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Ancient people had their own ways of measuring time – by the position of the sun. Sundials of various models were developed by different peoples on the globe. They are not an exclusively Chinese invention. The earliest sundials as have been evidenced by archaeological record are those from ancient Egyptian astronomy and Babylonian astronomy, dated at around 3500 BC and 1500 BC respectively, while the earliest sundial of China is believed to have been invented in 574 AD and is known as rigui 日晷.
Sundial, equatorial model
Sundial, horizontal model
Sundial, vertical model
Sundial, at Singapore Botanical Garden
Whatever model and design a sundial takes, the underlying principle is the same. As the sun appears to move across the sky in a day, from east to west, so does the shadow it casts from a given fixed style (often a thin rod or a sharp straight edge). The correct time can be told by the position of the shadow as against a properly-aligned flat dial plate.
In China, the tourist have easy access to Chinese rigui sundials at two destinations at least: the Ancient Observatory (Beijing), and in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City. The rigui placed at the imperial court symbolizes that the Emperor, who was popularly held as the “son of Heaven”, was the source of the standards of time.
Rigui / Sundial in front of the Hall of Supreme, Forbidden City, Beijing
Rigui / Sundial, at Ancient Central Observatory, Beijing