The Wandering Earth:
Gender, Sexuality, and Geopolitics

Compiled and edited by Petrus Liu and Lisa Rofel

Petrus Liu | Laura Trajber Waisbich | Zeng Lu | Zairong Xiang |
Lisa Rofel | Maria Amelia Viteri-Burbano and Jesse Crane-Seeber | Cai Yiping

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 2020)

Introduction: The Heteropatriarchal Geopolitics of The Wandering Earth
Petrus Liu (Boston University)

Since its highly anticipated theatrical release on Chinese New Year’s Day in 2019, The Wandering Earth (流浪地球), China’s first space blockbuster directed by Frant Gwo 郭帆, has become the country’s third highest-grossing film of all time. The Wandering Earth capitalizes on the success of action star Wu Jing 吴京, who plays a heroic Chinese astronaut in this film after directing, co-writing, and starring in Wolf Warrior II (战狼II), the 2017 action film that holds the record for the highest-grossing Chinese film in history. Like its predecessor, The Wandering Earth features a patriotic theme and a plotline centered on a rescue mission. Whereas Wolf Warrior II has Wu Jing traveling to Africa to rescue imperiled workers in a Chinese factory from deadly diseases, civil wars, and white mercenaries, The Wandering Earth raises the stakes: now Wu Jing’s character and his family must save Earth and the entire human race from an interstellar catastrophe. In year 2061, the earth has become a freezing planet with a dying Sun. Huddled in subterranean cities, what is left of humanity has formed a United Earth Government and devised a plan a propel Earth to a more habitable solar system. The story switches back and forth between Wu Jing’s character Liu Peiqiang 刘培强, a Chinese astronaut who left his four-year son Liu Qi 刘启 behind seventeen years previously to complete a mission in outer space to save Earth, and the now grown-up Liu Qi, who goes on his own adventures with his adopted sister Han Duoduo 韩朵朵 on Earth’s rapidly crumbling surface. Though Liu Peiqiang has completed the original mission and is now finally about to be reunited with his family on Earth after the Chinese New Year, new and unexpected interstellar and environmental catastrophes occur. After overcoming many seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including a rogue artificial intelligence system with its own secret agenda, Liu Peiqiang commandeers the space station and sacrifices himself on a suicide mission to allow Earth to escape the gravitational pull of Jupiter. Though the son never gets to see his father again, Earth is saved from destruction and continues on its journey to another galaxy.

As a global disaster film, The Wandering Earth feels both familiar and unfamiliar. Reviews in American media mainly focus on the film’s ability to translate familiar Hollywood tropes—seen in works such as Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Interstellar, and Sunshine—into a visually dynamic, emotionally engaging, and decidedly apolitical work of escapist entertainment.[1] The present collection of essays, however, emphasizes the impossibility of not reading the film in geopolitical and feminist-queer ways. In 2017, the contributors here and many others formed an international and interdisciplinary working group to collectively reflect on the role of gender and sexuality in China’s evolving relationships with the Global South. While China’s national “Going-Out” policy, Belt and Road initiative, South-South Cooperation, and the Beijing Consensus are all familiar topics that have attracted a great deal of critical scrutiny, the issues of gender and sexuality have been largely ignored. Our research group consists of academics, NGO workers, educators, and activists located in China, North America, and different parts of the Global South. We held several international workshops and conferences, and we decided that a film criticism forum would be a productive venue for the members of this research group to continue exchanging our thoughts outside formal meetings. In 2018, we published our first collection on Wolf Warrior II in Chinese, French, and English. In 2019, we published a second set of commentaries on the Argentine film Un Cuento Chino in Chinese, English, and Spanish. The Wandering Earth is the third film in our series.

The Wandering Earth raises a number of political and ethical issues that have become even more acute since its 2019 release, including internationalism vs. unilateralism, climate change, technological innovations, global leadership and responsibilities, nationalism, capitalism, soft power, and US-China relations. Watching and writing about The Wandering Earth during the 2020 pandemic makes the film’s underground inhabitants seem uncannily real, while rapidly escalating tensions between China and the US at the current moment provide a renewed context for us to evaluate the geopolitics of the film. As the United States continues to pursue an America First foreign policy, withdrawing from international organizations and multilateral treaties including the UN Paris climate agreement, The Wandering Earth’s emphasis on environmentalism and international collaboration concurs with China’s commitment to becoming the global leader in renewable energy technology.[2] Both Laura Waisbich and Zeng Lu analyze the film in terms of China’s growing influence as a world power and a world leader, but bring significantly different interpretive strategies to the table and reach divergent conclusions. Whereas Waisbich draws attention to the parallels between the film and state actors, Zeng believes that the film’s box-office success indexes the public’s eagerness for China to take on a more prominent role and more responsibilities in global affairs. Waisbich reads the film as a reflection of internal and external tensions caused by the paradoxical perception of China as “both the source and the solution to many of the current global crises,” while Zeng sees the film as an unambiguous reflection of an unprecedented level of confidence in China’s global influence and power. The vast range of ideas expressed in the commentaries in this collection attests to the complexities of a seemingly superficial and apolitical popcorn movie.

