Mission to Mars in need of name that isn't completely stupid
July 23, 2012 10:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing about a (fictional) Chinese-led mission to Mars -- what's a believable name for the ship itself?

I'm writing a short story in which an international crew is in transit to Mars on a Nautilus-X style ship, and for various logistical/plot reasons I'd like for the ship to have a Chinese name.

To any of you who're fluent in Mandarin -- what are some believable names that wouldn't sound ridiculous to a native speaker? Assume that the PRC is still in existence and making name-related decisions.

Related real-world vehicles and their names:

Tiangong - space station
Shenzhou - manned orbiter
Yinghuo - (unsuccessful) Mars probe
Chang Zheng - rocket for launching vehicles into LEO

I don't speak or read any Chinese at all, and I would prefer to avoid just plugging things into Google Translator, so any help at all with this would be hugely appreciated! I'd hate for a silly spaceship name to be a black mark on this project.
posted by Narrative Priorities to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you could craft something from this:

Yinghuo-1's name (simplified Chinese: 萤火; traditional Chinese: 螢火; pinyin: yínghuǒ – firefly, literally "luminous fire") was a tribute to the near-homophone yinghuo (simplified Chinese: 荧惑; traditional Chinese: 熒惑; pinyin: yínghuò). This word, a short form of "shimmering planet" (熒惑星), is an ancient Chinese name for Mars.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:23 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

战车 ZhanChe (chariot - mars, god of war)

使命红 Shiming Hong (misson red)
posted by chasles at 10:26 AM on July 23, 2012

full disclosure by the way: i dont speak chinese but ran them past a native speaker who wasn't annoyed by them, said they have that vaguely government named sound....
posted by chasles at 10:27 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Perhaps they could name it after Admiral Zheng He, the great explorer of China's previous burst of outward facing exploration.

(Short version, about a century before Europeans started turning up in odd places around the world in tiny little ships, he led several truly massive Chinese missions of exploration consisting of a flotilla of enormous junks dwarfing anything Spain could have produced and carrying a crew of thousands. They reached as a far as the African coast on several voyages of trade and exploration. Then the Chinese basically went, okay, we're done with that, and deliberately turned inward and ditched the whole thing.)
posted by Naberius at 10:27 AM on July 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

For a ship name with more historic pompacity, which PRC is not averse to, try Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty admiral who took huge treasure fleet to coast of Africa.

posted by Pantalaimon at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ooo I love the idea of calling it Zheng He!
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2012

I shall "damn it, Naberius!" myself on your behalf, Pantalaimon. :-)
posted by Naberius at 10:29 AM on July 23, 2012

thank you, sir:)
posted by Pantalaimon at 10:34 AM on July 23, 2012

I don't like 战车 (ZhanChe) at all. It's an explicitly martial name (literally war vehicle), which China has mostly avoided with their recent space activities (Chang Zheng is sort of an exception, but it's not aggressive, as far as military references go, and it's also an older program).

Also, "che" is the wrong kind of vehicle word for a spaceship. References to the Western mythological connotations of Mars don't make a lot of sense for a Chinese ship, anyway.

This is really tricky, for a few reasons. a) the Chinese don't tend to name things after people, b) they LOVE poetic wordplay and references (like the correspondence between the probe name 'firefly' and the classical Chinese word for Mars mentioned above), and c) Chinese poetic wordplay and references are so rich and dense as to be almost impossibly opaque to foreigners.

I would try to find the instructor of your local university's Classical Chinese course and send them a polite email asking them what they would name the first Chinese mission to Mars. Or offer to buy them lunch and talk about it. You'll get a good answer.

Failing that, since it's an international team, you could probably go for something bland and politically inoffensive about harmony or cooperation. You could even have one of the Chinese crew members complain about how the name lacked poetry, and really sound like you know what you're talking about.
posted by zjacreman at 11:22 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, 红 ("red") isn't associated with Mars in Chinese the way it is in English. They go for 火 ("fire").

