China’s achievements in the arena of outer space continue to make headlines across the globe. The nation’s most recent successes include their Chang’e lunar mission series, which saw the first landing on the far side of the moon in 2019, and returned lunar soil samples at the end of 2020. In February of this year, China’s first Mars mission, Tianwen-1, entered the orbit of the Red Planet, and in March an agreement to construct a lunar research station with Russia was officially announced. Alongside these large-scale national undertakings, China’s private space industry has grown exponentially, seeing hundreds of commercial space enterprises established over the last five years.
With all eyes on the development of China’s space technologies, one vital area that has been overlooked is the swelling wave of a unique Chinese “space culture.” While not widely known or discussed outside of China, this culture has been growing parallel to the country’s space industry. Ideologies surrounding Chinese space exploration are being steadily cultivated by state actors, and commercial products and media related to China’s space program have exploded onto the domestic market.
According to China’s main space actors, there are three key “spirits” or historical influences that make this emerging space culture quintessentially Chinese: the traditional spirit, the “two bombs one satellite” spirit, and the crewed space spirit. These spirits all relate to key historical periods in China’s development and are the foundations on which the successes of the space program have been achieved.
The traditional spirit refers to traditional Chinese civilization, the culture and values of which constitute the bedrock of contemporary China. Traditional tropes have been widely used to name national space missions, from naming the lunar crafts after the moon goddess Chang’e and her accompanying Jade Rabbit, to naming the Mars mission after a poem on Heavenly Questions by ancient poet Qu Yuan.
The “two bombs one satellite” spirit refers to the late 1960s, when China first achieved its successful atomic bomb and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, as well as the launch of its first artificial satellite. This period is considered to be the birth of the Chinese space program, and is symbolic of the hard work and perseverance of the people to achieve these feats under such tumultuous national circumstances.
The crewed spirit refers to China’s taikonaut program, particularly the launch of China’s first taikonaut in 2003, which cemented China as a member of the prestigious crewed spaceflight club alongside the United States and Russia. As cornerstones of the development of China’s contemporary space program, motifs of these periods have become manifest in space-themed products, solidifying these features as part of China’s collective space culture.
Even just a few years ago, the landscape of China’s cultural space artifacts was nowhere near as expansive as it is today. It’s now common to see Chinese brands partnering with the nation’s state-run space organizations to create a number of unique space-themed products “with Chinese characteristics.” In October 2019, leading Chinese designer brand Cabbeen staged a space-themed show during the Shanghai Fashion Week to display a clothing line inspired by China’s efforts in space. The show utilized imagery from traditional Chinese culture, particularly the legendary Moon Rabbit, to create a distinctly Chinese lunar city runway setting. According to Cabbeen, the company was the first to incorporate both traditional Chinese and contemporary space themes into their clothing designs. The fashion line and the show were created to promote Chinese space culture and to pay tribute to China’s space endeavors, specifically the feat of landing on the far side of the moon. The show was also intended to allow audience members to envisage the possibility of a future Chinese settlement on the moon.
But Cabbeen is not the only brand to have incorporated the Chinese space themed into their apparel. This year, Chinese sports company Anta teamed up with the country’s main space contractor China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) to release a line of Beidou-themed apparel, which incorporates the insignia of China’s satellite navigation system onto T-shirts, sweatshirts, and shoes. CASC has also recently collaborated with other domestic enterprises to create products affiliated with the Chinese space “brand,” from planet-themed eyeshadow pallets and Martian skin cream to jewellery and the incorporation of Chinese spacecrafts and taikonaut skins into existing games. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the launch of China’s first satellite, CASC collaborated with KFC on a promotional deal. The advertising celebrated how far the space program had come since the “two bombs one satellite” period, to become the pride of the nation.
Toys and collectable figurines have also become a common sight. Last year, China Rocket, the commercial arm of state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), released figurines to commemorate China’s annual Space Day, an event held every April 24 since 2016. According to China Rocket, their “Towards Success” series was born of a necessity to provide aerospace fans with more cultural space products. These products serve to enhance China’s space brand awareness and to provide manifestations of China’s space spirits.
This year, Chinese Lego alternative Sembo Block released a line of models of China’s Long March rockets, satellites, lunar rovers, and taikonauts, celebrating China’s age of crewed space missions. This line was released in conjunction with the China Aerospace Science and Cultural Innovation Center (CASCI), established in 2018 and a subsidiary of the state-owned spacecraft manufacturer China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Ltd (CASIC). CASCI’s aim is to propagate China’s space program to the youth through educational activities, cultural products, and even tourism, with the company announcing that a Chinese space theme park is currently in the early stages of development.
China’s space organs have frequently encouraged both adults and children to create artwork commemorating the Chinese space program. Every year, a poster competition is held to find artwork to represent Space Day. The previous two years’ winning posters were selected for their inclusion of all three Chinese space “spirits,” utilizing imagery from traditional Chinese civilization and culture, the country’s first satellite Dong Fang Hong I, and the activities of the taikonauts. During the opening ceremony of the 2019 China/U.N. Forum on Space Solutions, space-themed artwork from schoolchildren was showcased to delegates, many of which included traditional elements of Chinese culture, such as dragon-shaped rockets or lunar bases made in the style of traditional architecture.
This new wave of space activities and commercial products that sit upon patriotic themes and ideologies is becoming increasingly stronger with each passing year, solidifying the national space program as a continuation of Chinese culture and civilization. While these products remain primarily domestic, media that places China at the forefront of space exploration has begun to trickle into the international consciousness, such as the translated “The Three Body Problem” book trilogy and “The Wandering Earth” film that is available to view on Netflix. Such products help to normalize the idea of China as a key actor in space. Just as NASA has become a continuation of U.S. frontier culture and its national thirst for exploration, Chinese products that incorporate its past serve to strengthen the narrative that China’s space program is also a natural continuation of its civilization – that China also belongs in space.
It is important not to underestimate the importance of space exploration as a cultural arm of the nation. It is already evident that these distinctive space-themed phenomena instill patriotic sentiment among its citizens. Yet a further and more understated significance of China’s space culture is its potential to expand outside of national borders and attract international audiences.
For decades, NASA has maintained a monopoly on global space culture, with the space agency being almost synonymous with space exploration and its brand reaching far beyond national borders. NASA’s “meatball” insignia is one of the most recognized symbols in the world, plastered on merchandise that is purchased by people of all ages and nationalities. Combined with the United States’ role as the creator and protagonist in the world’s most popular sci fi media, this cultural hegemony shapes how the world conceptualizes space exploration, which in turn fosters both an attraction and positive reactions toward U.S. space endeavors. Being surrounded since childhood with NASA imagery, it has become the dream of thousands to work at the agency and contribute to U.S. space aims.
While still in the early stages of international proliferation, we must anticipate the potential challenges that China’s space culture may pose to the United States’ long-standing supremacy on how the world perceives space exploration and leadership in space.