BEIJING — In fewer than 30 hours, Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei met China's president, orbited the earth 14 times, descended in a fiery capsule that floated onto the Mongolian grasslands - and then was coptered like royalty to Beijing to meet the premier.
Colonel Yang went overnight from complete anonymity to world figure - Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Yuri Gagarin rolled into one. In the meantime, he ate kung pao chicken, praised the motherland, talked to his scientist wife and 8-year-old son from five miles up, waved a Chinese and UN flag, and spoke of his regard for all mankind. Chinese marveled at how "calm" he seemed, as one professor says.
Thursday's successful recovery of the Shenzhou V capsule puts China into an elite group of three manned space-exploring nations. But it may also create something curiously missing in a country that is half capitalist, half communist: a national pop icon. "He is a space hero," says Li Jinai, the chief of China's manned program.
Since Yang rocketed from the Gobi Desert Wednesday, China's state media have uncharacteristically begun blowing fuse after fuse in its effusive coverage of the taikonaut. He represents a new kind of hero, scholars say, in a country that still looks to overdrawn patriotic figures from World War II, and where most popular or heroic figures are drawn from outside China.
Only in the past six months, since gaining fame in the NBA, for example, has basketball star Yao Ming become a household name.
"Thirty years ago, if you asked about heroes, everyone would say Mao," notes Dali Yang at the University of Chicago. "Today, there is no agreement, which may be progress, because the country has become diverse. Yang may be a new kind of hero. He was allowed to speak to his wife and child on national TV. That never happened. Heroes were commended for selfless sacrifice."
In fact, to research current heroes on the China scene is to enter a field relatively devoid of content. China has 1.3 billion people. But there aren't many, if any, native public figures that stir, or are allowed to stir, popular imagination.
Few living individuals here occupy the high end of moral or spiritual grandeur, or the popular side of the spectrum - movie and stars, sports heroes. There are no Nelson Mandelas, no Vaclav Havels, no Mahatma Gandhis. There have been no Neil Armstrongs of space, no Don Imuses of radio, or David Letterman of TV. Nor are there Ralph Naders or Arnold Schwarzeneggers.
There are some Chinese business gods, such as technology guru Zhang Chaoyang of Sohu.com. But they, like most popular figures, are known within limited circles. Bill Gates is better known than they.
In August, China did have a round of David Beckham mania - and last December, a spate of Vladimir Putin mania. F-4, the Taiwan boy band, has been hot; Taiwan crooner Jay Chou has captured the hearts of under-30 urban mainlanders.
But in an ancient culture run by communists in a capitalist world, values are changing in ways that are sufficiently worrisome as to require state control.
The Communist Party controls the national image, and that includes heroes. Scholars say there is still caution over emerging popular figures whose public personae might be ratified by the spontaneous feelings of ordinary people.
Yet as one scholar here puts it, China is hungry for heroes - and not the kind that have been traditionally represented by propaganda. For 50 years, the hero was a figure whose status was ratified by self- sacrificing patriotism. In a patriotic film shown here several weeks ago, the Chinese hero was wounded and dying after defending the homeland. He reached into his bloodied jacket to remove an envelope: "This is my last month's Communist Party dues," he says tearfully. "I want to pay."
Younger urban Chinese privately scoff at this kind of hero. "We've had no heroes since the anti-Japanese war," says a China Academy of Sciences scholar. "Heroes are a national issue with a very thick context for us. It has to do with the special history of China. Politics, history, society, impact our younger people in a much stronger way than in the West.
"We are so worried about our self-image that no one can be perfect enough to represent China," he says. "The standards are way too high. I like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. But collectively we must have a national hero. A movie star cannot satisfy us," says the scholar.
Yet heroes here are often ratified by popular opinion abroad - itself controversial since Western values also carry forms of "spiritual pollution." As one Beijing source puts it, "is it so bad that China doesn't have to be preoccupied with Jennifer Lopez?"
Still, heroes or pop figures spoken of by ordinary Chinese in interviews are not local Chinese, but figures like Einstein or Michael Jordan. Ethnic Chinese who are not approved by Beijing officials, moreover, are rarely mentioned.
When controversial Paris-based Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, China barely acknowledged it. The Miss World pageant runner-up in 2002 was from Shanghai, but had not gone through the proper state channels in winning her right to represent China. She was officially airbrushed out of China's pop icons.
Physicist Fang Lizhi, hero of Tian An Men Square, was politely shoved out the door to Princeton University. Leading reformer Zhao Ziyang has been under guard in Beijing since 1989.
"My heroes are local people," says Zhang Yimou, China's best known film director, whose 2002 martial arts film "Hero" was China's selection in the Academy Awards this spring. "I'm interested in the boy in the village, the mother who stops the crime, who saves the family."
But in an interview, Mr. Zhang agreed that repression in the recent past has stifled China's ability to authorize heroes - though he says his own film, set in the ancient past, was not censored.
"I think it is good for Chinese to have a public hero figure,' says Zhang. "But during the Cultural Revolution it could be a costly political mistake to put a public figure up as a hero. We were only allowed to have a general symbol of 'the people' as a hero. These days, people do more independent thinking. If there is someone who represents the hero, it would be an independent thinker."
China desires to be viewed as a mainstream nation, experts here agree, but one governed by unelected party technocrats. Ordinary Chinese are not especially encouraged to pay attention to their leaders, and most don't especially revere them anyway.
When in doubt, the system often will revert to the image of Chairman Mao.
Last year when Beijing changed to new currency notes - it was decided to put the face of Mao on every note. Yet even Mao's persona is undergoing a revision. Scholars increasingly divide the "good Mao," who unified and founded the country, and the "bad Mao," who sanctioned the Cultural Revolution.
Yet China's emergence into space may not be a boon only for taikonaut Yang. Observers point out that current President Hu Jintao, thought to be embroiled in several power struggles, was depicted in a prominent light by Chinese media. "The space program is definitely a boost for Hu," say Mr. Yang of the University of Chicago.