The film’s imagination of a United Earth Government, where people of different races and languages work harmoniously under Chinese leadership, seems even less implausible than the idea of a scientific development that could propel Earth to another solar system. As María Amelia Viteri-Burbano and Jesse Crane-Seeber argue in their commentary, the film’s postracial imagination that “threats to human survival can be controlled through disciplined collective labor” “dovetails neatly with Chinese fantasies of hegemony.” But the more interesting question is why these two developments—technological and postracial—are imagined as one and the same in this China-produced blockbuster at this current juncture in global politics. In a seminal essay, Amir Khan describes the film as an embodiment of “technology fetishism” in two senses: first, the fetishistic belief that “whatever problems we face are merely one technology away from being solved” (22); and, second, as a visually capable Chinese blockbuster that proves to the Chinese and international audiences alike that China possesses the technology in filmmaking to create aesthetically pleasing special effects.[3]  Despite its fetishization of technology, Khan points out that when the film opens, humanity already possesses the requisite technology to propel Earth to another solar system so the “principal threat to our existence is not a lack of technological prowess, but the possible human (in)ability to sufficiently mobilize the energy, drive, will, and interests of a planet that has literally gone off course” (21). Hence what really qualifies the film as a work of speculative fiction is its fantasy of the political advance humanity has made to create a world in which the West has given up its stewardship of the planet and, instead, “the colored people of the world have a monopoly not over any life-saving technology, but the civilizational impetus to press forward a philosophy of care” (23). But what Khan describes as “the subaltern taking up the center” or the film’s decolonizing narrative can just as easily be read as Chinese nationalism, and it is not clear that the “colored people of the world” would recognize themselves in or feel empowered by the film’s representation of China as the savior of the world. Indeed, China’s relationship to the Global South today is an enormously controversial topic. Whereas some scholars have strongly objected to the use of “colonialism” or “neocolonialism” to describe China’s expansive economic activities in Africa,[4] others continue to criticize China’s “debt trap diplomacy” and investments in foreign extractive industries. Instead of third-world solidarity, it is more accurate to say that The Wandering Earth projects a Chinese desire to take on a greater leadership position in global affairs. Liu Cixin 刘慈欣, the author of the original short story that the film is loosely based on, seemed to endorse the “socially speculative” thesis when he stated in his Clark Foundation Award acceptance speech that “China is a futuristic country. … I realized that the world around me became more and more like science fiction, and this process is speeding up.”[5] If the imagination of futuristic technology cannot take place without the imagination of a futuristic political order, it may be because the object of speculative fiction is our present rather than our future after all.

What is the role of gender and sexuality in this social speculation? The conspicuous absence of significant female characters has not escaped the attention of critics. As David Ehrlich of IndieWire puts it, “Han Doudou [sic] is never afforded much of a personality or a reason to exist—not beyond the purposes of a cheaply sentimental flashback in the middle of the second act.”[6] When female characters do appear in the film, their screen time is either so brief that they are essentially mere props or their role is reduced to gender stereotypes, as both Lisa Rofel and Zairong Xiang point out in their commentaries. This particular representation of gender and sexuality is not tangential to the film’s geopolitics but rather constitutive of it. Cai Yiping in her commentary suggests that “a rising China needs a woman’s face” and analyzes the feminization and infantilization of Han Duoduo’s character as a deliberate attempt to export China’s soft power. We can further argue that Han Duoduo’s vapid personality and apparent irrelevance to the story are precisely what makes a gender analysis important for our understanding of the film. Why must Han Duoduo enter the story as an adopted, rather than biological, daughter of the primary family? Why did the producers choose not to include a romantic subplot? Han Duoduo’s character is awkwardly positioned between two archetypes: she is neither a heroine endowed with sufficient charisma and agency to serve as the film’s narrative focus, nor is she sufficiently removed from the protagonist for her to serve as a damsel in distress or a reward for a quest narrative. In this tale of what Rofel describes as “the inheritance of manhood through patriarchal lineage,” Liu Peiqiang entrusts the four-year toddler to his father-in-law instead of his wife (who is terminally ill), and the father-in-law ensures the survival of his daughter and son-in-law’s only son. The producers’ choice to make Han Duoduo an adopted daughter allows the patriarchal lineage to remain sharp and intact, and it may even be an implicit nod to the audience who grew up during the One-Child Policy. Significantly, both Wolf Warrior II and The Wandering Earth feature varieties of non-biological kinship. As Paul Amar has argued in the case of Wolf Warrior II, the creation of alternative gendered notions of family is not necessarily a progressive choice; rather, it presents an assimilative discourse of the “new world family” that works to incorporate non-Chinese subjects into a China-centered humanitarian capitalist world system.[7] Theatrically released on Chinese New Year’s day, The Wandering Earth celebrates “holiday themes,” such as family, togetherness, and parental sacrifice; Liu Peiqiang is supposed to return to Earth and be reunited with his son right after the Chinese New Year. The film even includes a lion dance and mahjong games. The strategic inclusion of these elements led several critics to compare the film to the July 4 timing of Emmerich’s Independence Day.[8] To some critics, the solutions the film offers to global problems are clearly 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.”[9]

None of these is present in Li Cixin’s original short story, which is a beautiful, poetic meditation on the magnitude of the universe and its mysteries from the viewpoint of an unassuming elementary school student. Instead of a hero who saves the world, the main character is “no more than an unnamed everyman—worse, because he is completely assured of his own unimportance” “against a backdrop of melodramatic scientific achievements” and the story’s “lavish description of physical events.”[10] His father, an astronaut, does abandon him and his mother briefly, not to perform a heroic feat in outer space but to have an affair with the protagonist’s primary school teacher. The mother reacts to the news with no emotions and soon after the father returns home after spending two months with his mistress, the entire family forgets the episode. The film adaptation leaves out all of these most interesting and provocative configurations of gender and sexuality, opting instead for hackneyed, emotionally cheesy daddy issues that have become a staple of American action movies. This form of “gender-mainstreaming” demonstrates that the film’s apparent lack of interest in such issues is intentional and conformist. Far from being extraneous to the film’s speculation of a technologically and geopolitically different future, gender and sexuality prove to be so central that they must be realigned, disciplined, and rehabilitated into a more palatable narrative centered on a heteronormative, patriarchal family’s efforts to build a “community with a shared future for mankind.”

The Geopolitics of The Wandering Earth
Laura Trajber Waisbich, Brazilian Centre of Analysis and Planning (Cebrap) and the South-South Cooperation Research and Policy Centre (ASUL); the University of Cambridge

Once upon a time, in a not so far away future. . . Despite its obvious science-fiction hyper-technological contours, The Wandering Earth (2019) is a movie that feels strangely closer to reality than pure fiction. Watching it in 2020 makes it difficult not to place it—allegorically and analytically—in conversation with the anthropogenic climate/environmental crisis and with the very recent Covid-19 pandemic. As a Chinese production, the movie also provides some valuable cultural insights about China’s global identity and behavior in these real-world contemporary global crises.

