China landed its Zhurong rover on Mars on May 15, making it the third country to achieve the feat. ILLUSTRATION: JORDAN AUSTIN
China landed its Zhurong rover on Mars on May 15, making it the third country to achieve the feat. ILLUSTRATION: JORDAN AUSTIN

Space

From Yangtze to Mars: The Fiery History of China’s Space Program

Why do we reach for the stars—and who owns them, anyway?
July 26, 2021, 10:58am

I stare at the face and it stares back. It’s pale and rectangular. Two dark, round eyes, set wide apart, look straight at me. Perched on top of a long, ivory-colored neck, the face appears a little startled, a little lost, or simply searching. 

I’m looking at a self portrait taken by a remote camera on Mars. The face belongs to a robotic rover that landed on the red planet in May. It’s the first successful probe from China, making my birth country the third in the world to reach another planet. A red flag with five gold stars—the Chinese national banner—adorns the left side of the rover’s body, marking its heart. 

Advertisement

The rover is called Zhurong, the Chinese god of fire and an ancestor of the Chu people. It’s the perfect pairing to the name of the mission, Tianwen—heavenly questions—the title of a long verse by the legendary Chu statesman and poet Qu Yuan from the third century BCE. At the time, the land we know as China today was ruled by not one empire but several kingdoms. Jingzhou, a city in central China and a major port by the Yangtze, was the capital of Chu for 400 years. It’s also where my father was born and raised, where my grandparents live. 

To name is to claim. An object, once given a name, is accorded a language and a geography, a map across space and time. For over three thousand years, Chinese people have reached for the heavens and recorded their movements. The sky does not discriminate, but who has the means to observe it and how the results are used are conditioned on material wealth and mediated by state power. 

As politicians and pundits drum up a new space race between the U.S. and China, and billionaires make the outer atmosphere an arena for contending wallets and egos, the sky can appear like a stranger, its luster clouded by vanity and greed. But if you listen carefully, beneath the breathless cacophony there’s a faint murmur, an old song about who we are, where we came from, and how we got here. 

I return to the photo of the Zhurong rover. Its cartoon-like innocence is pierced by the emblem of state authority it wears. I’m following reports of its progress from my residence in the U.S. My ancestral hometown is on the other side of this planet. The little robot is another 200 million miles away. I imagine a portal opening between them, where history flows like a spray of stars. 

A July 12 photo taken by China's Zhurong Mars rover, showing at a distance the parachute and backshell that helped it land safely on the red planet. Photo: AFP PHOTO / CNSA

A July 12 photo taken by China's Zhurong Mars rover, showing at a distance the parachute and backshell that helped it land safely on the red planet. Photo: AFP PHOTO / CNSA

The earliest cosmology was an origin story. At a time before time itself, heaven and earth existed in motionless harmony, supported by eight pillars on the edges of the world. Then, there was a war. The water spirit, furious in defeat, destroyed the pillar in the northwest. The sun, moon, and stars started revolving from east to west. The earth inclined toward the southeast, in which direction the rivers flow.

To assuage the heavens and keep time, the victorious king issued a calendar in his name and appointed his grandson as the Warden of Fire, who communicated with the Great Fire constellation, Antares, the brightest red star at night. Through exemplary service, the prince earned the honorary title Zhurong.

The agricultural practice of the south, linked to the movements of rivers and stars through an origin story, carried cosmic significance.

Centuries passed. History became legend. Legend became myth. A royal clan founded Chu in 1030 BCE and migrated south to the shores of the Yangtze, where the kingdom flourished. The kings of Chu traced their lineage to Zhurong, who was no longer a person or a title but a deity, the God of Fire. In one version of the tale, it was Zhurong who subdued the water spirit and taught his people how to use flame to prepare the land for planting. Burning cleared the ground. Ashes enriched the soil. The agricultural practice of the south, linked to the movements of rivers and stars through an origin story, carried cosmic significance.

