Unidentified Flying Object Seen Over Yangzhou
...in the middle of the 11th century. Sorry.
Objects! Objects in the sky! Car- or three-bus-sized objects of unclear but presumably sinister import! Possibly alien, but definitely objects!
Considering the amount of ink spilled and bits flipped over the last few days, I’m a little surprised not to see anyone mentioning the Song-dynasty polymath Shen Kuo’s 沈括1 well-known account of a mysterious light that appeared outside the city of Yangzhou 揚州 during the reign of Emperor Renzong. The account comes from juan 21 (“Strange Occurrences” 異事) of Conversations with my Brush at Dream Brook 夢溪筆談, a collection of notes, observations, and recollections about astronomy (Shen reformed the lunisolar calendar, suggested a purely solar one that was promptly not adopted, and came up with improved designs for the armillary sphere and the clepsydra), geology (he came up with theories of geomorphology and climate change, respectively, after seeing marine fossils in the Taihang Mountains and fossilized bamboo in Yan’an), printing (he gave the world’s first description of movable type, invented by Bi Sheng 畢昇), and everything else Shen was interested in, which was everything. In a less parochial world, you would have learned about him in grade school.
During the Jiayou reign period (1056-1063), a pearl of immense size began appearing in Yangzhou at night. For more than a decade,2 locals and travelers regularly saw it: at first the pearl would emerge from the marshes of Tianchang County, then Lake Pishe, and finally the middle of Lake Xinkai. A friend who had his study by the lake caught sight of the pearl up close one night. It opened slightly, and a golden ray of light shot out from the crack. A moment later it opened wider, its shell spreading to half the size of a seating-mat, and there was a silvery-white light inside. The pearl was the size of a fist, and too dazzling to look at directly. For three miles in every direction the trees cast shadows as if the sun were beginning to rise, and the distant edges of the sky turned wildfire red. Suddenly the pearl flew swiftly away and floated amid the waves, shining like the sun.
Ancient texts describe pearls that could shine like the moon, but this pearl was quite unlike the moon in color; with its flickering flames, it was more like the sun. Cui Boyi, a native of Gaoyou who often saw it, composed a “Rhapsody on the Shining Pearl.” It has not reappeared in recent years, and nobody knows where it went. Travelers passing Fanliangzhen, which lay directly in the path the pearl took, often tie up their boats and spend a few nights in hopes that it will reappear. The pavilion there is called “The Playful Pearl.”
Or Shen Gua, if you prefer — the late Nathan Sivin did, and I’m not about to argue with him about Shen or anything else. (That biography uses the Wade-Giles romanization system; “Shen Kua” would be “Shen Gua” in Hanyu Pinyin.) Most of what you’ll find about Shen reads his personal name 括 as kuò, and neither pronunciation strikes me as meaningfully correct considering that Shen lived a millennium too early to speak Modern Standard Mandarin — but whatever Sivin’s reasons were, they were almost certainly right.
There seems to be some variation: it looks as if most of the digital texts online, including the versions at CText and Wikisource, have 十餘處 (“in more than ten places”) here. I’m not sure what edition they’re using as a base text, but I’m following both the Zhonghua shuju edition of the text and the version in my scan of Mao Jin’s 津逮秘書 Jindai mishu, both of which have 十餘年, “for more than ten years,” which also makes more sense.