(The accompanying photo was uploaded to Flickr today by lambeertje2, at the moment when the eclipse was briefly visible over Chengdu.)


Chengdu’s sky this morning, the day of the solar eclipse, was overcast – nothing unusual, but still there were small groups of people on street corners, and in some places larger crowds, hoping to catch a brief glimpse of the once-in-a-lifetime event. Chengdu was lucky enough to lie within a narrow band over about half the earth that was directly in the moon’s “umbra,” or the point of total eclipse directly in line with the moon and sun.

It had rained earlier, and the gray-blue cloud clover intensified the oppressive humidity. Xiao Gou Gou and I went outisde at about 8:50 AM, and found a couple of hundred people in the street by the Shahe River bridge close to campus, talking in low voices, their eyes and cell phone cameras trained upwards. Some held pieces of dark-colored plastic or smoked glass, even though there was a slim chance of actually seeing anything. A lighter patch of sky where the clouds thinned in front of the sun, however, offered a hint that we might in some way share in this sublime event.

By about 9:05, as the light began to dim, people’s voices rose, cameras began clicking, and excitement spread. I stood open-mouthed as total night descended, pitch-black and ominous. Car headlights shone on streets, and lights went on in buildings. A little newsstand glowed from inside. The darkness was brief – from about 9:11 to 9:15 AM, then slowly the earth grew lighter again. People began to disperse.

Just before reaching my apartment, the clouds parted enough to show a sliver of sun peeking over a dark disk. For maybe 30 seconds I could see the actual eclipse through the haze, as the obscuring moon drifted slowly in its path from upper left to lower right across the sun. The clouds shifted again and the eclipse remained only as an unforgettable after-image in my mind. Shortly after, the rain began again.

According to the latest “Chengdu Grooves” magazine, “the last Solar eclipse visible here took place on May 10, 1575 during the Ming Dynasty, and it won’t happen again until June 9, 2309.” The astronomical event of a lifetime is now history.

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