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. For those who don’t know their meanings, keep reading. 

  • Tiangong 天宫

This is the name for the space station.

tian : sky, heaven

gong : palace

tiangong 天宫: heavenly palace

Chinese people have always been quite familiar with the term “天宫”. It refers to the residential place for the heavenly ruler Jade Emperor. Many people have read the famous classic 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. Regular folks, even as mighty as the Monkey King, could not live in this heavenly palace. 

Now, with the space station having welcomed it’s first residents, 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 “天宫” for a space station is fitting and cool. 

  • Shenzhou 神舟

This is the name for the spacecrafts.

shen : deity, amazing, divine

zhou : boat

shenzhou 神舟: divine boat

The character “” usually refers to small boats, appearing in many Chinese poems. This character is frequently connected with being light, fast and free, such as “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 “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 is added to further describe the character , making a small boat divine and powerful. With the name 神舟, 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. 

Having these names makes so much sense. 

嫦娥 is the name of a goddess who resides on the Moon. Chinese people are familiar with the folklore that she took the drug of immortality and flew there. 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. 

yu : jade

tu : rabbit

yutu 玉兔: jade rabbit

玉兔 is no ordinary rabbit, nor is it made of jade. In fact, it is the name of the only companion and guardian of 嫦娥, the Moon goddess. According to the Chinese folklore, besides keeping company with the Moon goddess, 玉兔 is also responsible for pounding medicines and making of mooncakes. Also, sometimes in writings, 玉兔 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 玉兔 is very logical. 

  • Tianwen 天问

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

tian : sky, heaven

wen : ask, inquire

tianwen 天问: questions to heaven, heavenly quest

The word 天问 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. As capable as Quyuan was, he was not trusted by the king, and was eventually banished from the capital. Quyuan was devastated, and wrote many beautiful poems. 天问 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 , 天问, is not only a nice name for missions in the far far way, but also gives a nice spin to the sad story about Quyuan. 

  • Zhurong 祝融

This is the name for the Mars rover.

In Chinese folklore, 祝融 is the name of the god of fire. The connection between 祝融 and Mars is obvious to Chinese, but may not be so to others. 

In Chinese, Mars is called 火星, literally it means, the Planet of Fire. Therefore, there is no better destination for the god of fire than the Planet of Fire. 

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

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). Readers are invited to find out stories behind these names. 


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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