When civilizations collide over the stars, there is nothing left to do but declare battle…to the death!

Who knew that astronomy could be so dangerous?

In the winter of 1668 to 1669, four European priests sat in a cold, prison cell in the imperial capital in Peking. The eldest, a German called Johann Adam Schall von Bell (汤若望), was unwell, having suffered a stroke after being sentenced to execution by slow slicing. His Flemish protégé, Ferdinand Verbiest (南怀仁), attended to the stricken Schall, while their two companions, Italian Jesuit Ludovico Buglio and Portuguese priest Gabriel de Magalhães, consoled themselves by writing letters they hoped would exonerate them and their Chinese colleagues, and spare them a gruesome fate.

This is subscriber exclusive content

Become a subscriber to continue reading

Astronomy Domine is a story from our issue, “Fast Forward.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Jeremiah Jenne

Jeremiah Jenne is a writer and historian based in Beijing since 2002. He earned his PhD from the University of California, Davis, and has taught Late Imperial and Modern Chinese History for over 15 years. His essays and articles on China have appeared in The Economist, the South China Morning Post, The Journal of Asian Studies, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The World of Chinese. His writings can also be found in China in “2008: A Year of Great Significance,” “The Insider’s Guide to Beijing,” and the 2015 collection “While We’re Here: China Stories from a Writer’s Colony.” Jeremiah frequent speaks and leads workshops on history, culture, and cultural adaptation for students, embassies, companies, and community groups. Along with David Moser, Jeremiah also hosts the podcast Barbarians at the Gate.

Related Articles