigu’s terrible fate, the Heavenly Emperor compensated her by turning her into a goddess with dominion over concubines and also latrines. More germane to our subject, some Chinese books of mythology and folklore also note that the “purple lady” (the meaning of her name) was also later associated with “spirit writing,” a feature mentioned by Shen Kuo when he wrote that “this goddess knew how to write and was very pretty.”
Another portrait of Shen Kuo as a scholar published in Paul Dong’s book. (Image credit: P. Dong)
Shi Bo goes on to mention a number of other curious historical UFO reports from ancient and medieval China, but we’ll stop here since the purpose of this article was to review in detail the UFO evidence collected by the great medieval scientist Shen Kuo. You can find additional biographical details on his scientific achievements in the Wikipedia entry, and the MacTutor entry. Those readers who know Chinese can read the whole Dream Pool Essays at Project Gutenberg; some excerpts in English can be found here.
Cover of Paul Dong’s book, where Shen Kuo’s “pearl” UFO account was first published in English. (Image credit: Prentice-Hall, Inc.)
Shen (1031-1095) was a native in Qian Tang of Zhejiang Province. He held a number of official posts during his life. He served as an envoy to the Liao Kingdom and led troops in battle. At one time he served as the highest financial official, and even director of the imperial observatory.
Shen Kuo completed his famous scientific workMeng Xi Bi Tan(Dream Pool Essays) after retirement. In the book, he wrote a lot about the animals and plants he had seen when traveling through the country, such as giant clam in the South Sea, crocodile in Chaozhou, Chinese wolfberry in the northwest of China and jerboa in the desert of northern China. The book also introduced some methods to kill insect pests.
Being learned in anatomy, Shen Kuo pointed out inMengxi Bitanthat human beings had pharynx and larynx, with pharynx for devouring food and larynx for ventilation. He also had profound knowledge about fossils. When visiting the Taihang Mountain in North China's Shanxi Province, he found fossilized seashells and noted the presence of ovoid stones like those often found on the seashore, leading him to conclude that at some time in the distant past, Shanxi had been located by the sea.
Mengxi Bitan (Dream Pool Essays) was widely regarded as an important scientific works in ancient China.
While in his thirties, Shen Kuo frequently dreamed of a place. In the dream, he ascended a hill, the summit of which was covered with brightly colored flowers and trees. Clear waters flowed at the base of the hill, banked on either side by dense woods. Later on, when traveling around, he was shocked to find a piece of land that was just the place in his dream. There he settled and wrote of the discoveries he had made in his lifetime. This extraordinary story is the origin of Shen'sMengxi Bitan (Dream Pool Essays).
Shen Kuo was hundreds of years ahead of the Western scientists in the fields of astronomy, meteorology, geography, mineralogy, mathematics and the calendar. He was the first to discover that the compass does not point directly north, but to the magnetic north pole. In the field of mathematics, he developed techniques that laid the foundations for spherical trigonometry and high-order arithmetic progressions.Mengxi Bitanwas a milestone in the history of Chinese science. Today, this amazing 1,000-year-old scientific work has been translated into a number of different languages, including English, French, German and Japanese.