"Mission Red" would sound really jingoistic and Communist, especially in the context of the Chinese space program. The first Chinese satellite was Dong Fang Hong 1 ("The East is Red 1"), and all it did was play a few chiptune bars of "The East is Red", which is a very explicitly Maoist song from the Cultural Revolution. Not exactly synonymous with progress in the Chinese imagination, these days.
posted by zjacreman at 11:34 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe you could incorporate Tsien somehow, in order to reference the Chinese mission to Europa from 2010.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:37 PM on July 23, 2012

KokoRyu's suggestions sound most plausible to me so far. As zjacreman points out, China has gone mostly for classical-sounding names so far (Shenzhou, "divine land," is an old name for China; Tiangong is "heavenly palace," etc.) and I'd expect that to continue. Part of this, though, is probably to do with the zeitgeist in China -- attempts to connect, at least rhetorically, the current country with its cultural inheritance. The older Long March rockets come from a different period -- though for what it's worth, 长征 sounds much nicer and less martial in Chinese than "Long March" does in English -- so you may also want to consider what's going on in China at the time of your story when choosing names.

As KokoRyu points out, 熒惑 yinghuo is an old name for Mars (the 星 xing, 'planet/star,' is optional), but I don't know if it's something they'd want for a name in this context. 惑 means "doubt, confusion, befuddlement," which is probably why they swapped it for 火 in the name of the Yinghuo-1. Taken together, 熒惑 means "shimmering" or "glimmering," but more in the way of a will-o'-the-wisp -- not something reliable. (This page on Daoist cosmology glosses it as "sparkling deluder," which is probably a bit much.)

Also: is this ship going to be specifically used for the Mars mission, or will it be something (like the Enterprise/Columbia/Challenger) used for multiple missions? Is it going to be used solely for transit, or will there be an attempt to found a Mars colony? If it's going to be part of a fleet of multi-use vehicles, something like "Zheng He" might work -- "Zheng He" is of course the new rallying figure for Chinese exploration as Pantalaimon and showbiz_liz pointed out. You could also think about naming it after a famous Chinese polymath like Shen Kuo. I'm not sure the Chinese would actually name a ship after a person, but it wouldn't be totally implausible.

My work day is beginning and I haven't got my books to hand at the moment, but I'd say you might want to take a look at Daoist texts about astronomy and see if inspiration strikes. Something specifically Mars-related might not be the way to go, but Daoism was absolutely crawling with various palaces, halls, temples, grottoes, etc., all of which had pretty flowery names. Seconding zjacreman's suggestion that you find your local teacher of Classical Chinese and ask if they've got any ideas.
posted by bokane at 6:01 PM on July 23, 2012

And good on you for not going the dictionary/Google Translate route. I just finished The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, and despite enjoying it immensely, I kept finding myself distracted and annoyed by unidiomatic uses of Chinese. Not a problem for well-adjusted readers, but still.
posted by bokane at 6:08 PM on July 23, 2012

Response by poster: All of this has been immensely helpful, thank you!

Just coming in to answer one question real quick:

bokane, the ship might ultimately be reused but that would not be a given. This would be a near-future, first-time manned mission to Mars for scientific purposes only, with a very small international crew and no intent of founding a colony. If it matters, a primary motivator for organizing the mission would be the discovery of what might be fossilized bacteria by a Curiosity-style rover.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:38 PM on July 23, 2012

Some good suggestions and advice so far; for my four penn'orth, how about Zhu Que 朱雀? That's the Vermillion Bird, one of the four trad symbols of the constellations, associated with fire and I believe Mars (I see at the latter link it's sometimes translated loosely as Red Phoenix which might be easier on readers too).
posted by Abiezer at 7:32 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Definitely seconding/thirding some kind of Zheng He connection. Perhaps an allusion to his Treasure Ships (Chinese: 宝船; pinyin: bǎochuán) would be appropriate?
posted by huxham at 8:07 PM on July 23, 2012

Response by poster: After doing some more research and agonzing for many hours, I ended up going with the "Baochuan" -- thanks for the suggestion, huxham!

The story for which I was solving this problem is finished and became part of this anthology.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 5:51 AM on December 31, 2012

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