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About the Magic of Names on the Way into Space

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

For five weeks until the end of February, China’s space agency (CNSA) let the public vote on a suitable name for its Mars rover. The vehicle is still waiting to be deployed aboard the lander of China’s Tianwen (天问 question the sky) Mars mission and is scheduled to fly to Mars in mid-May.

The rover will be called Zhu Rong, after the ancient Chinese god of fire. In the book “Chinese Religion,” published in Shanghai in 1936, the saint is described as a hybrid being, with the body of an animal, a red face, beard, and clothes. One of his three eyes sits on his forehead. He rides a dragon. Heaven sent him forth for punitive action. In his epic battle against the god of water, the pillar supporting the universe was destroyed. The world plunged with him into the ensuing chaos.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post interprets the choice of Zhu Rong as the patron saint of China’s future Mars rover as an allusion to the escalating “tensions” between the People’s Republic and the US that now extend into space. According to Xinhua, CNSA space agency Vice Chief Wu Yuanhua disagreed, saying the two characters in the Fire God’s name pointed to his real nature. “Zhu” stands for “congratulations” and “Rong” for “blending in harmoniously,” he said, adding that this also applies to China’s spaceflight. It pursues the “vision of using space peacefully and building a community for the common future of mankind.”

With its first Mars rover and the launch of its core module ship Tianhe (天和) “Heavenly Harmony”, Beijing has aroused patriotic pride among its people. Tianhe will be the basic building block for China’s first space station assembled from three modules, called Tiangong (Heavenly Palace). It is expected to be ready for occupancy by 2022. After the end of the Russian Mir space station (1986 to March 2001) and the expected 2024 demolition of the International Space Station (ISS), which has been used by 16 nations for two decades, the hour has come for the People’s Republic. It will then be the only nation to maintain an outpost in space. No other project better underscores China’s ambition to become a world and space power than the accelerated expansion of its celestial temple.

Chinese Space Travel still lags behind

Yet the People’s Republic lags half a century behind the US in terms of technology. Its space station is just big enough to accommodate three space travelers. When Beijing was still in the process of putting its Tianhe core module into space at the end of April, the ISS reported a record occupancy of eleven astronauts working on board at the same time.

While China’s Mars rover must wait for its landing, the new US rover, which has been operating for weeks, sent a mini-helicopter flying over Mars in a technical premier. Five US rovers that the US used to set down on the red planet are still operating there today. Their names, however, are widely unknown: Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit, Curiosity, and Perseverance. Worldwide interest in NASA was greater when its space missions were baptized with the names of gods from Greek and Roman mythology: Mercury, Apollo, Ares or Artemis.

From the beginning, the Socialist People’s Republic and its Communist Party relied on the magic of its ancient Chinese saints and myths to conquer the heavenly sphere. In the earthy realm, they were long denounced as superstition. Beijing has rehabilitated them all as part of the national culture and a source of patriotism.

In 2003, 18 years ago, China’s taikonaut Yang Liwei circumnavigated the globe for one day in the first manned space mission. His capsule was named “Shenzhou” (Celestial Ship), and from then on Beijing turned to gods, legendary animal beings, and the Confucian Code. The party newspaper Global Times calls it: “China’s romanticism in naming space missions.”

The West’s only focus is on the technological progress of the People’s Republic. It thus misses out on where Chinese soft power really works, in the formation of Chinese space culture. Beijing has thus overstepped its national boundaries, recognizes Ph.D. student Molly Silk, who is researching China’s space policy at the University of Manchester.

For decades, NASA monopolized everything that had to do with space travel. Its name and logo became synonymous with the exploration and marketing of space. China, with its own space culture, is challenging US supremacy and questioning how the world will perceive US space exploration and leadership in the future.

Beijing is staking more than its claim to a share of space development. It wants to set the direction. For the Global Times, the point is clear: “A great country like China is destined to conquer space and the sea. We can’t talk about China’s rise unless the country makes breakthroughs in high-end areas like aerospace.”

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