The crew of the Shenzhou 12 Chinese space mission receive a send-off at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China before their voyage into space. Photo: Li Gang
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

The ship that took a man to space and back in ancient Chinese tale

  • According to third century author Zhang Hua, a man travelled to space and back, at some point losing track of where the Earth ended and the sky began
  • It may not be very different from what the Chinese astronauts aboard Shenzhou 12 experienced as their craft left the Earth’s atmosphere recently

China’s latest crewed space mission was launched just over three weeks ago from a facility in the Gobi Desert. Seven hours after lift-off, the Shenzhou 12 capsule, carrying three astronauts, docked with the core module of the Tiangong space station. There, 380km (235 miles) above the Earth’s surface, they will spend the next three months putting the module into service, testing new technologies and conducting spacewalks.

Since its inception in the late 1950s, China’s space programme has developed, especially in the last two decades, to become an advanced enterprise to be reckoned with. In the past six months alone, Chinese spacecraft had taken rock and soil samples from the moon back to Earth and landed a robot rover on Mars, both of which involved technology and processes a great deal more complex and intricate than they sound.

Most of the names adopted for the hardware in the Chinese space programme have mythic connotations, such as Tiangong (literally “heavenly palace”) and Shenzhou (“divine vessel”). The core module where the three astronauts will work and live is called Tianhe (“celestial harmony”), while the cargo transport spacecraft that ferries supplies from Earth to the space station is called Tianzhou (“heavenly ship”).

There is a Chinese tale about a ship that took a man to space and back. In his Records of the Myriad Things, Zhang Hua (232–300) recounted the popular legend of how one could reach the Milky Way, or the “Silver River” (yinhe) in Chinese, by way of the sea. Once upon a time, there was a man who lived by the sea. Each year, without fail, a raft would drift ashore in the eighth month. His curiosity piqued, he decided to go on an adventure one year. He built a structure on the raft for shelter, prepared food and water for himself, and drifted into the unknown on board the raft.

The Milky Way, or “yinhe” (Silver River) as Chinese call it. Photo: Getty Images

At the beginning of his voyage, he could still see the sun, moon and stars in the sky. As he went on, he found that he could not make out where the Earth ended and the sky began. Day and night were no longer discernible. After a period of time, equivalent to almost a year, he arrived at a place that resembled a city, with neat rows of houses, in which many women were weaving.

He then found himself on a river in the city, on whose banks a cowherd was leading his charges to the water. Shocked at seeing a stranger, the cowherd asked him where he had come from. The man explained to the cowherd about the raft and his voyage, before asking him where he was. The cowherd said: “Go to the Shu Commandery after you return and ask a man named Yan Junping. He will tell you everything.”

After he returned home, the man did as he was told and went in search of Yan Junping in the Shu region (modern Sichuan). After hearing the man out, Yan said: “On such a day of such a month in such a year, a lone star was observed to have come into the vicinity of the Cowherd Star.” After making some calculations, the day the star movements were observed turned out to be the very day that the man on the raft met the cowherd in the celestial city. The man’s space voyage to the Cowherd Star (or Altair, the brightest star in the constellation of Aquila) had been observed by someone on Earth!

Weaving maidens and cryptic cowherds at his destination notwithstanding, the man’s journey – the initial clear sky with observable heavenly bodies followed by the entry into nebulous space – may not be very different from what the astronauts aboard Shenzhou 12 experienced as their craft left the Earth’s atmosphere.