China is using mythology and sci-fi to sell its space programme to the world

 


Molly Silk, PhD Candidate, Chinese Space Policy, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

On the morning of June 17, China launched its long-awaited Shenzhou-12 spacecraft, carrying three Chinese astronauts – or taikonauts – towards the Tianhe core module. The module itself was launched at the end of April, forming part of the permanent Tiangong space station, which is planned to remain in orbit for the next ten years.

China’s construction of its own space station stems from the nation’s exclusion from the International Space Station, a result of US concerns over technology transfers that could enhance China’s military capabilities. Undeterred by this, China has forged ahead with its own space programmes and alliances. Since, the country has demonstrated that the Chinese “brand” of space technology is reputable and can hold its own in the international arena.

An impressive track record of remarkable space endeavours is not the only thing that distinguishes China’s space brand from other national players. The government and related organisations have made concerted efforts to establish a unique “Chinese space culture” alongside the country’s advances in space technology. While the target audience for many of these cultural creations remains domestic, China’s space ambitions are directed at global audiences in a variety of ways.

Legendary beginnings

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the naming of these programmes after China’s traditional roots.

The name Tiangong translates as “Heavenly Palace”. This was the residence of the deity who holds supreme authority over the universe in Chinese mythology, the Celestial Ruler. The name is particularly fitting for a Chinese space station, which acts as a home in the heavens for the country’s taikonauts. The meaning of Shenzhou, the missions that take taikonauts to space, is “Divine Vessel”, which is also a homophone for an ancient name for China, “Divine Land”.

Traditional Chinese painting of the moon goddess Chang'e.
The Moon Goddess Chang’e.
Wikimeda

China’s lunar exploration missions, meanwhile, are named after the legendary Moon goddess Chang’e. The tale goes that Chang’e flew from Earth to the Moon after stealing the elixir of immortality from her husband, Hou Yi.

According to Chinese mythology, Chang’e continues to live on the Moon with her rabbit companion, who spends its time pounding the elixir of immortality in a mortar for the goddess. The rabbit is known as Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit”. China’s two lunar rovers, the second of which became the first to land on the far side of the Moon in 2019, are named after it.

A key component of this lunar landing mission was Queqiao, a communication relay satellite. This was named after the myth of the “Magpie Bridge”, which joins the “Cowherd” and the “Weaver Girl” across the stretch of the Milky Way in a romantic folktale. The satellite acted as a vital bridge of communication between the Chang’e mission components and China’s mission control centre.

The linking of China’s traditional past to its forward-looking space activities serves to strengthen the identity of these space programmes as distinctly Chinese.

In connecting these achievements to the country’s cultural heritage, they are presented not as mere copies of their space power predecessors, but as having developed from national talents and progresses. They also serve as a reminder that while the programmes aim for the furthest reaches of space, China’s future will never be disconnected from its national and cultural roots.

Furthermore, these legendary names are a signal to the international community that space is not the exclusive domain of historical western figures such as Apollo or Artemis, but that it also belongs to the lineage of the Chinese people.

China’s future in fiction

Over the last few years, multiple corporations based in China have released space-themed commercial products and promotional campaigns in conjunction with China’s official space organisations, from upmarket fashion brands to KFC. But perhaps the most notable promotion of China’s space ambitions is in films.

In 2019, the blockbuster sci-fi film The Wandering Earth was released. The film was well received, and was publicised by the state’s international media platforms as a must-see.

Director Frant Gwo has spoken about the importance of the message behind the film, claiming that China’s way of thinking about space is vastly different from US ideologies. According to Gwo, while the US dreams of eventually leaving the Earth to move to other planets, the Chinese space dream is to improve life on Earth through the use of space resources. The film promotes the idea that we mustn’t try to flee our planet, but instead, we must strive to protect it.

While most space-themed commercial products remain aimed at a domestic market, Chinese sci-fi is becoming increasingly popular abroad. Books such as The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, who wrote the short story which The Wandering Earth was adapted from, Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, which is also being adapted for the screen, and The Redemption of Time by Baoshu have all succeeded as translations.

Recognised by politicians as a potentially powerful tool for promoting state-approved narratives, government bodies have encouraged China’s sci-fi filmmakers to incorporate narratives that fit with the regime’s wider ideological and technological ambitions.

The fantasy aspect of sci-fi may explain why the genre is being internationally promoted first over other commercial products that feature imagery of actual Chinese space missions. Unlike China’s increasing capabilities in space, which are viewed as a threat by the US, the country’s fictional space developments pose no real-life risk. Able to incorporate the backdrop of a technologically powerful China into entertaining and compelling narratives, such stories allow foreign audiences to engage with the idea of China as a space power without the kind of political discourse that surrounds its real space activities.

