Giant on the move
Farmer Wu’s 32 “children”
By Maxim Duncan
A great aspect of our work is the opportunity it offers to meet characters, those colourful personalities who break out of the usual routines and patterns.
One such character is Wu Yulu, a farmer on the outskirts of Beijing who has dedicated his life to building robots mostly from scrap. He has taken on a huge debt, been sprayed with battery acid and risked his marriage in the process.
Wu and his mechanical “children” have been well documented by Chinese and international media over the years. His story fulfills many of the criteria that make a good yarn: he hails from a poor background, with little education; he refused to accept that farming was his destiny; he carried on when nobody believed in his dream, risking even his marriage before eventually earning recognition; many of his ingenious and eccentric creations aspire to help us in our everyday lives, from lighting a cigarette to pouring tea, while also providing comic relief.
But Wu is not the outlandish inventor of Hollywood films. Rather, he is a small, unfailingly serious man who didn’t smile even once during the day I spent with him.
The site of him clunking through the village on his walking, talking rickshaw robot, which he calls his 32nd son, is enough to bring a smile to any face, as the robot declares in a loud voice: “Wu Yulu is my Dad, I take him out on the town”. But for him there is no attempt to be amusing; he cooly admits to loving his robots more than his own children.
When we went to see him, he came out to greet us in his deserted-looking village on a tiny, flat three-wheeled motorbike of his own design, his head not much higher than the wheel of our 4×4 as he zipped along. His large, red-brick and tile courtyard farmhouse was much like that of any other northern Chinese farmer, although the central yard, which might otherwise be used to store corn, was strewn with bike parts, car batteries, bits of barbie dolls and several works in progress.
Inside the house it is a similar scene. In one room, what remains of his first 31 “children” and their prototypes sit around in eery silence, waiting to climb walls or jump somersaults. Wu’s eyes light up as a 12-inch humanoid finger made of carved plywood, perhaps soon to be a part of something much larger, retracts gracefully as he connects it to his battery. Beside it a tiny wire dog — his answer to Sony’s cyberpet puppy – flips up onto its hind legs and lurches across the floor.
Before Wu had even heard of robots, the idea to make machines that mimicked the movement of creatures came to him as a child while sitting on his doorstep, spellbound by the legs of passing people. Since then, his obsession has brought both recognition and suffering.
With her husband fiddling like a child in the background, his wife Dong Shuyan speaks frankly about how she prepared to take their two sons and leave after he burnt down the house while working on a robot, and incurred 90,000 yuan (about $13,200 ) worth of debt to fund his increasingly ambitious projects.
Though he said he felt guilty, Wu just couldn’t stop, and has since received a string of prizes and contracts with universities.
In many countries, his combination of unnerving single-mindedness and sheer brilliance might have led his family to sign him up for an autism screening. But had he ever listened to other people, he would probably still be working the fields.
Photo Credit: Farmer Wu Yulu drives his rickshaw pulled by a his self-made walking robot near his home in a village at the outskirts of Beijing on Jan 8, 2009. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause