A July 25 screen image of taikonauts (from left) Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang in the first module of China’s space station. Photo: Xinhua
April Zhang
April Zhang

How the changing language in space reflects the geopolitical tensions on Earth

  • On one hand, English is beginning to overshadow Russian, with a US-led lunar programme and the emergence of private American space companies
  • On the other, Chinese is growing in prominence in space. And with new Beijing and Moscow cooperation, Chinese and Russian could be the working languages on the moon
In the Chinese space station Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace”, Chinese is the only language used for instructions. This was unimaginable back in 2011, when the US passed the Wolf Amendment to limit cooperation between agencies such as Nasa and Beijing or Chinese companies, effectively excluding China from participating in the International Space Station.

And it offers an interesting perspective on how China is affecting the international order and food for thought on geopolitical tensions.

Before China’s entry, Russia and the United States were the only two countries that had independently launched space stations. The former Cold War rivals had wanted to gain superiority in space technology.

It was a competition on many fronts: technology, ideology and language. Which language was being communicated back to Earth had a significant impact on the national pride of millions of people.

A pivotal moment came on July 17, 1975, when the Russians and Americans docked their spacecraft in orbit. With one handshake, the two mission commanders replaced a long, tense political relationship with cooperation.
From then on, there was growing collaboration between Russia and the US. They learned more about each other’s language and culture, and subsequently came together for the International Space Station project. This is a cooperative programme between Russia, the US, Europe, Canada and Japan, with Russian and English designated as the official languages.


China’s Shenzhou 14 mission begins mission to finish the Tiangong space station

China’s Shenzhou 14 mission begins mission to finish the Tiangong space station
Anyone on board the International Space Station must have a working knowledge of English. And, for a long time, astronauts also had to have a good grasp of Russian to get there, because the Russian Soyuz spacecraft were the only space shuttles available, with all the procedures and labels in Russian.
As of last May, 258 people from 20 countries have visited the International Space Station. China was never one of them. China’s development of space technology was considered a threat to the US and the Wolf Amendment was an effort to pre-empt this.

A decade after the Wolf Amendment, China launched its own space station and sent its citizens into space. Just as with Russian and English, Chinese is now a space language.

We are again at a pivotal moment. On one hand, the English language is beginning to overshadow Russian in space. The US is getting other countries to sign the Artemis Accords for a US-led programme to return humans to the moon in 2025. Russia is unwilling to join, stating that the programme is too “US-centric”.
There is also the emergence of private English-speaking companies in space technology, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. In 2020, SpaceX made its first crewed flight to the International Space Station, showing its increasing capability and ambition.

Chinese space scientists watch eagerly as Nasa aims for the moon again

On the other hand, there is a growing presence of the Chinese language in space. Chinese names are now everywhere. Beside Tiangong, other objects that have travelled in space include the Shenzhou (“divine boat”) spacecraft, Chang’e (“Moon goddess”) Moon landers, Yutu (“jade rabbit”) Moon rovers, the Zhu Rong (“god of fire”) Mars rover, and so on.

These names have reached billions of households on Earth, exposing them to a new system of sounds, meanings and implications. And more such names are coming. Also, the names of Chinese astronauts are becoming widespread.

Although there are far fewer than their counterparts in Russia or the US, Chinese astronauts are here to stay. The newly coined taikonaut, a blend of taikong for “outer space” and astronaut, is specifically used for Chinese astronauts.
Also, a major change is coming to the International Space Station, which was originally due to retire in 2024, until the US announced it intended to prolong its operation until 2030. But Russia has said it will leave “after 2024” anyway. This vacuum can quickly be filled by others such as SpaceX and has perhaps been welcomed, given the current political climate.


Russia will pull out of International Space Station by 2024 to focus on its own orbiting outpost

Russia will pull out of International Space Station by 2024 to focus on its own orbiting outpost

When Russia made its announcement, Musk tweeted, “Bon voyage”. After Russia’s departure, English will probably become even more dominant on International Space Station missions.

To rival this, Russian and Chinese could become joint working languages on the moon, given that the two nations have agreed to build a lunar research station together.

All sides are eyeing the natural resources on the moon and its strategic position. Leadership in space will affect events on Earth. And, in space, languages are more than communication tools. How they get to be written is a fluid reflection of the geopolitical tensions on Earth.

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and the author of the Mandarin Express textbook series and the Chinese Reading and Writing textbook series