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Monday, 18th January 2010

Zi-ka-wei (Xujiahui) Observatory

Xujiahui, as many of you know, is a busy commercial district in downtown Shanghai and is readily reached by underground. It features a cathedral which was originally built by the Jesuits in 1847, severely damaged probably during the 'Small Swords Society' and 'Taiping' upheavals in the 1850 and 1860s, and later reconstructed in 1906. It is still referred to in English as the St. Ignatius Cathedral.

Figure 1   St. Ignatius Cathedral
Figure 1   St. Ignatius Cathedral
(Image source: Wikipedia)

Part of the Xujiahui site was donated by Xu Guangxi's family. Xu Guangxi (1562-1633, Ming Dynasty) was probably China's most notable Catholic convert. He assisted the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) in the translation for the first time of the Confucian classics into Latin. Ricci's death 400 years ago is being commemorated in Europe this year.

Figure 2   Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangxi
Figure 2   Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangxi
(Image source: Wikipedia)

Not very well known is the fact that in the 19th century the French Jesuits also built an observatory there (as well as orphanages, monasteries, schools and libraries). The Zi-ka-wei Observatory was set up in 1872 to carry out meteorological observations of the South China Sea. In its earlier years, it made astronomical and meteorological observations, as well as geomagnetic measurements, and operated a time service. It was an important base for Europeans to obtain meteorological information during the late 19th century. A recent paper on the Weather magazine made reference to instrumental and observation accounts of typhoons it collected for the years 1880, 1881 and 1882.

The functions of the Zi-ka-wei Observatory closely resembled those of the Hong Kong Observatory (HKO) established in 1883 by the Hong Kong government to meet the needs of the time and focussing on time service and meteorological observations. For this reason, Professor Ho Pui-yin, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, considered it most likely that HKO's Chinese name, tianventai (astronomical observatory), and not qixiangtai (meteorological institute), was adopted from its Shanghai counterpart.

From the late 19th century to before the World War II, staff at the Zi-ka-wei Observatory studied and analyzed the meteorological records and observations taken at the customs stations and lighthouses set up along the coast and rivers of China. In respect of typhoon warnings, flag signals were used since the late 19th century. Since these flag signals could not be easily identified from a distance, geometric symbols were subsequently devised to replace them. The warning system, known as the China Coast Code, was adopted by HKO in 1903. Then in 1917, the staff at Zi-ka-wei Observatory replaced the Code with a new warning system, known as the China Seas Storm Signal Code, which was later adopted in 1920 by HKO (granted the title Royal Observatory in 1912, which was used until Hong Kong's return to China in 1997).

Connecting the Zi-ka-wei Observatory and HKO during most of the early part of the 20th century was a colourful character, Father Ernesto Gherzi (1886-1973), Director of the Zi-ka-wei Observatory from 1930 to 1949. He operated an efficient typhoon warning service from Shanghai and was instrumental in starting a short-wave broadcast service in 1927 providing 6-hourly observations from seven stations in Yangtze and north China.

            "Fr Gherzi was very practical and belonged to the fast disappearing breed of meteorologists who are adept in all divisions of the profession. He would make an observation, broadcast it in impeccable Morse code, then receive weather reports in Morse from other stations while simultaneously decoding and plotting them on a weather chart and issue weather forecasts and warnings. If necessary, he would repair or adjust the radio receiver or transmitter. He maintained a close liaison with mariners and aviators and frequently visited masters on their ships to collect their weather logs and discuss their experiences. ... He was thus observer, plotter, radio operator, radio technician, communications specialist, forecaster, port meteorological officer, climatologist, research meteorologist and undisputable PRO [public relations officer] in the [Zi-ka-wei] Observatory. ... By personally receiving the Morse signals from ships and other countries Fr Gherzi helped to maintain good communication standards in the region; he would send terse, admonitory notes to wireless operators or meteorological services who did not follow good practices or keep to schedules. ..."

Figure 3   Fr Gherzi together with a seaman on board a ship
Figure 3   Fr Gherzi together with a seaman on board a ship
(photo courtesy of Weather, Vol. 29, No. 5, May 1974)

Zi-ka-wei Observatory was represented at the very first regional meeting of directors of weather services which was held in Hong Kong in 1930 to decide on codes for signaling tropical cyclones and transmitting weather reports. In 1934 Fr Gherzi traveled with C.W. Jeffries, Director of HKO at the time, to Manila to decide with the Manila meteorological authority on standardized storm warning procedures. With the liberation of China in 1949, he was offered a position at HKO for a few months before moving to Macau, where he finished a two-volume work on the 'Meteorology of China', a good record of the climatology of the Far East and of the experiences of himself and others in typhoons.

Born in San Remo, Italy, in 1886, Fr Gherzi "was a thin tall man with a slender high-browed head, and a narrow black beard. He wore a long black robe under which appeared two enormous black boots. He was impatient, impetuous and clever." His 'enormous black boots' were sometimes the butt for humour as one of his more youthful and disrespectful colleagues spoke of the 'longest feet in Asia protruding from beneath a long black cassock'.


1. Annual reports of the Director, HKO
2. Bell G.J., 'Father Ernesto Gherzi, S.J., 1886-1973, An Appreciation', Weather, May 1974.
3. Grossman M. and Zaiki M., 'Reconstructing typhoons in Japan in the 1880s from documentary records', Weather, December 2009.
4. Professor Ho Pui-yin, Weathering the Storm, Hong Kong Observatory and Social Development, Hong Kong University Press, 2003
5. Wai Mickey M., 'The Early Tropical Cyclone Warning Systems in Hong Kong, 1841-1899', HKMetS Bulletin Vol. 14, Nos. 1/2, 2004.
6. Wikipedia

B.Y. Lee

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>