So, the right stuff in China means more than floating in a weightless test-plane flight. It means having the guts to strap yourself into a Shenzhou space capsule stuck on top of an upgraded intercontinental ballistic missile — and be fired off a launch pad where disasters and deaths are rumoured to have been covered up for decades.
Up close, the Shenzhou, or “sacred vessel”, capsule looks awfully small and cramped. It resembles the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft, although the Chinese fiercely insist that it is of wholly original design. There is one in the Military Museum in Beijing, where wide-eyed schoolchildren listen to hymns of praise for the party and its engineers. So much of all this — the glorification, the pride, the search for the best and the brightest to leap towards the heavens — would seem like decades-old news in the United States. But the space programme represents one giant step for China.
Less than a hundred years ago Manchu women still had their feet bound. As recently as the 1930s, women were regarded as chattels of their fathers or husbands. Concubinage was abolished only in 1950 and remained legally recognised in Hong Kong until 1971. And now a Chinese woman is to go into space, making this endeavour, in the minds of millions of her fellow citizens, a metaphor for the nation itself.