Chinese Character

Come in Number 25…

Fame at last for Beijing’s robot-making farmer

Come in Number 25…

Who needs a hybrid car?

Wu Number One walked with goose steps and Wu Number Three was designed to climb like Spiderman. Number Five could light cigarettes, and Number Eight did somersaults. Together, they make up just one rank in the legion of metallic offspring spawned by farmer-and-robot-maker Wu Yulu. “Every robot is like my child,” Wu told the China Post last week, “and they all have my surname.”

Fathers are not supposed to have favourites. But paternal pride swells most when Wu discusses Number 25, a robot that pulls a rickshaw (see photo).

Number 25 is currently on display at the Shanghai Expo, which opened to the public at the weekend. He even speaks like a dutiful son. Passersby can expect a polite “Wu Yulu is my dad. I’m pulling him to go shopping. Thank you.”

Wu’s android clan has earned much press attention in the last couple of years, culminating in the invitation to ship 30 of his creations to the Expo.

But when Wu started out making machines in 1978, he could hardly have anticipated his fame. Leaving school with few prospects, he struggled to make a living in his home village outside Beijing. But he was fascinated by robot design, and spent his spare time picking through scrap metal, and fixing together what he could find into robot arms and legs. His first creation creaked into action in 1979. More than 30 years on, Wu has put together almost 50 robots.

Of course, the affection of an android will only get you so far and Wu yearned for the human touch. He was no Casanova (“good at tinkering with machines but hopeless at chasing women” is how the Beijing Times puts it) but he did manage a date with a local lady, Dong Shuyan. She was none-too-impressed on their first rendezvous. “This isn’t going to work,” she told him matter-of-factly on meeting.

But Dong had underestimated her suitor. Hearing her complain of the summer heat at home – where she spent hours on her needlework – Wu quickly pieced together a homemade electric fan (with adjustable swing speed, the Times notes, admiringly). In the face of such sophisticated seduction, Dong relented, and became his wife.

Unfortunately her ardour would cool almost as quickly as her living conditions. The major complaint: Wu was spending so much time making robots that the household income was suffering, forcing her to borrow from relatives.

Wu’s lack of interest in the family finances is a theme to which his wife returns frequently in her own media moments. Her mood darkened in 1989, when he almost blew his fingers off tampering with what he thought was a discarded battery (he learned the hard way that the English letters “TNT” warn of explosive content).

A decade on, and breaking point was finally reached when Wu forgot to turn off a voltage regulator in his workshop, and the house went up in flames. Mrs Wu could take no more, and announced that she was leaving him, and his robots, behind. To save his marriage, he promised that he would give them up.

Wu couldn’t keep his word, of course, and the China Post notes that he was soon carrying on with his robots again behind his wife’s back. Presumably he decided against inventing a model with text-message skills, to lessen the chances of being caught out.

Fortunately, the family’s prospects were brightening. In 2002 Wu won Rmb10,000 ($1,464) in a technology contest for farmers. That got him on TV and the subsequent publicity allowed him to sell off (grudgingly) a selection of his cherished creations.

By 2009 he was afforded greater honour still, when his robots were chosen for display alongside the triumphant Chinese Shenzhou spaceship. Reputation enhanced, Wu’s place of work underwent a rebranding. His non-descript junkyard workshop was refashioned as the rather more cerebral Yulu Robot Research Institute.

Can we draw any wider lessons from Wu’s record in robot manufacture? The obvious segue here would be into a brief account of the Needham Question (which asks why China failed to have a scientific and industrial revolution matching the European one after 1800).

As a debate it’s back in vogue, courtesy of Simon Winchester’s enjoyable study (The Man Who Loved China) of Joseph Needham, the Cambridge don who first framed the question. And one argument is that it may be time to dust off our appreciation of the Chinese genius for innovation. With a surge in domestic patent applications, and increased corporate investment in research and development, a new era of invention may be upon us.

Others scoff at the notion of burgeoning Chinese creativity (except when it comes to shanzhai or fake production). Whatever your view, though, it would seem a bit of a stretch to pair Wu up with whoever spun the first silk (2850 BC), shaped the first ball bearing (2nd century BC) or fashioned the first compass (1027 AD).

No disrespect to him (or to you, Number 25) but the contribution to global civilisation doesn’t quite stack up in the same way.

Indirectly, that seems to be one of the messages derived from a second exhibition featuring Wu’s work in Shanghai at the moment. Organised by Cai Guoqiang, one of the country’s better-known artists (and also the man behind the fireworks at the Beijing Olympics), the exhibition is devoted to ‘farmer-inventors’ like Wu. Alongside his robots there are homemade submarines, helicopters and even a mini-aircraft carrier (China’s navy still lacks the real thing, so Cai commissioned one himself).

Cai says the show is intended as a celebration of the creativity of the rural class. But his final take is not quite what his exhibiting clients may have expected. “I was very touched by the uselessness of the inventions,” the UK’s Daily Telegraph reports him as saying. “For example, when the submarines submerge, they sink. They cannot come back up to the surface. It is the same as art. People may take it very seriously but it is useless.”

Useful or not, it seems that Wu has got into the artistic spirit for his Expo exhibits, by designing four new robots with creative temperaments. The Telegraph reports that one dots a canvas with paint, two others splatter colour out of a plastic cup, and a fourth dips a female mannequin in ultramarine blue and rolls her around for effect.

It sounds like the kind of thing that has turned ‘contemporary artists’ into millionaires elsewhere, so Wu may be on to something.

His wife will be delighted.

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