“That the government permitted this genius, this scientific genius, to be sent to Communist China to pick his brains is one of the tragedies of this century…” Grant Cooper, CALTECH appointed attorney in defending Qian Xueshen when he was accused of Communist sympathies.
This is a film I managed to catch on a recent flight, and it was coincidentally apt that I got to watch it whilst streaming through the skies high above. That it comes as at a time as China secures its permanent place in space with the success of the Tiangong mission also resonated. The historical biopic of the recently departed Dr. Qian Xuesen 钱学森 (see Encylopedia Brittanica entry on him here) released in March is the latest in Chinese cultural capital to assert its legitimacy for equity on the world stage.
Important to China as the father of Chinese aerospace, his role of establishing China’s long range ballistic defense program after spending years in the US makes him the quintessential Chinese sojourning Huaqiao hero.
It is something this state-funded piece seizes on as subtext to the world’s most important bilateral relations today. Qiawas a tenured professor at Caltech and helped found its Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). Essentially, this is the academic who blasted both the US and China into the final frontier.
Not unlike its wushu flicks which challenged the Western imperative during its century of humiliation, the film continues in a long line of work painting China’s long road to gain equal footing against the US. Accused of being in league with the communist party during the second Red Scare in the 1950s, Qian’s resolve to return to China is heavily emphasized in the film.
The meta narrative to me, however, reads like an open invitation for its diasporic Chinese sojourners to come home to build up the motherland as it combats a continuing outflow of its brightest talents.
There are two poignant points in this film for me.
First, around midway through, a Taiwanese reporter poses a pointed question in English why Qian, as he prepared to depart the US, did not contemplate going to the Republic of China. The response was blunt and perhaps indicative of the worldview of these state-funded projects. It went along the lines of ‘when asking a question to another Chinese, the language to be spoken was to be Chinese’. In that, he ignored the reporter’s question. Second, was the symbolism of creating a sharp-edged sword to ensure China’s dignity to stand up again. When posed the idea that most scientists in that era loathed using science for aggression, his stance was again poignant. His point made – there is a difference between having no sword, having a sword and electing not to use it.
View the trailer for the film here – this is another must watch to get a peek into the Chinese mind and desire for equal footing.