Chinese names in space

In 2003, China became the third country to send humans into space. Since then, along with the development of Chinese space exploration program, more and more Chinese names written in pinyin have made appearances in the news worldwide, such as Zhurong and Shenzhou.

These are fascinating names with deep cultural roots. 

In this article, let’s learn some names that are really fascinating. 

Tiangong 天宫

This is the name for the space station.

(tiān): sky, heaven

(gōng): palace

天宫 (tiān gōng): heavenly palace

Chinese people have always been quite familiar with the term “heavenly palace”. It refers to the residential place for the heavenly ruler Jade Emperor. 

Many people have read the famous classic book, Journey to the West. In the beginning of this book, the Monkey King wanted to get rid of the Jade Emperor and move in to this magnificent heavenly palace. He didn’t. He was captured for hundreds of years instead. 

Now, with the space station, things have changed in two folds, that heavenly palace is transferred from something purely in our imaginations to a physical object, and that regular human beings can live there and enjoy awesome views.

This name “heavenly palace” for a space station is fitting and super cool.

Shenzhou 神舟

This is the name for the spacecrafts.

(shén): deity, amazing, divine

(zhōu): boat

神舟 (shénzhōu): divine boat

The Chinese character “” usually refers to small boats, appearing in many Chinese poems. It is frequently connected with being light, fast and free, such as in this famous line “两岸猿声啼不住, 轻舟已过万重山” (While on cliffs gibbons ceaselessly cry, ten thousand folds of mountains, my skiff has slipped them by), and this “渔父知世患, 乘流泛轻舟” (The fisherman knows clearly about worldly evils. Flowing on the current, traveling on a light boat). 

Now, character for “deity, divine” is added to further describe the character for “boat”, making a small boat divine and powerful. With the name “divine boat”, a vivid and fantastic image of a light, fast, nimble and yet small boat with divine power piercing through the sky is created.

This name is just perfect for spacecrafts.

Chang’e 嫦娥

This is the name for both the Chinese Moon exploration project and the Moon landers. 

It makes so much sense. 

嫦娥 (cháng'é): name of the Moon goddess

Chinese people are familiar with the folklore of Chang’e. She was a beautiful woman. One day, she took the drug of immortality and flew to the Moon, and stayed ever since. 

Her beauty has long been admired in poems and novels. Moreover, she is celebrated and talked about every year during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Therefore, when exploring the Moon and naming Moon landers, using the name of the Moon goddess is superb.

Yutu 玉兔

This is the name for the Moon rover. 

(yù): jade

(tù): rabbit

玉兔 (yùtù): jade rabbit

This jade rabbit is not an ordinary rabbit, nor is it made of jade. In fact, it is the name of the only companion and guardian of the Moon goddess Chang’e. 

According to Chinese folklores, besides keeping company with the Moon goddess, this jade rabbit is also responsible for pounding medicines and making of mooncakes. Also, sometimes in writings, Yutu is used as an alternate name for the Moon. 

Although a Moon rover does not pound medicines, it does run around. Hence, naming the Moon rover Yutu is very logical. 

Tianwen 天问

tian wen

This is the name for a series of interplanetary missions to Mars.

(tiān): sky, heaven

(wèn): ask, inquire

天问 (tiānwèn): questions to heaven, heavenly quest

The word “Tianwen” has a beautiful and sad origin. It is originally the title of a long poem written by Quyuan (340 - 278 BCE). Many people heard about him because of the Dragon Boat Festival.

Quyuan was a very capable person and willing to serve his king. But, he was not trusted by the king, and was eventually banished from the capital. Quyuan was devastated, and wrote many beautiful poems. “Tianwen” is one of them, presenting questions to the sky, to those heavenly deities. In the end, Quyuan jumped into the river and killed himself.

More than two thousands years later, a new quest to the sky began. And this time, we have found some answers. Therefore, “heavenly quest”, is not only a nice name for missions in the far far way, but also revives Quyuan’s legacy and continues his quest.

Zhurong 祝融

This is the name for the Mars rover.

祝融 (zhùróng): name of the god of fire

The connection between “Zhurong” and Mars is obvious to Chinese people, but may not be so to others. 

In Chinese, Mars is called 火星 (huǒxīng), literally it means the Planet of Fire. It is the perfect place for the god of fire to roam around. 

Therefore, naming the Mars rover “Zhurong” is so perfect. 

Moreover, the name of “Zhurong” also symbolises to “ignite the fire of interstellar exploration”. Nice name!

New meanings for ancient names

Learning about these names is definitely a wonderful way to learn about Chinese culture, to go deep into the cultural roots, and to connect these age old stories to highly advanced technologies. A new layer of meanings and aspirations is thus assigned to these ancient names. 

Besides names introduced in this article, there are other equally brilliant names out there in the outer space, such as Queqiao (鹊桥) and Beidou (北斗).

One thing I have noticed is that, for people who have not studied Chinese, they don’t know how to pronounce these names. A beginner’s guide to pinyin pronunciations may help.


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