“Where did the Eight Pillars meet the sky, and why were they too short for it in the southeast?” Qu Yuan recalled the ancient battle in Tianwen, from which the Mars mission took its name 2,300 years later. Through a list of 172 questions directed at the heavens, the Chu nobleman and wordsmith started with the formation of the universe and proceeded to the marvels of the earth, before he interrogated the affairs of men, the glories and ills of kings from antiquity to the recent past. 

Advertisement

Qu Yuan the astronomer, the poet, and the statesman: these were not separate identities but part of the same vocation. For learned men of his time, stargazing was not a leisure activity or merely an academic pursuit: It was a political task. The physical body and the state were miniature versions of the cosmos. The passage of stars and planets informed governance.

When Qu Yuan questioned the heavens, the fate of Chu must have been on his mind. The king had dismissed threats from the neighboring state of Qin and banished his loyal minister. After Jingzhou fell to invading troops from Qin, the proud son of Chu took his final steps into the Miluo River. Qin would go on to vanquish all other rival states and establish the first Chinese empire, but as the Chu prophecy foretold, “as long as three households of Chu remain, they will be Qin’s undoing.” Descendants of Chu played a major part in overthrowing Qin in its 15th year. Chu art and letters outlived the polity and became an integral part of Chinese culture. 

The consolidation of political power meant the consolidation of narratives. During the time of Chu, when several kingdoms competed for power, a hundred flowers bloomed and a hundred schools contended. Scholar-officials created and adapted a variety of ways to read the sky and advise the state. But by the first Han empire from the second century BCE, a centralized cosmology had emerged alongside a sophisticated imperial bureaucracy. 

Advertisement

In the centuries that followed, Chinese astronomers worked in the Office of the Grand Scribe, simultaneously carrying out the roles of ritualist and historian. Proper interpretation and correct prediction of astronomical events were central to imperial charisma. The issuance of calendars also served a practical purpose, as the granting of seasons regulated planting and harvest. 

The most luminous objects in the night sky received the most attention. Because of its complex trajectory relative to Earth, at times appearing to waver or move backward, Mars was known as yinghuo, or glowing mystique. It’s the embodiment of fire and the arbiter of law. Its conjunction with Antares was the most ominous sign. The emperor’s men watched the crimson glow in fear and awe, heeding Heaven’s warning. 

A painting depicting the poet Qu Yuan on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2012.  Photo: STAN HONDA / AFP

A painting depicting the poet Qu Yuan on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2012. Photo: STAN HONDA / AFP

Astronomy in imperial China was not an insular affair. Indian astronomers worked in the Tang capital. Islamic instruments were introduced following the Mongol conquest. Since the late 16th century, Jesuit missions brought new developments from Europe. The Chinese literati accepted and utilized foreign knowledge on their own terms. To them, the homeland was the center of civilized glory, beyond which barbarians dwelled. 

By the time Shu Qingchun, or Sumuru in Manchurian, was born in Beijing in 1899, a series of devastating military defeats against foreign powers had shattered China’s centuries-old belief in its cultural superiority. Before he became one of the most important writers in the 20th century, a young Sumuru witnessed the collapse of the last Chinese empire and the ineptitude of the newly founded Nationalist government. 

Advertisement

In 1932, Sumuru, writing under the pen name Lao She, published Cat Country, a novel set on Mars. The narrator from Earth has crash landed on the red planet, where he encounters a country whose residents are large, human-like cats. Heirs to a splendid civilization in the distant past, the Cat People are hopelessly selfish, cruel, and unlearned. A searing critique of China in Lao She’s time, the story concludes with Cat Country’s demise by an invading army, a barely-veiled metaphor for Japan, whose soldiers had occupied Manchuria and marched into Shanghai. 

When Mao Zedong stood on the Gate of Heavenly Peace and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, to many it was the start of a new dawn. The government launched its space program several years later to develop rocketry and ballistic missiles. Spurred by the success of Sputnik-1, Mao announced in 1958 that “we want satellites too.” The initiative coincided with the start of the Great Leap Forward, a maniacal plan for rapid industrialization that led to one of the worst famines in modern history. Tens of millions died.