Eventually, a foreign audience may begin to grow more comfortable with the notion of China as a technological world leader. And this, in turn, may cultivate an interest in the activities of the Chinese national space programme.The Conversation

John Dunn’s examination of John Locke, a review in about 500 words

John Dunn’s examination of John Locke, a review in about 500 words

The Political Thought of John Locke-An Historical Account of the Argument of the ‘Two Treatises of Government’ by John Dunn.  Cambridge at the University Press, 1969.  521 07408 8

 

The Political Thought of John Locke could have been called “My Thoughts about John Locke” being that it reads as if you were listening to a lecture being given by one of your favorite professors; it is fact an informative, thought-provoking, and challenging work on the political theory of Mr. Locke.  The challenge is a result of who this work is written for, not the general public, but for those who have a profound (and perhaps professional) interest in Locke.  Dr. Dunn assumes that the reader will have an understanding of not just Locke’s works but those of Locke’s contemporaries such as Sir Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes, not to mention the field of Political Theory in general.  His professed goal is to separate Locke from the ‘historical’ record and move towards an ‘excavation of Locke’s mind,”[1] a goal which I would say he accomplishes with some success.

The works two strongest parts are first his comparison of Locke to Hobbes, examining what Dunn says is Hobbes effort to create Political Theory out of an ‘ethical vacuum.’[2] while examining how Locke starts from a religious perspective, and second, a subtle yet pervasive examination of the effects of viewing a theorist in a historical v a structuralist motif.  The first point is particularly interesting given the recent controversy in how much attention Locke was paying to Hobbes.[3]  Dunn is clear in his estimation, saying that Locke “wrote to answer the terrible, if undeniably clever Hobbes.”[4]  In fact, we could say that Dunn credits Locke’s interaction with his contemporaries’ for much of what makes Locke interesting; further, for Dunn, this interest is primarily the role of religion in Locke’s writings.  Dunn remarks that Locke has a practical use for God, using God as a tool rather than an object of veneration, as he says, “What is most obvious is His tactical availability for Locke’s purposes-not the veneration He might be supposed to elect.”[5]

The second point is somewhat ironic, given that we are drawn towards understanding the historical/structuralist dichotomy in an historical perspective.  This work, however, was written in 1969 and had no doubt been many years in the making, ending up being published at the height of the structuralist movement.[6]  Dunn presents a structuralist argument, saying that we cannot trust what Locke meant by reading his words since he wrote “perhaps unconsciously” in “invisible ink”.[7]  He says that to understand Locke, we must hold him up to “the light (or heat) of the twentieth-century mind.”  So we are presented with a problem, is Locke influential because his works (as many say) lead to the era of liberalism (and individualism), which ultimately resulted in the American and (in part) French revolutions, or are his ideas important for how they speak to us today and in the future?

Fortunately for Dunn (not to mention Locke), we do not need to choose.  Both of their works can be appreciated for what they are, an examination of the interactions between people and ideas that express themselves in political theory, which helps to give meaning to how we interact with our world.  The Political Thought of John Locke is challenging indeed, but well worth the effort if such issues are important to you.

[1] p. ix, interestingly this is in spite of the sub-title of this work, which points towards the tension which exists when we examine Locke in any but the most traditional ways.

[2] P.79

[3] For example, see DOI: 10.1086/714068  

[4] P.77

[5] P.14

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structuralism

[7] p. ix

The Good

Provides insights beyond the standard Locke as a founder of liberalism trope.

The Bad

Important points are sometime buried in dense hard to read paragraphs.

Assumes an understanding of Locke that many readers will not have.

Secular ‘values voters’ are becoming an electoral force in the US – just look closely at 2020’s results

 

Phil Zuckerman, Pitzer CollegeThe voting patterns of religious groups in the U.S. have been scrutinized since the presidential election for evidence of shifting allegiances among the faithful. Many have wondered if a boost in Catholic support was behind Biden’s win or if a dip in support among evangelicals helped doom Trump.

But much less attention has been paid to one of the largest growing demographics among the U.S. electorate, one that has increased from around 5% of Americans to over 23% in the last 50 years: “Nones” – that is, the nonreligious.

I am a scholar of secularism in the U.S., and my focus is on the social and cultural presence of secular people – nonreligious people such as atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and those who simply don’t identify with any religion. They are an increasingly significant presence in American society, one which inevitably spills into the political arena.

 

In this last election, the emerging influence of secular voters was felt not only at the presidential level, but also on many down-ballot issues.

