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Born during the Qing Dynasty in China, Wang Zhenyi defied the gender stereotypes of her era to become an acclaimed astronomer and renowned poet. Despite never receiving a formal education, Zhenyi tore through the volumes of books in her grandfather’s library, journeyed across China with her father, and learned about poetry from her grandmother. Aware of the social inequalities of her day, Zhenyi worked hard to make math and science accessible to all, and in her hundreds of poems and verses, she wrote critically of the gap between the rich and the poor—as well as between men and women.
Serena Yang (she/her) is a 19-year-old poet, writer, and first-generation Chinese American immigrant raised in Queens, New York. She believes that imagination and storytelling are critical to justice work and writes, always, with the knowledge that a better world is possible. Serena is the 2021 NYC Youth Poet Laureate, a program of Urban Word, and a National Youth Poet Laureate finalist and ambassador representing the Northeast.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who read every book she could get her hands on, and who longed to share what she learned with the world. Her name, was Zhenyi [zshen-EE].
When Zhenyi was young, she loved walking among her grandfather’s bookshelves, breathing in the earthy scent of paper and ink. There were science books and math books, volumes on geography and history.
Zhenyi wanted to learn everything.
But when Zhenyi was growing up, in the late 1700s in China, women were expected to cook, clean, sew, and have babies. And many people said women shouldn’t go to school. Some even said they shouldn’t even learn to read or write!
But Zhenyi’s family was full of scholars, and they adored her curiosity. Zhenyi’s grandfather taught her about the sun, stars, and moon. Her father taught her medicine and mathematics. And her grandmother taught her poetry.
The more Zhenyi learned, the more she hungered for knowledge.
And no matter what the world said, Zhenyi was going to get her fill.
I’m Serena Yang. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Wang Zhenyi.
<END THEME MUSIC>
Zhenyi learned a lot from her family, but that didn’t mean she always had her nose in a book.
As a child, Zhenyi loved staring at the stars. At night, she often found herself looking up at the blankets of twinkling stars that spread from one jagged mountaintop to the next. She’d tilt her head back and gaze for hours as the cool air wrapped its arms around her.
Zhenyi wondered how many stars and planets there were. Could she count them? And how far away were they?
Would it ever be possible to know?
She also studied the pale face of the moon. From one night to the next, she observed its transformations as it shifted from a round silvery disc to just a sliver.
But why does it do that? she asked herself.
As the canopy of stars shone down on her, her heart was filled with wonder—and her brain bubbled with curiosity.
|PICKING UP THE PEN
Zhenyi read books to find the answers to the stars’ mysteries, and she asked her family members so many questions.
But learning complicated mathematical ideas and astronomical notions without going to school wasn’t easy. Zhenyi often got frustrated.
The words of the textbooks were too complex. And the instructions for solving problems weren’t clear at all.
Sometimes, she got so frustrated, she put down her pen and let out a big sigh. She took deep breaths and wondered why she was studying so hard. But then, she realized something important: She loved learning. She loved reading. And she loved math and science most of all.
So, she picked her pen back up. She looked back at the problem at hand. And she got back to work.
And even though she got discouraged, she refused to give up.
|MOVE TO JILIN
Then, in 1778, when Zhenyi was just 11 years old, her grandfather passed away. Her family moved far from Zhenyi’s hometown to the northeastern province of Jilin [JEE-lin]. As they rode north, Zhenyi watched the changing landscape of the countryside.
She watched laborers in the fields and the sun glinting on the rushing waters of streams and rivers.
Although leaving her home and losing her grandfather were hard, Zhenyi wondered what more she might learn from this new place.
Once in Jilin, Zhenyi took interest in even more subjects—including ones usually for “boys only.” There, she learned horseback riding, archery, and martial arts from the wife of a Mongolian general.
Zhenyi was thrilled at the feeling of her body’s movement and power.
She loved the way the wind blew through her hair as she galloped on her horse. She loved the sound of her arrows zinging through the air, striking her targets with precision. And she loved the way her body moved under her command as she landed precise punches and kicks.
Zhenyi was already not a typical Chinese girl from the Qing [ching] Dynasty. And she continued defying expectations when, at age 16, her father invited her to travel across China with him.
Together, they journeyed north, east, south, and west—from little Jilin Province to the bustling city of Beijing, from south of the Yangtze River to above the Yellow River—and beyond.
Zhenyi watched the sun purple the sky behind majestic mountains, and observed the lines of religious seekers visiting mountainside temples. She listened to the rush of rolling rivers, and she watched washerwomen hanging clothes that flapped in the wind. She breathed in the scents of freshly harvested crops and, in cities, was surrounded by the sounds of marketplace vendors selling their wares.
Each day of her travels, Zhenyi soaked it all in. And as she did, she witnessed firsthand the problems of her country—and she became curious about them.
During the Qing Dynasty, when Zhenyi lived, China’s population had grown so fast, there wasn’t enough to go around. Poor and hungry people fought each other for land and resources. At the same time, though, the rich were getting richer—and paid the poor little attention.
Zhenyi also noticed that women were often hidden away from the outside world, laboring at home and taking care of the family. And when they weren’t—especially if they were poor—they were working in difficult jobs and had few opportunities to learn.
To Zhenyi, it just didn’t seem fair.
|A POET IS BORN
Zhenyi’s pen flew across pages and pages of paper. Images seared into her memory floated through her brain and demanded to be seen and heard.
She wanted to capture it all—each moment of her travels. And she wanted other people to see, to know, to understand.
So she wrote poetry about her travels with her father—all the places she had visited and the things and people she had seen.
During that time, writing that critiqued the emperor, could land a writer in big trouble—but Zhenyi was brave.
She wrote directly about the injustices she saw in the empire. She wrote about the plight of the poor, and she criticized the idea that men were better than women.
“I’ve traveled 10,000 miles and read 10,000 volumes,” she wrote. “Bold is my attempt to surpass men.”
She published her poems far and wide. She also exchanged them with other female scholars in the area. As she got to know them, they traded papers and verses and ideas. They learned from each other and supported each other.
|SCHOLAR, TEACHER, WRITER
The more Zhenyi learned, the more she wanted to share that knowledge with others.
By her twenties, she was tutoring her own students. She even taught men—something women almost never did at that time!
She also wrote academic texts that made learning math and science easy for beginners. For example, she rewrote her favorite math book using simple language and called it The Musts of Calculation. By 24, she devised an easier method for performing multiplication and division, and she published a five-volume book about it!
Though Zhenyi was a math whiz and a wonderful poet, it was the stars that called to her.
While Chinese scientists and philosophers had studied the skies for ages, Zhenyi did something quite interesting and new: She used her skills in mathematics to explain what was happening in the skies using equations and math problems.
She wrote papers about the rotation of the sun, moon, and planets. She used simple language and clear calculations to explain why and how gravity works—in other words, why, if the Earth is round, humans don’t fall off into space!
But her most groundbreaking work had to do with eclipses.
At that time, lots of people in China thought that what happened among the stars had to do with the whims of the gods. Specifically, they thought that things like eclipses happened when the gods became very angry.
But Zhenyi knew that science had an explanation. “Actually, it’s definitely because of the moon,” she wrote.
She decided to make a simple model in the garden to explain it. She used a round table to represent the Earth. Then, she hung up a glowing crystal lamp, which she called the sun. And then, she selected a round mirror to act as the moon.
In the garden, she moved the mirror in circles around the table—just as the moon orbits the Earth. She showed that when the sun, moon, and Earth all align, the moon blocks the world’s view of the sun—creating a solar eclipse! Then, she showed how, during a lunar eclipse, the Earth blocks the sun’s light—casting a dark shadow across the moon’s surface.
Zhenyi wrote and published a paper about her experiment, providing a simple model using everyday materials that helped people better understand astronomy, unlike anything before…
|END OF LIFE
Zhenyi got married at age 25, and she continued to work as a scholar, poet, and teacher.
No one knows for sure how Zhenyi died, but it seems she became ill in her late 20s. Because she wanted to keep sharing her knowledge with people, Zhenyi made sure all her poems and papers would be safe if something happened to her. So she gave them to her best friend Madame Kuai before she passed away.
After Zhenyi’s death at age 29, Madame Kuai [qua-ai] gave Zhenyi’s papers to her nephew Qian Yiji [Chee-en Yee-jee], who was a famous scholar at that time.
As he read through Zhenyi’s works, he was amazed. He published many of them after her death, calling Zhenyi one of the top female scholars that China had ever seen!
Wang Zhenyi wrote and published 12 books, many academic papers, and hundreds of poems and verses.
While many of Zhenyi’s writings have been lost to the passage of time, her contributions to science and literature continue to be recognized today. And in 1994, she even had a crater on Venus named after her!
Wang Zhenyi saw limitless potential, and she believed that everyone should be able to study any subject they want—no matter their gender or whether they are rich or poor.
As she famously wrote in one of her poems, “It’s made to believe, women are the same as men; are you not convinced, daughters can also be heroic?”
So when you look up to the night sky, let the moon shine its silvery light upon you. Let yourself be filled with wonder. And as you try to count the stars, remember astronomer and poet Wang Zhenyi.
And remember that you, too, can be smart, brave, and heroic—just like her.