The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY DAVID DAW­SON

Home­made he­li­copters, replica tanks and bi­planes built from scratch: These are just some of the many whacky prod­ucts cranked out by China’s less-cel­e­brated in­no­va­tion sec­tor, the am­a­teur in­ven­tor, of­ten an old farmer or en­thu­si­ast with too much time (and money) on their hands. Here, we pay trib­ute to those ded­i­cated in­ven­tors who have toiled away in ob­scu­rity of­ten just to make some­one on Weibo go, “Huh, cool.”


Laid off from a tex­tile fac­tory in 2008, Wuhan-based Zhang Wuyi de­cided to keep his head above wa­ter by go­ing into the sub­marineb­uild­ing busi­ness. Zhang’s wrought iron dual-seat miniature subs can reach 20 kilo­me­ters per hour, and dive 30 me­ters be­low sea level for up to 10 hours, which has proved use­ful for comb­ing the seabed for prized prod­ucts like sea cu­cum­bers and shell­fish. A Dalian busi­ness­man bravely paid 100,000 RMB (15,855 USD) to be­come Zhang’s first cus­tomer and was de­lighted to catch 50 ki­los of cu­cum­ber in 40 min­utes, us­ing the sub’s ro­botic claw and un­der­wa­ter cam­eras.

Zhang’s submariner startup uses a fin-tail patent by Li Yum­ing, a pi­o­neer of the am­a­teur sub-build­ing trade from An­hui prov­ince, whose Twi­light No. 1 was com­pleted in 2005. Since then, nu­mer­ous fel­low farm­ers have joined the field with their own self-built sub­mersibles, in­clud­ing 44-year-old Tan Yong, who built a 1,000-kilo­gram ve­hi­cle ca­pa­ble of div­ing 10 me­ters, and An­hui’s Zhang Shenwu who built a six-me­ter, twoton tor­pedo ca­pa­ble of slip­ping just a sin­gle me­ter be­low the waves—but cost less than a bomb, at only 5,000 RMB. Now with over 10 em­ploy­ees and a work­shop, Zhang Wuyi has found a niche mar­ket that looks cer­tain to keep swim­ming along.


A Hu­nan father and son have made a ca­reer out of build­ing Trans­form­ers. Not the elec­tri­cal equip­ment, mind you; this pair builds sculp­tures of the famed Au­to­bots and De­cep­ti­cons. Us­ing old car parts and an aban­doned fac­tory as their work­shop, the pair took three years to con­struct their first

from a set of blue­prints found on­line. Now they’re mak­ing over a mil­lion RMB a year by cob­bling to­gether as much scrap as they can and fash­ion­ing them into gi­ant repli­cas of the Hol­ly­wood ro­bot leviathans. Pic­tures of the duo did the rounds of so­cial me­dia in 2015, de­tail­ing how they make their money from busi­nesses that wish to ad­ver­tise them­selves with a gi­ant ro­bot Trans­former out front. Ap­par­ently, it’s a pretty pop­u­lar de­sign choice.


There may need to be a new law of ro­bot­ics for the 21st cen­tury: Wher­ever you find male in­ven­tors, “sexy” ro­bots are sure to fol­low. For some rea­son, in­ven­tors rarely pour their ef­forts into con­struct­ing hand­some male cy­borgs, but fem­bots seem to emerge ev­ery other month. China’s best-known ex­am­ple may be its Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy’s Jia Jia, who de­buted in Jan­uary at an eco­nomic con­fer­ence where she greeted guests and an­swered sleazy ques­tions (yes, “she” is sin­gle and, yes, some­one asked a ro­bot that ques­tion. Then again, she did tell a con­fer­ence guest, “You are hand­some,” greeted her cre­ator as “Lord,” and asked the me­dia not to make her face look “too fat,” so maybe the pro­gram­mers are to blame).

Chen Xiaop­ing, who leads the team of de­vel­op­ers be­hind Jia Jia, has high hopes for hu­manoid ro­bots like her in the hos­pi­tal­ity and health­care sec­tors, as Jia Jia can ap­par­ently an­swer sim­ple ques­tions and rec­og­nize the gen­der of those speak­ing to her. Af­ter Jia Jia was in­vited to act as spe­cial re­porter for Xin­hua, the state news agency de­clared the fembot could “rev­o­lu­tion­ize jour­nal­ism.”


China Busi­ness In­sider breath­lessly re­ported in 2016 that Chi­nese restau­rants are re­plac­ing wait­ers with ro­bots, but though one year has elapsed, this is def­i­nitely still not a “thing” in China. Yes, there has been the oc­ca­sional diner that has in­tro­duced ro­bots as an at­trac­tion— such as Guiyang’s Taste and Aroma restau­rant or the House Café in Bei­jing—but they ba­si­cally move along a pre-pro­grammed route and take or­ders which, given the sketchy voice-recog­ni­tion soft­ware, they tend to bun­gle. This means that hu­man hos­pi­tal­ity staff are still nec­es­sary, and ap­par­ently in less dan­ger of los­ing their jobs than their ro­bot re­place­ments: In April 2016, three ro­bot restau­rants in Guangzhou “fired” their au­to­mated staff for in­com­pe­tence, and two shut down. “Ro­bots could not carry food with too much liq­uid and also fre­quently break down,” a restau­rant staff mem­ber told Worker’s Daily. Ar­guably, the more ef­fec­tive form of au­to­mated wait­staff re­mains the hum­ble vend­ing ma­chine.


China has long had a bit of an is­sue with fake or copied prod­ucts, known lo­cally as shanzhai, but some­times you can’t help but ad­mire the in­ge­nu­ity that went into the copy­ing. When 28-year-old Jiangsu na­tive Wang Jian built a replica Lam­borgh­ini in 2012, it not only re­sem­bled a 2007 Lam­borgh­ini Reven­ton on the out­side, but was ca­pa­ble of speeds of up to 160 mph (ac­cord­ing to the Daily Mail). Al­though the car is some­what less shiny and pol­ished than the real thing, it’s not just a copy—at a cost of less than 8,000 USD, it’s a steal. Would-be rob­bers should be aware that China also has its own shanzhai Bat­mo­biles: “Tum­bler” ver­sions, seen in The Dark Knight, are be­ing rented out by Shang­hai prop maker Li Weilei for 70,000 RMB apiece, and dis­played all over the coun­try. They’re not ac­tu­ally mo­bile, but it’s still a busi­ness model that Wayne En­ter­prises could get be­hind.

Zhang Wuyi tests one of his sub­mersible cre­ations

Yu Lingyun (left) and his dad Yu Zhilin have made a name for them­selves craft­ing Trans­form­ers such as Bum­ble­bee (left) and Op­ti­mus Prime

Meet Jia Jia, a ro­bot who is tech­ni­cally sin­gle

Wang Jian poses with his scrappy home­made Lam­borgh­ini

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