The new ‘values voters’

For years, both scholars and pundits have referred to the political impact of “values voters” in America. What that designation generally refers to are religious men and women whose scripturally based values coagulate around issues such as opposing marriage equality and women’s reproductive autonomy.

But dubbing such religious voters as “values voters” is a real semantic bamboozle. While it is true that many religious Americans maintain certain values that motivate their voting behavior, it is also very much the case that secular Americans also maintain their own strongly held values. My research suggests they vote on these values with just as much motivation as the religious.

Sex education

This played out in November in a number of ballot initiatives that have flown under the national media radar.

Voters in Washington state, for example, passed Referendum 90, which requires that students receive sex education in all public schools. This was the first time that such a measure was ever on a state ballot, and it passed with ease – thanks, in part, to the significant number of nonreligious voters in the Pacific Northwest.

The fact is, Washington is one of the least religious states in the union. Well over a third of all Washingtonians do not affiliate with any religion, more than a third never pray and almost 40% never attend religious services.

The referendum’s passing was helped by the fact that nonreligious adults tend to value comprehensive sex education. Numerous studies have found that secular Americans are significantly more likely to support comprehensive sex education in school. In his research, sociologist Mark Regnerus found that secular parents were generally much more comfortable – and more likely – to have open and frank conversations with their children about safe sex than religious parents.

Drugs policy

Meanwhile, voters in Oregon – another Pacific Northwestern state that contains one of the most secular populations in the country – passed Measure 110, the first ever statewide law to decriminalize the possession and personal use of drugs.

This aligns with research showing that nonreligious Americans are much more likely to support the decriminalization of drugs than their religious peers. For instance, a 2016 study from Christian polling firm Barna found that 66% of evangelicals believe that all drugs should be illegal as did 43% of other Christians, but only 17% of Americans with no religious faith held such a view.

Science at the ballot box

Secular people are generally more trusting of scientific empiricism, and various studies have shown that the nonreligious are more likely to accept the evidence behind human-generated climate change. This translates to support for politicians and policies that take climate change seriously.

It may also have factored in to the success of a November ballot measure in Denver, Colorado, to fund programs that eliminate greenhouse gases, fight air pollution and actively adapt to climate change. The ballot passed with over 62% of the vote – and it is of note that Denver is one of the most secular cities in the nation.

Meanwhile voters in California – another area of relative secularity – passed Proposition 14 supporting the funding of stem cell research, the state being one of only a handful that has a publicly funded program. Pew studies have repeatedly found that secular Americans are far more likely than religious Americans to support stem cell research.

Values versus values

On issues that the religious right has held some sway in recent years, there is evidence of a counterbalance among secular “value voters.”

For example, while the religious have been more likely to oppose same-sex marriage, secular Americans are more likely to support it, and by significant margins. A recent Pew study found that 79% of secular Americans are supportive, compared to 66% of white mainline Protestants, 61% of Catholics, 44% of Black Protestants and 29% of white evangelicals.

There are many additional values that are prominent among secular Americans. For example, the U.S. Secular Survey of 2020 – the largest survey of nonreligious Americans ever conducted, with nearly 34,000 participants – found strong support for safeguarding the separation of church and state.

Other studies have found that secular Americans strongly support women’s reproductive rights, women working in the paid labor force, the DACA program, death with dignity and opposition to the death penalty.

[Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get expert takes on today’s news, every day.]

Secular surge

According to Eastern Illinois University professor Ryan Burge’s data analysis, around 80% of atheists and agnostics and 70% of those who described their religion as “nothing in particular” voted for Biden.

This may have been decisive. As Professor Burge argues, “it’s completely fair to say that these shifts generated a two percentage-point swing for Biden nationwide. There were five states where the gap between the candidates was less than two percentage points (Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina). Four of those five went for the Biden – and the nones were between 28% and 37% of the population in those key states.”

As this past election has shown, secular values are not only alive and well, but they are more pronounced than ever. It is also noteworthy that more openly nonreligious candidates were elected to public office than ever before. According to an analysis by the atheist author and activist Hemant Mehta, not only did every member of the secular Congressional Freethought Caucus win reelection, but 10 state senators who are openly secular – that is, they have made it publicly known that they are nonreligious – were voted into office, up from seven two years ago. There is now an all-time high of 45 openly secular state representatives nationwide, according to Mehta’s analysis. Every one of them is a Democrat.

Religious voters will certainly continue to vote their values – and for politicians that express similar views. But so, I argue, will secular voters.The Conversation

Phil Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology and Secular Studies, Pitzer College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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