The plot is set in a remote future where life on Earth, we are told, has been completely transformed following a series of catastrophic environmental changes occasioned by the sun’s deterioration. The calamity has prompted the formation of a new form of global governance (the United Earth Government – UEG), which has agreed on a complex survival project to put the Earth in movement, wandering in the galaxy, further away from the sun. Most of those who have survived now live underground, hundreds of kilometres underneath the surface, since the Earth’s surface has become too cold to inhabit. Some, nonetheless, work for the UEG and for the project: policing and protecting the hundreds of super powerful engines that keep the Earth moving, driving supplies across the Earth’s surface and between the engines’ sites, or working as scientists. Among the latter, there is Liu Peiqiang, one of the main heroes of the movie. Liu is an astronaut who has left Earth to work on the project from a major space platform together with other brave scientists from different nations. We are not given too much detail about what exactly happened and how The Wandering Earth Project was fully established. The film begins a couple of decades after that, when the project is fully in operation but facing the immediate threat of leading the Earth to collide with Jupiter. Liu Peiqiang has left back home, in China, his son (Liu Qi) and father-in-law (Han Zi’ang 韩子昂) both of whom will become major incidental heroes, as they manage to save the Earth from the collision, thus saving the project and humankind’s common and permanently wandering future.

It is impossible not to think comparatively about this futuristic Chinese sci-fi and the existing Western, mostly North American, movies of the same genre. It is even more difficult not to read this fictional piece geopolitically. Although fast-action and hyper-technology are a common feature in the genre, The Wandering Earth is infused with interesting “Chinese characteristics.” The action takes place in an Asia-centric future, where China occupies the center of the world. Faced with an inter-governmental body (ironically represented by a French-speaking UEG spokesperson, who is faceless and only heard by voice) that is either broken or just unwilling to act, China and the Chinese people are those saving the whole of humankind, not only with technology but through human effort. The non-Western, and more specifically, Asia-Pacific centric focus is evident: besides the Chinese teams, the other nationalities that are shown are Russians, Indonesians, Indians, Australians, Filipinos, and Japanese. North Americans are simply non-existent. Their absence is not only revealing of the world the producers meant to create, but also ironically accurate considering the current retreat of the United States from current multilateral affairs, including its lack of leadership in both the climate and the Covid-19 crises.

Equally sidelined from the plot are female characters. To be more precise, women are at once invisibile and made to conform to stereotyped gendered roles. Comparatively fewer women work as high-ranking scientists or in the national rescue teams; not many of them are portrayed as saviors. Most of the women are mere bypassers, inhabitants of those underground cities: sellers, students, mothers. We are also shown women working as bartenders and sex workers in two underground places. The three main heroes are all men: the father (Liu Peiqiang), his son (Liu Qi), and the grandfather (Han Zi’ang). As the movie develops, Liu Qi’s half-sister, Han Duoduo, joins the main heroes, although in a clearly subsidiary role. Rescued and adopted by the grandfather during the climate crisis, Duoduo is a young teenager: naïve but brave. Like her brother, she becomes a savior by accident. But it is her final persistence, and girlish crying appeal, that end up touching people’s hearts and encouraging all national teams to keep fighting until the end, even when the UEG had admitted defeat. Here it is impossible not to think about the “Greta Thunberg effect” on recent climate mobilization.

Additional cultural markers include a particular blend of naïve humor and deep philosophical thinking in several of the dialogues between the main characters, but also a set of statements about technology-mediated lives and about the current stage of global governance. First, a reminder of what makes humans different from machines: their proactiveness and free will. Second, an acknowledgment of “common/simple men” as heroes, including older and wise working-class people, such as the grand-father Han Zi’ang. Finally, a call for hope and humankind solidarity in times of broken inter-governmental multilateralism.

The Wandering Earth is not a cinematographic masterpiece, but it fits nicely with the current wave of Chinese movies that projects a new world where China and the Chinese people are the saviors. These are movies that speak to a changing world increasingly marked by China’s “Wolf Warrior diplomacy”[11], observed in global crises such as the environmental/climate one and the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet despite the message blockbuster movies try to convey, the reality is still one where a “rising China” remains in an uncomfortable position, permeated by internal and external tensions and anxieties. Outside China, both in the West but also in the South, the country is perceived or portrayed as both the source and the solution to many of the current global crises. In the climate crisis, for instance, China is recognized as one of the major carbon emitters in aggregated terms (in both present and historical levels) and as a low-carbon technological innovation hub. China has thus to navigate this duality of being seen as at once responsible for global problems and a global savior. The same is now happening during the current Covid-19 pandemic, where China was the initial focus of the current crisis (something health scientists predicted long ago could happen) but quickly became a major humanitarian aid donor and the world’s medical equipment supplier. Beijing quickly understood it had to steer the global narratives related to the disease in a more favorable way to China. One of its successful maneuvers is downplaying the heavy-handed lockdown imposed in Wuhan and, instead, highlighting the effective social mobilization of resources—economic, technological, and above all human—to fight the virus. Reality or fiction, the parallel with one of the key-messages of this movie is undeniable.

The Wandering Earth: Growing Influence of an Emerging Power
ZENG Lu, independent scholar

China’s 2019 blockbuster The Wandering Earth tells a story of a future age in which the sun is dying out and the United Earth Government builds giant planet thrusters to sail the earth to another star system. In the face of an unexpected global crisis, a group of Chinese fight hard to save the earth for the survival of humanity.

The film reflects an unprecedented confidence in China’s global influence. The Wandering Earth is a step forward from earlier box-office hits featuring China’s increasing global role, such as the Wolf Warrior series (2015, 2019) and Operation Red Sea (2018). The three movies featured Chinese Special Forces rescuing endangered Chinese nationals in war-torn foreign countries. The movies echo China’s evacuation operations from countries such as Solomon Islands and Libya, exhibiting a mounting patriotism and confidence in the country’s strengthened capacity to protect its national interests globally. Compared to earlier films on China’s role beyond its border, The Wandering Earth stands out in two ways; it is the first successful Chinese science fiction film with domestically-produced special visual effects, which underscores significant advances in China’s science and technology capacity; and it is the first movie that features the Chinese taking the lead in resolving a global crisis, which highlights an eagerness for a more prominent global role for China. The film is in concert with a rising patriotism at home and an increasing confidence (sometimes aggressively so) in foreign policy.

The huge market success of The Wandering Earth brings to light a surge in positive public attitudes toward China’s global influence. Movies related to global engagement are among the most successful box-office hits in China’s movie history. The cumulative box-office sales of The Wandering Earth, Wolf Warrior 2, and Operation Red Sea amount to 2 billion USD, or 63% of the top five films of China’s box office combined. These figures reveal the Chinese public’s broad-based support for, or at least interest in, the country’s expanded global role. China’s official media consistently rate The Wandering Earth highly. According to a People’s Daily review, “the film shows the integration of China’s unique ideas and values into the thinking and discussion of the future of mankind and has expanded the vision of a better future for mankind.” Chinese film critics and netizens, by contrast, are more divided in their opinions on the film. Supporters spoke highly of the film for its hard core technology, excellent visual effects, and the fact that for the first time the Chinese save the human race in a movie, whereas others criticized it for its confusing plot and narrative, jumbled logic, and overly sensational design. The divergent opinions on the film bring out the public view on China’s global role—an unparalleled interest in the topic, but with very different stances.

The unprecedented public interest in China’s global influence stems from its growing power. In 2010, China became the world’s second largest economy. The country is now considered a significant economic and geopolitical power. The recent shift of Chinese foreign policy from “hiding and biding” to being aggressive and assertive is part of the country’s efforts to uplift its global prominence to match its economic status. China’s global engagement activities are carefully crafted and reported at home, sometimes to divert attention from domestic problems. Consequently, unprecedented interest and confidence in China’s global role are induced among the public, which is fueled by the unique media environment in the country.

China has made solid progress in expanding its global influence but still has a march ahead. In the waves of anti-globalization, China’s pursuit of global prominence is a positive development in general. However, the country’s global footprint has triggered mixed responses. China’s commitment to climate change is key to the global success in tackling this important challenge. China’s support for multilateral organizations fills in the gap left by the US. In contrast, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to boost connectivity faced criticism in terms of debt sustainability. China’s Confucius Institutes, which were established to promote its culture, have raised national security concerns abroad. China’s medical aid and communication campaigns during the current Covid-19 outbreak also caused controversy.

Influence comes with responsibilities. In The Wandering Earth, Liu Peiqiang leaves his young son at home for seventeen years and eventually sacrifices his life to save the earth. Similarly, China has demonstrated its commitment to take on more global responsibilities in order to acquire more global influence. Global influence also means getting in line with established international norms, on which China shows mixed records. Just as The Wandering Earth is new as a science-fiction film, China is relatively young in taking global leadership roles. It is fair to expect more science-fiction successes in Chinese movie theaters that will build on the success of The Wandering Earth. Let’s also hope that China will march ahead with more mature and constructive global influence down the road.

The Wandering Techno-optimism
Zairong XIANG, Duke Kunshan University

Re-watching The Wandering Earth amid the worsening pandemic of Covid-19 in the spring of 2020 alone in confinement in Germany feels very different than watching it in the cinema with my family in China during the Chinese New Year when it was first released in the spring of 2019. Many emotions invoked in the film now feel less (science-) fictional in our current planetary crisis which, as the narrator of the film says, “at first, nobody cared about.” The first half of this short sentence “at first’” is accompanied by an aerial shot of a stunning sunset along a lush coast; in a matter of seconds, however, it turns into the next half of the sentence “nobody cared about this disaster,” which introduces a collage of dystopian news of wildfire, drought, and species extinction. The speed with which the disaster is introduced resonates strongly with how the whole world got caught in the rapidly expanding infection of the deadly virus.

As the disaster unfolds (in the film), solutions are found jointly by all countries and a plan named the Wandering Earth Project is declared: “from now, mankind, a tiny tribe of the solar system embarks on a journey of exile that will last 2500 years.” The scale is dazzling but coherent. What prompts us to the highly aestheticized panorama of planet earth, immersed in the mythical darkness of the universe, is a very simple and almost mannerist farewell of a father to his son: “close your eyes and count, three, two, one, you will see dad.” Our lonely planet emerges, accompanied by a melancholic and solemn piano-solo and the main title of the film written in calligraphic Chinese and typeset English. A human melodrama of cosmic scale is about to start.

While living through the unfolding nightmare of the Covid-19 pandemic, the underground cities of The Wandering Earth by comparison look much better than our present eerily empty streets and squares. Despite the innumberable deaths caused by tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, rising sea level, and lowering temperatures because the earth is literally stopped, people in that imagined future dystopia can at least live more or less “normally”: classroom discussions, New Year’s lion dance, and a mahjong-playing in crowded casino controlled by gangs—the show must go on.

The grandiose topic of the survival of a species and an entire planet—the premise of the film—is narrated with a good balance of scales. And it is also in the different scaling up and down where we can find both the obvious shortcomings of the film’s quite dissapointing gender politics and, at the same time, some feminist resonance that its all-male crew probably didn’t intend but perhaps intuited. The narrative of planetary survival is told through a tear-provoking human(e) storyline of the father-son and grandpa-granddaughter interactions, although almost everything is unapologetically masculine if not exactly machista: filmed by a male director based on a story written by a male author about a group of men saving the earth; even the mother of Liu Qi has died by the beginning of the film; not to mention that the only other two female characters with names are the adopted granddaughter (Han Duoduo) and a soldier (Zhou Qian 周倩). The turns out to be an accurate translation of 人类 as “mankind” (rather than humankind) in the film’s official subtitles.

