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The Wandering Earth (dir. Frant Gwo) is a 2019 Chinese sci-fi film based on a novella by the celebrated science fiction author, Liu Cixin. The Wandering Earth posits a world in which the expansion of the sun has caused an apocalyptic threat to human life on Earth. As a result, the Earth’s nations have come together as a “United Earth Government” and devised a plan to move the planet, with giant “Earth Engines,” to a new stellar system. The film’s main plot begins in 2058, as Earth, its surface no longer habitable, is moving past Jupiter. The giant planet’s gravitational pull causes earthquakes, thins the Earth’s atmosphere, and disturbs the Earth’s flight trajectory. Underground cities in which humans have taken refuge begin collapsing because of strong earthquakes. Multiple Earth Engines fail and cannot be repaired; a catastrophic collision with Jupiter seems imminent. Meanwhile, the operating system of the space station that flies ahead of Earth as a vanguard of the wandering planet begins contingency measures to protect human life by abandoning Earth to its fate and striking out alone with the seeds of a new civilization. The story is told through two main narratives. On Earth, we begin in the underground city of Beijing, where the resentful son of an astronaut strikes out on an adventure on the surface of the planet, but quickly becomes embroiled in a mission to repair a crucial equatorial engine and thus correct the wayward planet’s trajectory. On the space station, the astronaut father must work against an AI system to divert the escaping spacecraft and help save life on Earth.

The Wandering Earth thus presents viewers with a vision of China’s role in a shared planetary future. While the global climate crisis is allegorized, i.e., the cause of catastrophe is not an excess of greenhouse gasses but an expanding sun, we can appreciate the film as an ecocritical commentary. At the same time, the narrative of a peaceful, cooperative “United Earth Government” underscores shared anxieties about geopolitics in an ever more fractious world. American news and political discourse, for example, has recently been inundated with the “China Threat” narrative, an update of the racist “Yellow Peril” panic of the last centuries. The Wandering Earth thus juggles multiple tensions, deploying science fiction tropes familiar to global audiences to imagine an imperiled but ultimately optimistic global future in which China plays a major role.

This module will explore how to analyze propaganda and entertainment cinema, unpacking the complex meanings of media often believed to be consumed thoughtlessly. Section 2 of the module will provide historical context about China’s relationship with “the world” in the modern period. Section 3 focuses more narrowly on the important role that film and literature, especially the genre of science fiction, have played in Chinese history. Sections 4 and 5 are dedicated to the film itself, offering examples of analysis and class activities that can help students engage productively with the film. A final section includes sources used in the production of this module and a list of online resources that may be useful in teaching.

Accessibility: the film is streaming exclusively on Netflix. Available here: https://www.netflix.com/title/81067760

Main Characters:

  • Liu Peiqiang (played by Wu Jing), the astronaut father
  • Liu Qi (played by Qu Chuxiao), his son, living in underground Beijing
  • Han Zi’eng (played by Ng Man-tat), Liu Qi’s maternal grandfather, also resident of Beijing
  • Han Duoduo (played by Zhao Jinmai), Han Zi’eng’s adopted granddaughter

Note on rating: Netflix bought the international rights to The Wandering Earth, which streams in the US exclusively on that service. The film is rated by Netflix as TV-MA, for “language, smoking.” I have carefully watched the film; one character smokes a cigarette and several characters swear, though obscenities are not very frequent. While this is not noted by the Netflix rating, there are also several references to sexual acts (pornography, sex work, potential sexual assault), though nothing explicit is shown. The Chinese government encourages the screening of this film to students in primary and secondary schools. In my view, this film is not inappropriate for high school students, and in fact, because it is encouraged viewing for young audiences in China, I believe it is an important cultural text for young Americans to consume.

Note on names and romanization: in Chinese, as in other East Asian languages, family names are written and said before given names. For example, the author of The Wandering Earth novella is Liu Cixin. Liu is his family name, Cixin is his given name. When referring to Chinese names and terms, I will be using Hanyu pinyin, an international standard for Mandarin romanization, throughout this unit, unless a historical figure is already well known using a different romanization schema. See this video for tips on pinyin pronunciation.

Note on scope: this module concerns Mainland China, now the People’s Republic. Both Hong Kong and Taiwan appear only in reference to the PRC. Separate modules would need to be produced to rigorously account for Taiwan and Hong Kong as historical locales in their own right.

This film guide was developed by Julia Keblinska, The Ohio State University and is available online for classroom use worldwide.  All the film guides can be accessed at EASC's Film Guide page.