To train new talent in science and engineering, in particular for the fledgling nuclear and space programs, the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) was founded in Beijing in the fall of 1958. Like court astronomers in the centuries past, Chinese space scientists worked to strengthen the state and lived at the mercy of politics. 

Advertisement

On April 24, 1970, a date that would become “Space Day” in China, the country’s first artificial satellite was delivered into orbit. For the next 28 days, it circled the globe and played this tune every 30 seconds: “The East is red. The sun has risen. China has birthed a Mao Zedong!” That year, USTC was forced out of Beijing and moved south to Hefei. It was the height of the Cultural Revolution. Both Western science and Chinese tradition were deemed heresy. In the decade of madness, countless intellectuals were persecuted to death, including Zhao Jiuzhang, head of the Chinese satellite program and founding chair of the earth and space science department at USTC. The dystopian terror Lao She had imagined on Mars had become the reality around him. Labelled a “counter-revolutionary” and brutally beaten, the pioneer of modern Chinese fiction drowned himself in the Lake of Great Peace in Beijing.

While the Soviet Union and Mao’s China rushed into space, cosmology was banned in both countries for being contradictory to Communist doctrine. In 1972, against immense political pressure, the scientist Fang Lizhi published the first paper on modern cosmology in China and established the country’s first astrophysics group at USTC. After the Cultural Revolution ended and the government adopted reforms and opening-up policies, Fang served as executive vice president of USTC and became a tireless advocate for democracy and human rights.

Advertisement

In March 1986, four esteemed Chinese scientists, all of whom were veterans of the space and nuclear programs, wrote a letter to Deng Xiaoping, the country’s paramount leader, and advocated for more state support in technology sectors with strategic significance. Deng endorsed the initiative and the State High-Tech Development Plan was born. Dubbed China’s “Sputnik moment,” the program identified seven key areas, space technology among them. The government also joined the burgeoning satellite market, providing commercial rocket launches to international clients. 

The Chinese state valued economic strength and technological might, but saw political activism as a threat to its power. Fang was fired from USTC in 1987 and relegated to a position at Beijing Observatory. Branded “the biggest blackhand” behind the Tiananmen Square protests by Chinese authorities, Fang sought refuge at the U.S. embassy with his physicist wife as tanks rolled into the capital, and spent his final decades teaching at the University of Arizona. He died in 2012. Inscribed at his resting place in Tucson are these words: “The value of a life lies in constant pursuit: to pursue the harmony of nature, to pursue the perfection of body and spirit, to pursue the transcendence of thought.”  

Fang Lizhi in 1996. He published the first paper on modern cosmology in China and, in 2012, died in exile in the U.S. Photo: John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corp. via Getty Images

Fang Lizhi in 1996. He published the first paper on modern cosmology in China and, in 2012, died in exile in the U.S. Photo: John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corp. via Getty Images

I grew up on the campus of USTC in Hefei. One of my earliest memories was from my father’s Ph.D. graduation. The young man from Jingzhou stood with his classmates in their caps and gowns. They beamed at the camera. A bronze statue of the university’s first president towered behind them. 

It was at the same spot, several years later, that I searched for Mars for the first time. The night was warm. A small crowd had gathered. A professor from the astronomy department directed us toward the sky. There on the inky canvas was a pale stroke, bright as the moon. It’s Hale-Bopp, the Great Comet of 1997. 

Advertisement

The professor explained that we’re witnessing the sight of a lifetime, that it’ll be another 2,500 years before the comet approaches Earth again. The crowd gasped. My seven-year-old self tried to picture a world on Hale-Bopp’s next visit, but the thought of my own nonexistence scared me. 