All visual elements in the background are huge (for us): 2500 years of the wandering project of the earth propelled out of the solar system by 10,000 stellar engines; the dying Sun; the sheer mass of Jupiter; the highest form of human reason (so high up that it attains a God’s eye view). To a great extent, we could relegate the gigantic stellar engines to a phallic symbol. Even the moving Earth in the opening (and closing) scenes looks like wandering semen, which appears insignificant when lost in the incomprehensible immensity of the galaxy.

And precisely because the film’s topic is so grandiose, we are constantly challenged to decide what is important and what doesn’t count as the story unfolds on different levels. With regard to the politics of gender and sexuality in this film (the topic of our discussion), one is tempted to say that these “mundane” issues of feminist concern are not taken as important or even relevant in this cosmic battle for (hu)mankind’s survival. If life is in danger of extinction and in need of salvation through, for example, the eventual self-sacrifice of the astronaut father, you girls can wait until after the storm is gone. But we all know very well, the storm never goes away. The heroic self-sacrifice is also often just a fantasy of self-making, the oldest trope of a masculine/ist creation myth. No wonder Zhou Qian, one of the only two female characters who gets a little (very little) screen time, would extinguish the precious “Lighter Core,” the last burning hope for survival (according to the emergency plan set out in the film). “I am done with this shit” she seems to say when she shouts, “no more death!” after one fellow soldier was frozen to death and their leader stubbornly insists that they continue the senseless march to move the “Lighter Core.” The scarcity of female characters notwithstanding, I hesitate to categorize the film as just another macho endeavor. Let me try to work out why.

Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde’s famous dictum “there is no hierarchy of oppression” needs to be updated here as “there is no hierarchy of extinction,” which the film translates as “facing this cataclysmic catastrophe, mankind united like never before.” We are in this together (sounds quite familiar and no longer too cheesy, I hope). Critiquing the film for being complicit with the sexist habit of speaking (and, in fact, deciding and acting) for all would be stating the obvious. Perhaps besides this clear flaw, there is a creeping sense of unease with the masculine tradition of sci-fi genre the story itself shows. For this we need to look at the role of another female protagonist: Han Duoduo.

Cast as an innocent, almost stupid and definitely spoiled girl who manages to spill a secret in the very begining of the film and who is most of the time a liability to be protected or managed by her I-know-everything macho brother Liu Qi. Her role gives a slight twist to the film’s sausage fest that makes us rethink the whole question of scale that is often not only oblivious of the human factor but also its ultimate purpose.

Han Duoduo was adopted by Liu Qi’s grandfather (note that this is Liu’s maternal grandfather) and was given the name of his daughter, that is, Liu’s mother who the family decided not to cure from a terminal disease in the beginning of the film (a cruelly rational simple explanation is given—because only one protector can accompany baby Liu Qi to the underground city—which also raises the very complex ethical issue that we find ourselves facing in 2020: who should get priority treatment when the resources are scarce and the situation dire). In a very touching flashback by the dying grandpa, Han Duoduo, still a baby, is saved by him during a rescue mission in a terrible flood (17 years after the earth stopped): “Many hands pushed this baby to me. I don’t know who her parents are. All those lost souls beneath water are her parents.”

The only significant thing Han Duoduo ever does in this film, in the manner of an accelerated Bildungsroman, is the speech she claims to have understood, earlier given by her teacher’s pet classmate in underground Beijing, a cheesy elaboration on “what is hope?” There she is, talking to rescue teams of all nations (like the Pope addressing Urbi et Orbi in March at the height of the European chapter of the pandemic on a rainy empty Piazza di San Pietro) via high-tech telecommunication and simultaneous translation. She manages with this school-essay style speech to convince the soldiers, who were preparing for abandonment, escape, or suicide, to turn back. To do what? To manually push a machine beneath the totemic “earth engine” that will later enable the lighting up of Jupiter! The multinational collectivity acting together toward a goal-bending socialist realism and techno-futurism conveys a “proletariat of the whole world united.” She successfully persuaded the tough-looking soldiers of all nations not in spite of but because of her stereotypical infantilized innocence and feminized fragility. The favor of saving her life performed by a drowning multitude was returned by saving everyone and the planet. The guardian of hope is, ugh, a woman.

So, at least this. But remember the crazy premise of the film? They decide to move the earth, rather than abandoning it! All the phallic facades and pompous technology the film flaunts, if looked back from Han Duoduo’s point of view, that of simple hope, are only the processes, the ways, well, the tools and techniques that can be abandoned, adjusted, set on fire, and blown up if needed. This enables something else: the stubborn perseverance of the earth and earthlings. And this might be the only important message we could potentially extrapolate from the film: the Hollywood-style macho sci-fi that has an unsurprisingly strong investment in techno-optimistic futurity (patriarchal, cis-hetero-normative, nationalist, colonial, and all that), which entails a hesitation and eventually a decision to back down, to resort to the “girly” message of trembling hope and fleshy hands of human commonality to set the dehumanized/ing machine on fire.

Wandering Manhood
Lisa Rofel, The University of California, Santa Cruz

The Wandering Earth is a China-produced film about the inheritance of manhood through patriarchal lineage. The film’s plot is ostensibly a sci-fi story about the end of Earth due to ongoing environmental disasters. The causes of those disasters are elided; they are taken as given. The extent of the earth’s disasters, the starting point of the film, leads to the imminent demise of the entire planet unless a united international effort can extract Earth from the solar system, as the Sun itself is beginning to disintegrate and expand.

This plot creates the urgency—and adventures—for heroism. Even the title The Wandering Earth signifies adventure. “Wandering” (流浪) has a long and storied history in China. For several centuries, poets, scholars, poor peasants turned bandits (formerly sung as proto-revolutionary heroes), and, more recently, young people searching for meaning by visiting “minority” areas under Chinese rule have made “wandering” into a quest for one’s personhood, values, and survival strategies or, in the case of this film, one’s masculinity.

The displays of heroic manhood, which propel the alternating dramas of disaster and rescue in The Wandering Earth, center on one family: grandfather/father-in-law (Han Zi’ang), father (Liu Peiqiang), and son (Liu Qi), along with a female baby rescued by the grandfather (Han Duoduo).  The film begins with Liu Peiqiang leaving his then four-year old son to become part of an international space station built to save Earth. He may never return. Father and son form the core of heroism in the film. Initially, the father stands out as the hero: sacrificing the relationship that means the most to him, that with his son, to a greater cause. Yet, that description is not quite accurate. In The Wandering Earth, saving one’s family equals saving the whole earth and all of humankind though, given the gender representations in the film, I should say “mankind”—and their daughters. This theme resonates in two, perhaps paradoxical, ways with the dilemmas that contemporary China faces. First, it marks a distinct contrast with the widespread public discourse about corruption in contemporary China, a discourse that associates corruption with favoring one’s family against all others. Conversely, it also resonates with the current government’s revival of so-called Confucian values, values that presumably honor the hierarchies of family life, hierarchies that are taken to correspond with social and political inequalities—and thus lead to a quiescent acceptance of the latter.

Before he leaves, the father, Liu Peiqiang, ensures that his son and the guardian of his son, the father-in-law, will have special passes to the coveted spots of underground living, for which the rest of humanity must draw lots. Thus, he ensures his son will survive. Rather than view this as corruption, however, the audience is led to applaud it as a noble gesture. While on the space station, he yearns to return to his son. As the film quickly jumps to seventeen years later, he is jubilant that he is about to retire from his years of service and return to his now grown son—that is, before more disaster intervenes.

At this point, we witness how the son inherits his father’s heroic manhood. Starting off as an angry, seventeen-year old fuck-up, Liu Qi merely yearns for the adventure of leaving underground safety, an adventure on which he takes his sister. But shortly thereafter, a disastrous earthquake hits Earth and perhaps irrevocably damages the technology built to save it. Through the ensuing adventures to save the technology and Earth, Liu Qi wakes up to his mission. Just like his father, he rises to the occasion. And just like his father, he must break certain rules to reach his goal. He becomes a hero. He is inspired by his father’s dedication, even as he has refused a close relationship with his father all these years, blaming him for his mother’s untimely death.

In turn, at the end, the father is inspired by his son’s last-ditch heroism and, following his son’s example, makes his own ultimate sacrifice. For both father and son, this heroism is not abstract. They are not socialist revolutionaries fighting for a cause like social justice. They are not abandoning their familial relationships for a greater cause, as socialist revolutionaries presumably did. Their ongoing passion to save their family members is isomorphic with saving all of mankind. This is about survival, not exploitation or favoritism.

There are only six noticeable females in the film, the rest being nameless and killed off as soon as they appear. They stand out among the large crowds of men. Four of the women make appearances of less than thirty seconds. One of those four women is Liu Qi’s mother, who dies before all the action begins. Liu Qi cannot forgive his father for his mother’s death, at least until the very last scene when he knows he will never see his father again. One female, a Chinese rescue mission military assistant, is expelled from heroism by a near fatal accident. The final female is the 14-year old adopted sister of Liu Qi, Han Duoduo. Throughout the story, Liu Qi repeatedly makes saving her the object of his heroic action, another aspect of manhood he inherits from his father. She, of course, is the object of masculine feats, with a small exception near the end when she has her brief moment of calling others for active help with the final mission.

The international/national dynamics in The Wandering Earth resonate with masculine heroism. I watched this film recently while under quarantine due to the global pandemic, not exactly like Earth’s final demise but still it resonates with a similar structure of feeling. These conditions gave the film a different perspective than I might have had previously.  Moreover, I am located in the US, where our current occupant of the White House and the political and corporate elite class who support him are merely concerned with saving their own skin, white skin oiled with profits. They could care less about saving anyone in the US, let alone the rest of the planet. This president is most conspicuous for having withdrawn from all major international treaties. The Wandering Earth at least envisions an international government, a shared international effort. At one moment, the rescue team even abandons a Chinese city, Hangzhou, in favor of saving an Earth Engine closer to the equator, in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

However, this is a China-produced film, so China is at the forefront of these international space missions and the heroes are Chinese. At one moment in the film one of the characters, teenage Tim, is challenged when he joins the penultimate Chinese rescue mission. As a mixed-blood, or more accurately, mixed-nationality character (Chinese-Australian), Tim retorts in perfect Chinese, when accused of not belonging in the Chinese rescue unit: I’m an authentic Chinaman. (In Chinese he actually says: I have a Chinese heart.) But Tim also represents the cosmopolitan nature of these Chinese missions. With his blond hair (fashionable young people in China today often dye their hair blond) and a mixture of China and the West—though a West signified not by the US but by a former British colony in Asia, Tim represents that cosmopolitan Chinese character who can be simultaneously nationalist and embrace an international identity.

The Wandering Earth implicitly addresses China’s rising presence in the world. The film assures us this presence will be internationalist, cooperative, above geopolitics, and a saving grace. And a Chinese man.

Wandering Earth: Gender, Race, and the Limits of Imagination
Maria Amelia Viteri-Burbano, University of San Francisco, Quito and University of Maryland, College Park and Jesse Crane-Seeber, King’s College London

A vision rooted in Chinese technological and logistical leadership, The Wandering Earth presents a world literally adrift. Scientists having detected a threat to the entire solar system, we are shown a planet on which almost all of the human population has been lost, with a few survivors living in underground cities. The Earth has been rendered into a spaceship, turning the metaphor of environmental movements into a plot point. In order to escape, human scientists working for the Chinese-led United Earth Government have built massive engines all around the earth, but particularly along the equator, which are driving the earth out of our solar system to its new home. Inevitably, there are multiple crises of a technical and navigational nature, as the planet threatens to crash into Jupiter instead of sling-shooting past it on a hundred-generation trip through interstellar space.

