"Baton" and "needle" in space

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Martin Delson asked about a couple of Chinese expressions that appeared in this article from the San Jose Mercury News (6/17/21):

"China launches crew to its new space station", by Carlos Garcia and Shubing Wang

Complete, and more easily accessible version from Reuters (6/17/21):

"Chinese astronauts board space station module in historic mission", by Carlos Garcia

The three astronauts are Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45.

"This will be the first crewed flight in the space station (construction) phase, and I'm lucky to be able to have the 'first baton,'" Nie told reporters in Jiuquan a day before the launch.

Wang Yaping, a member of the Shenzhou-12 backup team, told state media.

"In our crew, elder brother Nie is like the needle that stills the sea…".

Martin requested an elucidation of "first baton" and "needle that stills the sea".

In the 16th-century novel, Journey to the West, the simian hero, Sun Wukong ("Monkey Enlightened to Emptiness") possesses a magical staff, the jīngū bàng 金箍棒 ("golden cudgel / rod / baton") that has transformational properties.  One of its forms is that of the dìnghǎi shénzhēn 定海神针 ("numinous needle that stabilizes the sea"), which was actually the original source of the jīngū bàng 金箍棒 ("golden cudgel / rod / baton").  Thus we can see that both of the objects that Martin asked about are attributes of the supernatural simian, Sun Wukong, of Journey to the West.  (Of course, the meaning of "baton" for relay racing is also operative.)

In the context of this post, It is pertinent to note that Sun Wukong is capable of flying 108,000 li / tricents (54,000 km, 34,000 mi) in one somersault.  For this and all manner of esoteric lore about the magical monkey and the novel in which he appears, see the remarkable website of Jim McClanahan, Journey to the West Research.

This continues the tradition of using terms from Chinese legend and myth for names of objects, equipment, places, etc. in space related research and technology.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Chenfeng Wang and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    June 17, 2021 @ 11:23 pm

    Podcast on the 1592 version of the novel presented by Melvyn Bragg and the experts he interviews in the BBC podcast "In Our Time."


    With a nice bibliography on the novel and on the Ming cultural environment.

  2. Linda said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 5:42 am

    Not being familiar with Chinese literature, my first thought on baton was relay races. He is the lead off runner who must provide a strong foundation for all those who will follow after.

  3. Jerry Packard said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 6:38 am

    Me too.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 8:06 am

    From Jim McClanahan:

    I'm currently planning an article on japsang (잡상; 雜像) figurines of Sun Wukong and the other pilgrims that are believed to protect Korean royal palaces from fire and evil spirits. My two most recent articles review attempts by the comic book companies Marvel and DC to adapt the Monkey King. Let's just say those comics are a painful read for anyone with knowledge of Journey to the West.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 8:51 am

    Like Linda and Jerry, I too thought of a relay race, but only in terms of the thing which each runner carries and which he or she must pass to the next in the team within a finite part of the track. I had no idea that "baton" could also refer to a person.

  6. KeithB said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 11:48 am

    Jim McCanahan via VM:
    I am sure that the Norse (Thor) and Greek (Wonderwoman) pantheon believers cringe just as much by how their heroes are treated by DC and Marvel.

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