“Would you like to see Mars?” the professor leaned down and asked. I nodded and followed his directions. A glimmer of red came into focus. To this day, I’m not sure whether I saw Mars or simply willed the image into being, but I recall that moment as if it were yesterday, the patience in the professor’s voice, the sweetness in the air, the universe that opened up to a child’s gaze. 

The mysteries of the cosmos and the prospects of extraterrestrial life fascinated me. I wrote a story in my diary where I, at the mature age of 15, went to space with my father, discovered fossils on the sun, and won three—yes, three—Nobel prizes. That summer, I followed news from NASA’s Pathfinder mission as closely as I could. I imagined the Sojourner rover as my friend on another planet. We conversed in secret at night. 

That the mission was from another country, and one that’s not particularly friendly with mine, barely registered on my mind. My world, in its youthful innocence, had not been broken by borders. I learned about Pathfinder from children’s magazines in China: In its foreignness, the achievement was pure technical wonder, stripped of nationalistic sentiments. It’s not until writing this essay that I realized the rover had landed on Mars on July 4. But the date would have appeared random to me as a child. 

What’s the point of lifting into space, if the mind lingered within the narrow confines of the party and the state?

I had just started middle school when China launched its first robotic spacecraft in 1999, and was in high school when the first Chinese astronaut soared above the atmosphere. It was perhaps little more than adolescent rebellion that I found the glaring patriotism in the news reports alienating. What’s the point of lifting into space, if the mind lingered within the narrow confines of the party and the state? 

The universe still beckoned. I decided to study particle physics and arrived in the U.S. in 2009 for my Ph.D. Two years later, as China’s first prototype space station readied for operations, the U.S. Congress passed a law that prohibited NASA from using federal funds to collaborate with Chinese entities and restricted access to NASA facilities for Chinese nationals. A number of U.S. scientists boycotted a NASA conference in 2013, after their Chinese colleagues, including the ones working at U.S. institutions, were barred from participating. The conference was on the search for planets outside the solar system. Linking it with national security appeared ludicrous. Yet for the most powerful countries, space exploration is a tool of empire. The final frontier has always been a site of competition and conquest. 

Advertisement

At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had conducted a series of nuclear tests in space, until the 1963 Test Ban Treaty put a stop to this dangerous practice. The Outer Space Treaty came into effect four years later. It remains the primary international law on space. As an arms control agreement, it prohibits countries from placing weapons of mass destruction in space or establishing military bases on celestial bodies. Despite laying out the principles of peaceful exploration and equal access, the 54-year-old document offers little clear guidance on other military activities in or commercial use of space. 

To whom does the cosmos belong? Article II of the Outer Space Treaty states that no nation can claim sovereignty over the moon or other celestial bodies, but if a country cannot own the moon, can it own minerals extracted from the moon? The 1979 Moon Treaty seeks to address this, declaring that the “moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind.” The treaty asks that an international body be established to oversee mining on the moon when it becomes technologically feasible and that the profits be equitably shared among all nations.

Only 18 countries are members of the Moon Treaty, none of which have human space programs. In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, granting U.S. citizens the right to possess, transport, and sell natural resources from space. The Trump administration, after establishing the Space Force as a new branch of the U.S. military in 2019, issued an executive order, explicitly rejecting the Moon Treaty and encouraging space mining.

Advertisement

In the fall of 2020, NASA and its counterparts in seven countries, all major U.S. allies, signed the Artemis Accords. The ambitious program includes a long-term base on the moon, a human mission to Mars, as well as the “extraction and utilization of space resources.” Russia and China, not included in Artemis, soon unveiled their plan for a joint lunar station. This spring, Origin Space, one of over a dozen private space companies in China, launched a prototype robot for future asteroid mining. As its founders explained, “The most essential element, pursued by all civilizations, is resource.” 