The plot unfolds as runaway teens help to fix the stalled engines and prevent a collision with Jupiter. The film is predictably locked into a male-centered plot in which technical prowess and adrenaline-fueled risk taking save the day. The plucky little adopted sister and her resentful genius brother are stereotypical characters, and their dynamics indicate that a dystopian Chinese-led future may have moved beyond their one-child policy (despite humanity’s relegation to underground cities beneath the frozen surface), but the adoption prevents that fact from offering a sharp critique.

This is fundamentally an adventure film focused on a pair of siblings that is equal parts teenage rebellion and heroic epic. Although the film lacks an explicit romantic or sexual scene, the script signals a heteronormative order, where the men look after others in a traditionally paternalistic way, the grandfather Han Zi’ang cares for Liu Qi while his dad Liu Peiqiang goes on a mission, and Liu Qi protects his adopted teenage sister, Duoduo. Other than Duoduo, female characters are nowhere to be found in the story as relevant players. As Duoduo becomes part of the group of workers attempting to prevent a collision with Jupiter, her presence in the film serves as a reminder of the importance of home understood as land/territory in order for future generations of families to continue.

What is striking, among the representations of a cramped domestic space, a thriving black market, and a news-montage, is that the imagination of the state remains insular, ethnocentric, and militarized along the fetishized lines of Western film.[12] Were the characters racialized as white, cursing North Americans, The Wandering Earth would fit in well in the classic (campy) science fiction of US disaster films.

The film is primarily concerned with Chinese characters operating in territory that is today considered part of China, though the equatorial Sulawasi also draws our heroes as they work to restart the engines and save the world. Almost no one appears in the film who does not appear to be Han Chinese, with a few notable exceptions. The film’s single reference to the US shows “labor unrest in NY,” while the British and French appear as part of a planetary ruling council. They appear as distant, aloof, and eager to pursue the safest course possible, though willing to follow Chinese leadership.

A half-Australian character, brasher, louder, and more self-centered than any other, echoes the reference to US disorganization, embodying a masculinity that is unrefined and barbaric. He is juxtaposed with more “evolved” and responsible Chinese characters whose loyalty to family—particularly male figures—go hand-in-hand with respect toward authorities. The outcome of their cultivation of work and a spiritual ethic of respect allows the Chinese to focus the collective labor of the human race to save the planet. No other racialized characters appear from any other part of the world, in either decision making or plot points, with notable absences of South Asian, African, or Latin American peoples.

Despite the characters facing very real threats from the cold and airless Earth deep space has created, the state is still well armed against ephemeral threats. As the intrepid teenage heroes steal their way to the surface, they encounter groups of security officers. Led by Captain Wang Lei 王磊, who follows orders from above, the bodies of the police officers, dressed like space Marines, are outfitted with armor and fully automatic weapons. Why? We might wonder, given that there is no sign of any kind of threat requiring such a large numbers of bullets. In most sci-fi, there is at least some semblance of legitimation of a threat. Here we see the securitized state without justification, without securitized speech acts.[13]

We also see none of the usual appeals to barbarism.[14] There are no “others” here, no pirates or rebels or Arabs or Tibetans or Blacks or anyone else whom the cinema-attending spectator expects to see as dangerous. But the police have miniguns. With no internal or external others, officers organized in a hierarchy and carrying the weapons of war are normalized, made to seem obviously necessary, with their attendant disciplined yet violent masculinities tied to their service to the state.

Yet as in our current situation, political violence does not represent the greatest threat. The film’s ideological juxtaposition of human/nature seems to play an even larger role if interpreted through the current pandemic where vaccines, understood as “technology,” are depicted as the way to save humans, provided people follow mandates obediently. As tests are already highly racialized, and definitely not readily available for everyone, we can predict vaccines will be even less available to the Global South and the racialized communities in the Global North. As in the film, it is hard to imagine the current crisis without noticing how many will be left behind.

The dream that threats to human survival can be controlled through disciplined collective labor is a distinctly non-capitalist view of the world, and one that dovetails neatly with Chinese fantasies of hegemony. As suggested by Khan,[15] the film portrays a world order in which China has marshaled non-Western labor to overcome the 500+ year dominance of Christian Europeans. Kahn hails the film as a subversive vision, one that shows a world without Western colonial forms of rule. Yet like Euro-Atlantic visions of the future, it is a world that is sparsely populated and most of the worlds others have been exterminated. The Chinese self-conception as savior of the world does not require, it seems, any portrayal of the world’s diversity.

In the Chinese ethos, the state mandates the personal lives of people, from workplace to romance, to entertainment, to marriage. Bs the state surveillance apparatus is extensive, it requires creativity to find room for deviance. Given the way humanity’s future is portrayed in the film, we wonder if a subterranean life fully controlled by an institution is actually worth living. If the metaphor is that “another world order is possible” what type of world would that be? It will certainly start with a reification of a heteronormative and patriarchal order where gender equality is not imagined nor even desirable, and where ethnic and racial diversity is unnecessary.

Men Rescue the Nation and Women Rescue the World?
Cai Yiping, DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era)

China’s latest science fiction fantasy, The Wandering Earth, has become one of the top-grossing Chinese films in history along with Wolf Warrior II. These two blockbusters have a common theme—a rescue attempt. In Wolf Warrior II, a heroic, macho former soldier Leng Feng 冷锋 triumphs in his mission to save Chinese factory workers. Along with an African child (his godson) and a female American doctor, he brings them out of the crossfire in the midst of a civil war in Africa by defeating mercenaries led by a white man.

