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When China successfully launched its first manned space flight in October 2003, there were some differences of opinion in English-language reports about what to call the pilot, Colonel Yang Liwei.

Ever since the start of space travel we’ve had two words for a space traveller, cosmonaut from the old USSR and the more common US term astronaut. A third began to appear about 1999 in reference to the Chinese space programme: taikonaut, a cross-bred offspring of the Chinese term tai kong, space, with the -naut ending of the other terms (which derives from Greek nautes, a sailor). Taikonaut seems to have been invented by amateur space enthusiasts and taken up by journalists.

However, the usual Chinese term is yuhangyuan, which has been used for many years to refer to participants in the American and Russian space programmes. This has been borrowed by English-language newspapers in the last couple of months or so in reports of the Chinese project. It’s a transliteration of Chinese words that literally mean “universe travel worker”, an individual paid to go into space. Knowing that somehow takes the mystery out of it.

Since astronaut is available, why English-language writers are bothering with the Chinese word isn’t clear (especially when the China Daily and the South China Morning Post both use astronaut in their English-language reports). Perhaps it’s just the restless journalistic quest for novelty. If so, yuhangyuan is likely soon to vanish from English again.

[Many thanks to Martin Turner in Hong Kong for his help.]

As the countdown clock ticks away, best-guesses have set the Chinese launching of their first taikonaut, or yuhangyuan, into orbit on or around Oct. 15, 2003.

International Herald Tribune, 10 Oct. 2003

After the launch from the Jiuquan site in Gansu province, the Shenzhou is expected to make more than a dozen orbits of Earth, providing time for a possible spacewalk by the yuhangyuan who by then will not be feeling the weight of their 10kg spacesuits.

The Guardian, 6 Oct. 2003

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Page created 25 Oct 2003