Astronauts Tang Hongbo (left), Liu Boming (center) and, Nie Haisheng wave before their launch mission on June 17, 2021. Photo: GREG BAKER / AFP

Astronauts Tang Hongbo (left), Liu Boming (center), and Nie Haisheng wave before their launch mission on June 17, 2021. Photo: GREG BAKER / AFP

Weeks after the Zhurong rover landed on Mars, three Chinese astronauts lifted off for the country’s new space station. It’s the seventh crewed mission from China and the first for Tang Hongbo. The 45-year-old former air force pilot grew up in a small village just south of the Yangtze. Both of his parents are farmers. 

“Do you know what an astronaut does?” A reporter asked Tang’s seven-year-old nephew. 

The boy tugged at his oversized red T-shirt. “To plant the Chinese flag on every planet,” he said. 

A video of Tang’s parents has gone viral on Chinese social media. In the 13-second clip, villagers have gathered in the courtyard to watch the launch on TV. They sit on red plastic stools. Tang’s parents are in the front row. The father is wearing a light blue shirt with the air force insignia. It’s Tang’s uniform from over a decade ago. Tang’s mother is to his left. She is in a green blouse with pink flowers. As the rocket takes off, there is a slow rumbling, followed by a loud cheer. Tang’s mother springs up and throws her right arm into the air. Her lined face blossoms. 

Advertisement

I have watched this clip many times, and the way Tang’s mother clenched her fingers before the final relief still snags my heart. It’s a private moment despite the public gaze. A mother’s love cannot be appropriated by a state. 

The caption to the video reads, “Father and mother work on the land below. Their son races to the distant stars.” It has become a popular hashtag. In a flurry of media profiles, Tang’s journey from rural beginnings to unearthly heights is a classic tale of personal excellence. Softened by his filiality and humble character, the moral of the story is nevertheless one of generational progress. The Tang family is a symbol of China’s rise from an agrarian society to a technological superpower, while its people have stayed true to their roots, so the narrative goes. 

Is land a possession, a prize, a place for extraction and exploitation? Or is it like a member of the family, cherished and nurturing, as humans and the earth share the same cosmic origins?

To me, the juxtaposition of vocations, from farmer to astronaut, contains a more profound truth: one’s relationship with the land determines one’s attitude toward space. Is land a possession, a prize, a place for extraction and exploitation? Or is it like a member of the family, cherished and nurturing, as humans and the earth share the same cosmic origins? 

In the project of empire, land is expendable. Value exists only in the present, measured by commodity pricing or military posture. As the scholar Kate Crawford writes, the practice of mining that undergirds the electronics industry, which prides itself on newness, extracts “Earth’s geological history to serve a split second of contemporary technological time.” 

It’s under the same prism of endless consumption and expansion that space is offered as the solution to a depleted Earth. On the timescale of humanity, Mars is a constant. It brims with the prospect of redemption, or, at the very least, the promise of an adventure. The rich and the powerful boast plans to transform the ecosystems of a distant, uninhabitable planet, but dismiss calls for more sustainable living and more just governance here as too idealistic. 

July 1 was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Zhurong beamed back a series of videos from Mars. In the words of the Chinese space agency, the rover was “reporting its safety to the party and the motherland.” Tang and his colleagues dispatched their greetings from the space station. “Happy birthday to the great Chinese Communist Party,” the trio said and saluted to the camera. 

Time is relative. In the life of a person, a century is an eternity. For a single-party state, the government of China has accomplished a record-breaking feat. Compared with empires and kingdoms of the past, the present regime is still young. The history of our species is barely a blip on the cosmic scale. Yet every atom carries memories of the grand inception. 

I look out the window and watch the last sunlight recede over the cityscape. The stretch of sky above has been a refuge during this time of solitude and uncertainty. Hidden behind the inky canvas are distant stars. In the thousands of years it took for their gleam to reach Earth, their presence also held my ancestors’ gaze. I picture the constellations coming alive. They tell stories about a people who lived by the river and ploughed with fire, who sang songs about the sky and how the cinder bears the seed.

Yangyang Cheng is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and a particle physicist.

Tagged:Marschina