Is There a Dream of Chinese Spaceflight?
published during a waning gibbous moon.

So there’s a curious thing about space-faring nations. In addition to the technological advancement, military strength, and economic prosperity needed to achieve human spaceflight, they have thus far all undergone a similar cultural transformation.

First, the general populace becomes fired up by the (admittedly rather exciting) prospect of sending people into space. And from this passion emerges a semi-mythical narrative; a framework to explain why exactly they want to place their citizens atop giant firecrackers and aim for the stars.

The first time this happened was in early Communist Russia, during the 1920s and 30s, when the post-revolutionary society became convinced that it would soon be delivering people to other planets. During this space craze, the Soviets tapped into a mystical homegrown philosophy known as Cosmism that predicted humanity would assert scientific control over irrational nature and achieve the perfection of society among the heavens. In the 1950s and 60s, the space bug hit the U.S., influencing everything from fashion to car design. Americans explained their fervor by invoking the mythical ideals of the frontier and Manifest Destiny—that as we conquer and tame distant lands we are transformed and reborn as something better.

Chinese Spaceflight

This painting by John Gast depicts the idea of “Manifest Destiny.” Credit: Jared Farmer

In the modern world, a third major space power has emerged. China sent its first taikonaut into space in 2003 and has been steadily improving its capabilities ever since. This November, they launched Long March 5, a heavy-lift vehicle that rivals the world’s most powerful currently-active rockets. Long March 5 will allow China to build a multi-module space station, send a sample-return mission to the lunar surface, and attempt the country’s first independent interplanetary probe to Mars in 2020. Many commentators believe China will eventually develop the ability to place people on the moon and, maybe one day, Mars.

Now, cultural development is not orbital mechanics—its outcome can not be perfectly predicted given a set of initial conditions. But an estimated 100,000 Chinese spectators flooded into the island province of Hainan to see Long March 5’s maiden voyage. During the last decade or so, Chinese science-fiction has matured in its home country, suggesting that the population is enthusiastic about advanced technology and spaceflight. Even the space-crazed website you’re currently reading was created by a Chinese company. So the question one might wonder is: have the Chinese followed in the footsteps of the earlier space powers and created an explanatory narrative for their spaceflight dreams? And if so, what is it?

Chinese Spaceflight

Long March Rocket at Launchpad, October 28, 2016. Credit: China National Space Administration

But before we go into that, we need to explore the historical parallels a little more. In 1923, the Russian newspaper Izvestia published an article titled “Is Utopia Really Possible?” describing the pioneering rocketry efforts of the German Hermann Oberth and American Robert Goddard. Spurred by the ideas, Moscow University students formed the world’s first space advocacy organization. Many citizens became convinced that launches to the moon were just around the corner. Over the next decade, Russian media published nearly 250 articles and more than 30 nonfiction books about spaceflight. (In contrast, only two similar works appeared in the U.S. over this period.) The immensely popular 1924 silent film Aelita: Zakat Marsa (Aelita: Sunset of Mars) saw a Russian engineer traveling to the Red Planet and inciting a proletariat revolution.

Many of the space advocates placed heavy importance on the wonders achieved by science and technology during their time, arguing that humanity might soon conquer death itself. They believed that they would bring about the next stage of human civilization as an ideal paradise on other worlds. As space historian Asif Siddiqi describes in his book The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight in the Soviet Imagination, these justifications had a uniquely Russian character. The advocates swore fealty to both communism, which at its roots is a utopian project, and also drew from a set of indigenous Russian mystical beliefs.

In the 19th-century, a thinker named Nikolai Fyodorov developed a strange philosophy known as Cosmism. As a Russian Orthodox Christian, Fyodorov believed in the ultimate importance of Christ’s promise to resurrect the virtuous at the End of Days. Witnessing the accelerating advances of science, Fyodorov figured that we might as well just bypass Christ and do the whole resurrection thing ourselves. He argued that our greatest task was to travel out into the universe and collect the atomic particles of our dead ancestors, which had floated away from Earth following each person’s disillusion. By reassembling these bits, we could bring our forefathers back to life and then settle with them in perfect harmony out among the stars.

