In the early '60s, China was reeling from the disaster of Mao's Great Leap Forward—tens of millions of people had died as a result of misguided policies—but the country was still pushing for modernization and a rosy, tech-filled vision of the future.
It wasn’t easy, especially because the U.S.S.R. had just withdrawn support for various tech projects, and pulled its own scientific experts and advisors out of the country. China had something to prove; the government needed to show that it could still make progress on its own. One small part of that was this series of futuristic magazine covers from China's Popular Science.
How did China imagine the future? Turns out, a lot like others around the world. It's not only that these illustrators were dreaming of flying cars; one image is actually an almost exact replica of a Popular Mechanics cover from the U.S.
This isn’t just an early example of China’s current penchant for copying designs for everything from iPhones to McMansions. The story gets better: When the pictures recently surfaced online, a commenter on Gizmodo noted that the Popular Mechanics cover was itself a knockoff of an illustration from the U.K. magazine Meccano. This flying cab got around.
The Chinese version of the cab, along with the other Chinese magazine covers, were popular because they helped people escape the current reality, say Scott Minick and Jiao Ping, who included them in a book called Chinese Graphic Design in the Twentieth Century. The images, they say, “freed people’s minds from the nation’s problems while suggesting undiscovered worlds that might soon be within easy reach.”
Of course, flying cars didn’t exactly materialize as quickly as anyone might have expected in 1961. But even today the idea is still capturing imaginations in China; check out the video below of a simulation of a hovercraft that a young Chinese student created for a competition to design the future car last year.