China on the Moon

by Yangyang Cheng

What manner of
things are the darkness and light? . . Whose compass measured out the nine-fold
skies? . . How does heaven coordinate its motions? . . What is the virtue of
the moon, the brightness of the night? . .”

2,300 years ago, the exiled statesman and poet
Qu Yuan pondered these questions on the bank of the Yangtze River, as his
Kingdom of Chu fell to the Qin. The Qin would defeat all other Warring States
and establish the first Chinese empire. In the centuries following, Chinese
astronomers worked in the office of the Grand Scribe, observing the stars and
issuing calendars to mark the crowning of a new emperor or the beginning of a
new dynasty. Appropriate interpretation and correct prediction of astronomical events
were central to imperial charisma: only with the Mandate of Heaven could one
rule all under heaven.

While human curiosity about the universe is
not born out of political ideology, astronomy and space science in China have
developed through the state and for the state. Other countries have had differentapproaches historically, but since
the end of World War II, the main driver of space exploration has been not as
much scientific curiosity as state power. Countries have pursued bigger
rockets, more satellites, and missions into deeper space for both dual-use
technologies and national prestige. Not unlike Chinese emperors justifying the
throne with celestial phenomena, governments from the former Soviet Union to
the U.S. and China have connected their prowess in space with the superiority
of their political systems.

When Gil Scott-Heron sang “Whitey on the Moon” during the Apollo missions,
the artist was anchoring the U.S. space program in they country’s tortured
history of imperialism and racial inequality, questioning who benefitted and
who bore the cost. News of the Chinese
lunar mission broke in the first week of 2019, days after President Xi Jinping
gave a major address on “reunification” with Taiwan, and while the Chinese
government continues militarization of the South China Sea and high-tech ethnic
cleansing in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. China’s history of colonial
expansion is written into its map of today, and is reflected in its policies of
external aggression and internal oppression. When space missions are tools of
geopolitics, with the planting of an American flag or the landing of a Chinese
rover, the moon becomes not just a destination of scientific discovery, but
also a territory for imperial conquest.

My family came from Jingzhou, the ancient
capital of Chu. From the Yangtze, my ancestors gazed at the same nightly skies
as the Egyptians from the port of Alexandria and the Mayans along the Gulf of
Mexico. Empires rose and fell in blinks of time in our shared cosmological
history. It is easy to see space programs through the lens of great power
competition, but the more fundamental question is whether science and
technology should be claimed by individual states or developed for our common

May human borders never extend beyond the edge of the Earth. In the final frontier, we are all passengers on the same ship.

Yangyang Cheng is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Cornell University’s Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based ScienceS and Education (CLASSE), and a member of the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. She received her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago in 2015, and her Bachelor’s in Science from the University of Science and Technology of China.


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