Fyodorov influenced the Russian mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who first derived the rocket equation that bears his name. Tsiolkovsky, too, had a strange messianic philosophy combining occultism and evolution, arguing that human immortality and perfect awaited us in the universe. By the time of the Space Race, his kookier ideas had been forgotten, but the Soviets saw their early dominance as inevitable because of their culture’s long history of dreaming about spaceflight. “When Sputnik finally reached the heavens, it encapsulated not only mathematics and reason but also utopia and yearning, and most important, hope for a new era that would forever separate those who came before from those who came after,” writes Siddiqi.

Which brings us to the U.S. Following Sputnik’s launch, the American populace was frozen from the fear of Russian supremacy in orbit. Schools placed heavy emphasis on engineering and mathematics and, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous Moon Speech at Rice University. Science fiction, which had previously been seen as an immature literary form, blossomed, with the careers of such luminaries as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke taking off during this period. It was considered obvious that humans would have orbiting laboratories, lunar hotels, and trips to Mars in the not-too-distant future.

In the U.S. version of the story, they were seeking the stars because that was what they’d always done. Americans were pioneers who had gone off and conquered the wilderness, making it fit for human habitation. In this, they were echoing the arguments of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, and his 1893 article The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Turner’s mythical frontier was the defining point of American character, where rugged individuals could thrive and flourish because of their own power. Combined with the ideal of Manifest Destiny, this narrative stated that expansion was good for the soul; by bringing the light of civilization to uninhabitable places, people became more righteous, democratic, and free.

Of course, the Western frontier was over and done with. Which is why Americans were seeking to conquer space, the final frontier. Spaceflight would not only allow the U.S. to regain the high ground over the Soviets, it was a necessary and inevitable part of the national spirit. By going to other worlds, Americans could reclaim what they had lost when pioneers and their wagons finally hit the Pacific. In his book Space and the American Imagination, political scientist Howard McCurdy emphasized these overlaps between myth and reality as one of the main drivers behind the Apollo program.

Before delving into China, it’s useful to step back a moment and recognize that cultural factors alone don’t determine a nation’s spaceflight development. Jules Verne’s 1865 From the Earth to the Moon was popular in France, yet it didn’t spur the French to create advanced space technology. And an interesting counterpart to the above examples comes from Weimar Germany, which had a similar and independent spaceflight fad at the same time as the 1920s Soviets. While the Germans saw themselves as inheritors of Enlightenment ideals and developed the V-2 rocket, they never get quite as far as the Russians and Americans in their space ambitions (though that might have something to do with losing World War II.) Clearly, a confluence of events—including cultural, scientific, historical, and economic conditions—is required to support rocketry.

Nevertheless, while everyone recognizes China’s successful space program, cultural analysts have so far neglected the country’s space stories. Pointing out this state of affairs in his 2008 article The Great Leap Upward: China’s Human Spaceflight Program And Chinese National Identity, historian James R. Hansen writes, “Given the fertility of such studies for our understanding of the history of spaceflight within the national cultures of the Soviet Union, Germany, and America, one must ask, how would a similar analysis of Chinese culture inform our understanding of the meaning of space exploration to the Chinese?”

Chinese Spaceflight

The dream of China in space. Credit: Adam Rice

To begin with, one might consider the fact that the rocket was invented in China during the 13th-century Song Dynasty, originally relying on gunpowder, another Chinese invention. A (likely apocryphal) Chinese attempt at the first manned space vehicle comes from the tale of the 16th-century Wan Hu, who sat in a bamboo chair while his assistants lit 47 fireworks beneath him. The chair is said to have lifted a short way off the ground and exploded, killing its inventor in the process. Though possibly an invention of Western scholars, this story has been enthusiastically embraced in contemporary Chinese media, and a statue of Wan Hu can be found at the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan.

While the country did not participate much in the Space Race, China established a space program during the mid-20th century and launched its first satellite in 1970, becoming only the fifth nation to do so. Yet internal upheavals from Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution meant that Chinese spaceflight would remain underdeveloped compared to the U.S. and Russia for many decades. It wasn’t until economic reforms and greater prosperity that the nation rapidly advanced its spaceflight capabilities. In 2003, it became the third country to achieve independent human spaceflight, launching Yang Liwei in the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft.