But The Wandering Earth tells a rescue story that is very different from that of Wolf Warrior II. This time the Chinese join an international initiative under the United Earth Government in order to save humankind and human civilization. Because this is a global crisis that requires the solidarity and coordinated action of all nations of the world, national identity and patriotism are no longer the prominent themes in this film. The story focuses on a Chinese family and their engagement in the rescue mission—the Chinese astronaut Liu Peiqiang, who left his family seventeen years earlier and joined an international team for a space journey; his father, a veteran soldier taking care of grandchildren after Liu Peiqiang left; his teenage son Liu Qi and his adopted sister Han Duoduo. The two rebellious teenagers are bored with their lives in the underground shelter where they have been living since childhood and want to experience adventure on the unlivable surface of the earth. However, along their escape journey, Liu Qi and Han Duoduo become unexpectedly involved in the mission to transport the Lighter Core to repair the equatorial Torque Engine in Sulawesi. The grandfather loses his life in the process of protecting his grandchildren and other group members. When the group arrives in Sulawesi, the planetary engines across the globe have already been fully restored and repaired. Liu Qi and Han Duoduo plead with the United Earth Government and other rescue and repair parties to join the endeavor. On Earth, the engines are fired up; out in space, Liu Peiqiang sacrifices himself by piloting the space station into the plasma jet to ignite the Jovian hydrogen and finally fulfill the mission.

From rescuing its own citizens to salvage the planet, The Wandering Earth implies that China’s role has transitioned from a rising power to a responsible global actor with its narrative evolving from “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (中华民族的伟大复兴) to “a community of a shared future for mankind” (人类命运共同体). In the film, this new narrative contains the elements of responsibility, courage, technological supremacy, and self-sacrifice, which undoubtably legitimizes the leadership role China pursues. Liu Qi and his adopted sister Han Duoduo represent China’s younger generation, as well as China’s emerging new role as a world leader. Both youngsters are portrayed through gender stereotypes: Liu Qi as full of masculinity, a clever fearless leader, though sometimes reckless; Han Duoduo is a weak, subordinated follower under his protection. However, when Liu Qi fails to persuade the United Earth Government and others to support his bold whimsical idea to save the Earth, it is Han Duoduo who is able to move the United Earth Government and the general public with her tearful speech. This ending signifies female strength and soft power under circumstances similar to our present global governance crisis.

With regard to China’s soft power, recently China’s state media China Central Television (CCTV) praised Li Ziqi 李子柒, a 29-year-old woman from Sichuan province of southwestern China whose YouTube video channel celebrating rural life has nearly 7.5 million followers. Li has a library of 100 videos viewed tens of millions of times by audiences across the world. She also has about 20 million fans on Weibo, China’s microblogging site. Followers say she has done more to sell Chinese culture than the Confucius Institute, the controversial government-backed soft power promotional organization with a presence in more than 100 countries. Despite criticisms that Li only shows the underdeveloped aspects of China or the nostalgia for a traditional lifestyle, CCTV says “without a word commending China, Li promotes Chinese culture in a good way and tells a good China story.”[16]  The discussion of Li’s role in exporting Chinese culture emerged against a backdrop of questions about the effectiveness of China’s soft power, alongside of China’s increasing economic and political influence on the global stage. As China optimizes its global engagement strategies and promotes unofficial ways and people to people communications, in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for instance, maybe it should not be surprising that a young woman internet celebrity becomes an icon of Chinese soft power, not the state-sponsored institutions or platforms.

Does a rising China need a woman’s face? The experience of Han Duoduo (in a science fiction film) and Li Ziqi (on the internet) perhaps could stimulate (re)thinking of what gender and women have to do with China’s global presence and engagement and China’s positioning on gender equality and women’s rights issues in its international role.


[1] One reviewer, Richard Kuipers, specifically praises the film for its “lack of nationalism and propaganda. … Politicians, bureaucrats, and army brass are nowhere to be seen. There’s barely a Chinese flag in sight, nor any chest-beating about Chinese ingenuity and leadership.” David Ehrlich similarly describes the film as a “curiously apolitical sci-fi extravaganza.”

[2] Accessed August 9, 2020.

[3] Amir Khan, “Technology Fetishism in The Wandering Earth.Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 21, no. 1 (2020): 20-37.

[4] See, for example, Ching Kwan Lee, The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[5] Quoted in Accessed August 9, 2020.

[6] Accessed August 9, 2020.

[7] Paul Amar, “’Thank you, Godfather:’ Love and Rejuvenation, Mercenaries and Biomedicine Forge Africa into One Family in Wolf Warrior II.” Accessed August 9, 2020.

[8] See, for example, Accessed August 9, 2020. Accessed August 9, 2020.

[9] Accessed August 9, 2020.

[10] See,find%20an%20escape%20from%20destruction.

[11] An expression already in use, including in China, and a reference to the most iconic Chinese blockbuster so far: Wolf Warrior II, released in 2017. See, for instance, Also see a set of film commentaries on Wolf Warrior II at

[12] Boose, Lynda. 1993. “Techno-muscularity and the “boy eternal”: from quagmire to the Gulf.” In Cultures of United States Imperialism, edited by Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, 581-616. Durham: Duke University Press. Crane-Seeber, Jesse Paul. 2016. “Sexy warriors: The politics and pleasures of submission to the state.” Critical Military Studies no. 2 (1-2):41-55.

[13] Hansen, Lene. 2000. “The Little Mermaid’s Silent Security Dilemma and the Absence of Gender in the Copenhagen School.” Millennium – Journal of International Studies no. 29 (2): 285-306.

[14] Inayatullah, Naeem, and David L. Blaney. 2004. International Relations and the Problem of Difference, Global Horizons. New York ; London: Routledge.

[15] Khan, Amir, “Technology Fetishism,” 31.

[16] Yan, Alice. 2019. “Chinese State Media Joins Rural Life Blogger Li Ziqi’s Millions of Followers.” South China Morning Post (Dec. 11, 2019. URL: (retrieved: 8:45pm, 25 December, 2019)