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Wet blanket on China’s outdoor party

world Updated: Jul 22, 2009 23:57 IST
Reshma Patil

When the Chinese want to attend the outdoor party-of-a-century, the Communist Party does the planning.

Millions of Chinese and thousands of foreign tourists and scientists — some booked hotel rooms last year — watched the century’s longest solar eclipse from streets, football fields and the banks of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.

Days before the event, orders for eclipse safety were issued from no less than the General Office of the State Council or China's Cabinet. Traffic officials and police were put on red alert and scientists were urged to help dispel public superstitions. The Chinese media reported that leaflets were handed out in southeast Jiangxi province, telling drivers to look at the road and not the sky.

In Beijing, it was not the partial eclipse but the thick smog that darkened the entire day. Rain, smog and a cloud cover spoilt the view-of-a-lifetime in several other parts of China as the eclipse swept from cloudy Tibet to rainy Shanghai.

In west and central China, the cities of Chongqing and Wuhan had the best views and switched off streetlights while the total eclipse blacked out the sun for four minutes. Shanghai switched off landscape lights while more police patrolled the roads and in boats off the coast.

In northwest Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, just recovering from China’s worst ethnic riots in decades, residents had a reason to step out of their homes.

“I didn’t expect such a big crowd to watch the eclipse, since there haven’t been public gatherings since the July 5 unrest,” said high-school student Yang Jing to Xinhua.

State media reported that Chinese scientists set up 17 stations along the path of the eclipse to capture a 40-minute sequence of images of the sun’s corona (outer atmosphere). There were foreign scientists too, among them a professor and 30 students from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore, who headed to eastern Jiangsu.

Centuries ago, the Chinese believed an eclipse occurred when a celestial dog ate the sun, and imperial astronomers who couldn’t predict the omen faced execution. Some fears still

prevail. State media reported that residents of southwest Wenchuan county — ravaged by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake last May — rang China National Radio asking if the eclipse would cause an earthquake.