Ye Shuhua: China's Pioneering Woman Astronomer

August 17, 2012
Editor: Zhao Liangfeng

Every day, we wake up to the buzzing of an alarm clock, put on our clothes and go to work or school on time. Needless to say, time is something we cannot live without. In some fields, such as ground mapping, a small time error could lead to a major problem.

Ye Shuhua is the initiator of China's universal time program and Very Long Baseline Interferometry program. []

Ye Shuhua is the initiator of China's universal time program and Very Long Baseline Interferometry program. []

No one knows this better than Ye Shuhua, an expert in universal time (a mean time scale based on the rotation of the Earth) and initiator of China's universal time program.

Hailing from Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province, Ye was born in 1927 and her family moved to Hong Kong when she was 9 years old. As a child, she counted reading among her top hobbies, and while helping her mother with accounting and writing letters, also had to take care of her three younger brothers.

"As I read a lot of novels and stories back then, I would hold a small story-telling party every night to entertain my brothers and the other neighborhood children," said Ye.

After graduating from high school, she wanted to study ancient Chinese literature at university but was opposed by her father, who thought she should study medicine.

"But I couldn't study medicine because I'm afraid of blood," said Ye. "I compromised with my father by choosing astronomy."

This decision was to change the entire course of her life in two ways: one was that she became one of the few female students in China's then male-dominated field of astronomy, and the other was that she met another astronomer Cheng Jitai, who she eventually married.

In 1951, she returned to mainland China and was assigned to work on universal time and earth rotation at Xujiahui Observatory in Shanghai.

As China was at the time just emerging from a civil war, life and working conditions were hard and simple. "There weren't even any tables in the office. And there was also no dining hall. We had to use old oil barrels as our dining tables," said Ye. "My husband warned me that life would be hard, but I could take it."

Undeterred by the poor working conditions, Ye and her colleagues made progress in their research. However, their research results still fell short of the requirements for aviation, navigation and ground mapping, causing some friction with other co-workers.

At a meeting, one of these co-workers who worked on ground-mapping, Han Tianqi, was frustrated and angry about their work, complaining, "Referring to your universal time has made a mess of my own work!"

"I was so angry at him. How could he say that after we had worked so hard on it?" recalled Ye. "At that moment, I became determined to get it right."

Han's remark made such an impression on Ye that she still remembers that meeting clearly.

In 1957, under orders from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Ye was assigned to lead the work on a mean universal time system.

"In navigation, you have to determine your position by observing the stars. By finding out the relationship between the positions of the stars and the rotation of the earth, you can determine universal time," Ye said. "It was our job to observe the stars."

While watching the stars may sound romantic, Ye says that, "It was quite boring and there was no room for error in recording. But it was my job and I was passionate about it."

After two years of hard work in cooperation with six observatories in China, the Joint Chinese Universal Time System was developed. In 1965, the system was designated the national standard.

Unfortunately, Ye was prosecuted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and was not released from captivity until 1972. As soon as she was set free, she went directly to the library to read foreign science magazines and catch up on the latest developments in her field.

She was surprised to find that her foreign counterparts were already developing Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), which is a type of astronomical interferometry used in radio astronomy, allowing observations of an object that are made simultaneously by many telescopes to be combined, emulating a telescope with a size equal to the maximum separation between the telescopes.

"Their size and appearance was totally different from the equipment we were using," said Ye. "The diameter of a radio astronomical telescope was dozens of meters. And I was amazed to learn that laser beams could travel several thousand kilometers to the moon."

So she went to Beijing to discuss this with the government department in charge of her observatory. She pleaded passionately with an official, but was told repeatedly that it was impossible for the government to invest in the program.

Ye did not know what to do next, so she just sat there in the department room for 15 minutes. "The official there asked me, 'Why are you still here?'" recalled Ye. "I said, 'If you do not agree, I will not leave.'"

Her persistence eventually won her a research grant and in a later news report, her 15-minute sit-in was described as 'the most embarrassing 15 minutes ever'. "I never thought about whether it was embarrassing or not," said Ye. "It took us years to catch up with the international standards in this field, and I could not allow us to be left behind again."

In the 1990s, following Ye's suggestion, China's VLBI technology was used to calculate the orbit around the moon for lunar probes. In 2007, China's first lunar probe 'Chang'e-1' was successfully launched with the help of the VLBI system.

In the middle of the 1980s, China's Ministry of Science and Technology chose to fund 10 major scientific and research programs, including Ye's 'Investigation on Recent Crustal Motion and Geodynamics' program (IRCMG).

Her program is a basic research project in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the State Bureau of Seismology, National Bureau of Surveying and Mapping and the Military Bureau of Surveying and Mapping. She is the chief scientist for the project. Her job is not easy, as she has to coordinate the workflow between all the scientists, as well as do her own research.

In 1994, she initiated an international project as an extension of the IRCMG, titled 'Asia-Pacific Space Geodynamics', which was endorsed by the International Association of Geodesy. Many institutes in the Asia-Pacific region participated in this project. That same year, the asteroid QSO No.3241 was named after her.

Currently, Ye is 85 years old and still active in her beloved field of astronomy. Every day, she goes to her office at the Shanghai Observatory to work on the latest radio telescope program, which will be used in China's lunar and Mars probe programs.

(Source: and edited by

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