Chinese Spaceflight

A Spacesuit worn on the Shenzhou 5, Chinese space mission. Credit: Max Smith

The Chinese have been enthusiastic about spaceflight for a while now. When former astronaut Shannon Lucid attended a sci-fi conference in China in 1997, she felt that “this is what it must have been like in Germany in the 1920s when so many of their people got caught up in science fiction and an enthusiasm for rockets and space, or in the United States and the Soviet Union back in the 1950s.” Following a subsequent 2006 trip, Lucid stated that space exploration had “developed into ‘the foremost symbol’ of what the Chinese wish for their society to become.”

Rather than a Cold War background, China’s rise in space is happening during a time when the nation is growing in economic strength and international prestige. The Communist Party leadership has used its spaceflight development to “invoke the idea that China—which has always been scientifically advanced in its version of its own history—is reassuming that role alongside the other major powers,” says Dean Cheng, who studies Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation. “They want to show that China under its rule is able to keep up and generate scientific innovation and advances.”

Countries often use their space programs to project a particular set of ideals to the world. The Soviet’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, was lauded in the Russian press as a hard-working exemplar of scientific socialism. Similarly, the late John Glenn was portrayed as the perfect embodiment of rugged Christian individuality in the American media. In a piece for Air and Space Magazine, Hansen provides some clues to China’s attitudes by discussing how Yang was lionized for his self-control and diligence, with newspaper articles describing him as “looking healthy and respectful and speaking in appropriate terms.” His communication with his eight-year-old son during his spaceflight received a great deal of attention, which Hansen ties to the fundamental relationship between father and son in the country’s Confucian background.

Yet none of this quite gets at the mythic component—if any—of China’s space-based ambitions. Independent Chinese space analyst Chen Lan, who created the website Go Taikonauts!, offers the fact that many Chinese missions are named after characters in the country’s mythology, such as the space weather satellite project Kuafu, named for a giant who wished to capture the sun, or the lunar rover Chang’e, named after the Chinese goddess of the moon. Further insight, he suggests, might come from Liu Cixin’s science-fiction book The Three Body-Problem, which last year became the first Asian novel to win the prestigious Hugo Award.

Chinese Spaceflight

Ren Shuai Ying’s “Chang’e Flying to the Moon.”

Minor spoiler alerts, but The Three Body-Problem involves an alien invasion of Earth. Rather than in a typical Western narrative, where humanity bands together to fight our invaders, like in the blockbuster movie Independence Day, Liu’s story sees different human groups squabbling and back-stabbing one another. Cheng posits that the inspiration for this might have come from Liu growing up during the mid-century civil unrest and other chaotic events in recent Chinese history. But there is another component to The Three-Body Problem that might get at the deeper differences between China’s spaceflight dreams and the earlier Soviet and American ones. As the book goes along, readers come to understand that the alien’s homeworld is one that goes through continuous cycles of destruction and renewal, something with antecedents in Chinese thought.

One of the enduring myths in the West is the myth of progress; the idea that tomorrow will always be better than today which is, in turn, better than yesterday. Both the American and Russian spaceflight narratives draw from this ideal, believing that we can better ourselves with a future among the stars. Chinese Taoist philosophy, in contrast, tends to take a more cyclic view of time. Dynasties arise and gain the “Mandate of Heaven”—the justification for ruling—but then become corrupt and fall, and the cycle repeats itself. The current reordering of the world, with China’s rise as both a global and space-based superpower, is seen as part of this regular ebb and flow.

Neither the linear nor cyclical model of time perfectly represents reality. Both are idealizations, organizing principles, or myths that humans tell to explain the world. Perhaps the cyclical view has imprinted itself in some way on China’s spaceflight dreams, though exactly what that would mean is unclear. Might the Chinese explain their advancements and explorations as part of the sage and wise rule under the “Mandate of Heaven”? Or could they have greater acceptance of the fact that expansion does not last forever; that all things which begin must also have an ending?

Scholarly analysis of China’s spaceflight culture remains underdeveloped, at least in the West. Though we can see some ideas that might be incorporated into the country’s dream of spaceflight, the full picture remains unsatisfactorily vague. Perhaps this has all been a goose chase, and there is no unique Chinese narrative to explain their spaceflight ambitions. But if that is the case, it would be interesting to know why. And should a Chinese spaceflight myth exist, it seems likely to share some characteristics with the earlier American and Russian myths yet be distinctly different. If nothing else, it might help illuminate another side of the human condition and the dreams we hope to achieve.