Jeffrey LewisA Place For One's Mat

Gregory Kulacki and I have published a paper on the history of China’s space program, A Place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program, 1956–2003, as part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Reconsidering the Rules of Space project:

Chinese scientists and engineers use a particular phrase to describe why China made such significant investments in space programs. They explain their motivation to make China a spacefaring nation with the phrase yi xi zhi di: “a place for one’s mat.” The English analog is “a seat at the table,” the difference explained by the fact that people in ancient China sat on mats on the floor, not in chairs. The fundamental idea is that China deserves a place among
spacefaring nations. Throughout the history of the Chinese space program that has meant taking technical cues from the leading space programs—usually the United States.

Chinese efforts have been shaped by political, bureaucratic, and technical realities. In particular, the political turmoil of the Mao era and subsequent efforts to restore stability to the Chinese economy deferred many of their objectives to the present day.

We do not for a moment believe that we have written a definitive history of China’s space program. We do not present the complete chronologies of every space program and piece of technology discussed in the original Chinese sources, but instead have selected as case studies three important decisions and accomplishments: (1) the launch of China’s first satellite in 1970, (2) the launch of China’s first communications satellite in 1984, and (3) China’s first human spaceflight in 2003. A comprehensive history should address many other issues and events, such as the influence and the role of Soviet assistance and China’s military space programs, but a comprehensive history is not our objective. We aim to demonstrate how the available history can help foreign observers better understand Chinese intentions. These three difficult efforts to establish China as a major spacefaring nation demonstrate strong philosophical and political aspirations that go beyond the acquisition of instrumental military or technical capabilities. Although the motivations in the Chinese space community conflict and overlap, all parties appear to have a sense of the importance of space to China’s view of itself and its place among nations.


  1. Nick Black (History)

    Thanks for the heads up! I look forward to reading this.

  2. JK (History)

    Are those Chinese anti-satellite weapons also helpful for taking a place among spacefaring powers?

    It seems that the Chinese SC-19 test on Feb. 6, 2006 was a public event, for Chinese UFO observers.

    Their observation showed that a high energy event did happen, and the interceptor smashed into the target.

    But they thought it was a ABM, not ASAT, test, and the collision occurred inside the atmosphere.

    While, confusingly, the NYTimes said in 2007 that : “In the second trial, the missile passed near a satellite, leaving American officials unsure whether the goal had been to hit it, or simply to pass nearby.”

    See (in Chinese):