Asia Life | Society | East Asia

Nationalism in China’s Wandering Earth

Chinese blockbuster Wandering Earth explores a future marked by environmental chaos and loss of home, saved only by Chinese heroism and family.

Layne Vandenberg
Nationalism in China’s Wandering Earth

In this image released on Friday, February 15, 2019, a crew work on the set of The Wandering Earth which was shot at Oriental Movie Capital Industrial Park in Qingdao, China.

Credit: City of Qingdao via AP Images

Messages of Chinese nationalism arrived in full force during China’s 70th National Day celebrations on October 1, 2019. Nationalist messages, however, have been circulating throughout China by other means than President Xi Jinping’s speeches. 

China’s 2019 hit film Wandering Earth (流浪地球) is one of the clearest embodiments of Beijing’s nationalist messaging around China’s role in the international system. An international and domestic success, Wandering Earth has grossed over $700 million since its release in February 2019. Over $690 million came from domestic audiences alone, placing it as the fifth-biggest single-territory grosser worldwide and the second highest in China behind Wolf Warrior 2 ($854 million in 2017). Beyond being China’s first big budget sci-fi adventure in outer space, Wandering Earth drew crowds by bringing discussions of contemporary issues into space, including climate change, capitalism, the role of international governance, and loss — of home, of family, and of hope.

The premise of Wandering Earth is straightforward: The sun will engulf Earth in 100 years and humans will need to relocate to survive. Instead of relocating to a different planet altogether, the United Earth Government decides to propel Earth into a new solar system to avoid its inevitable doom. The voyage will take 2,500 years.

The first story underlying Wandering Earth is one of the global influences changing the way humans live and understand life. The film begins with a montage of the effects of climate change, including volcanic eruptions in South Carolina, the extinction of various species, and a rise in sea levels. Fast forward to the film’s present day, where humans are living in underground cities 5 kilometers below Earth’s surface to avoid the extreme weather aboveground, complete with temperatures as low as -84°C (-120°F). One character compares this new reality to the old world, stating, “Everyone was worried about the thing called money.” With money ruling society, society allowed for worldwide disaster. 

The impact of international (and universal) influence on Chinese people is embodied in the dynamic relations between family and the expansion of what it means to “be” Chinese. While each of these scenarios occurs in the future, they are aggravated forms of current dynamics influencing the evolution of the concept of family in China. 

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The film follows two primary protagonists and father-son pair: teenager Liu Qi (played by Qu Chuxiao), and his father and Chinese astronaut, Liu Peiqiang (Jing Wu). Liu Peiqiang has been absent from his son’s life for 17 years while living on the United Earth Government navigation platform and leading the Earth’s journey. As a result, Liu Qi has grown up with his grandfather, Han Ziang (Ng Man-tat). Although set in a futuristic plot, parent-child separation in China is a reality for many young Chinese who end up living with and being raised by grandparents while parents work in larger cities and send money back home. The heroism displayed by Liu Peiqiang counterbalances his absence, reinforcing that parental absence in the service of the nation is not only worthy of admiration, but a necessity to survival. 

The film also grazes the topic of adoption through the character of Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), Liu Qi’s adopted sister. We learn Duoduo was adopted by Han Ziang in the midst of the environmental chaos that preceded the Earth’s decision to leave our current solar system. Her storyline, rather than representing domestic adoption trends, reflects the importance of the broader Chinese family or nation, where all can find refuge and acceptance. The broader notion of losing Earth’s home in the solar system is further equatable to the literal loss of family, which is only surmounted through collective action. 

What it means to belong to the Chinese identity is explored through the character of Tim (played by Mike Sui). As a mixed ethnicity character (half-Chinese, half-Australian), Tim brings up his father’s identity as a Beijinger to prove his credentials as a Chinese (and not a foreigner) to the other full Chinese characters. This plays out when Tim shows up in a rescue team unit alongside Liu Qi and Duoduo. When a fellow Chinese asks, “Aren’t you a Chinese rescue team? Why is a foreigner here?” Tim responds, “Who here is a foreigner? My father is from Beijing. I have a Zhongguo xin (Chinese heart).” The original questioning of Tim’s identity is a reality for many mixed ethnicity Chinese, both those living in China and outside of China. The film’s affirmation of Tim as a true Chinese reflects broader campaigns to encourage China’s growing diaspora to embrace their Chinese roots. 

Wandering Earth may present a future rife with tragedy and instability on an international scale, but it also presents solutions rooted in nationalist messages: strong family ties, reliance on Chinese heroism in the face of failing international systems, and an extended acceptance of what it means to be Chinese. While China’s National Day celebrations may present explicit nationalist rhetoric, films like Wandering Earth provide relatively implicit reminders of the same messages, reinforcing nationalism more pervasively. 

Wandering Earth is available via Netflix but may be subject to geographic restrictions.