The World of Chinese - - Contents - 神秘追踪:神农架的野人传说,消失的楼兰古国,和中国的“百慕大”


It's joked that no one is al­lowed to be­come an im­mor­tal in the PRC; still, science and arche­ol­ogy have yet to ex­plain many an­cient and con­tem­po­rary enig­mas. Whether it's a ru­mored “wild man” in Shen­nongjia For­est or a Chi­nese “Ber­muda Tri­an­gle,” TWOC delves into the heart of China's mys­ter­ies—and dis­cov­ers why they fas­ci­nate

The su­per­nat­u­ral has long been a prom­i­nent fea­ture of Chi­nese cul­ture and folk­lore, from the in­fa­mous an­nual Hun­gry Ghost Fes­ti­val to Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chi­nese Stu­dio, an ar­cane an­thol­ogy of 491 chill­ing tales long re­garded as the best of Chi­nese short- story writ­ing.

But what of the more earthly mys­ter­ies that be­fud­dle mod­ern minds? How to ex­plain the spooky dis­ap­pear­ances and un­ex­plained an­cient ob­jects that still defy ex­pla­na­tion from sci­en­tists and his­to­ri­ans alike? Was that a wood­land ghost that just went bump in the night, or the leg­endary “wild man” of cen­tral China?

Here we present three fa­mous myths that have per­sisted into the mod­ern age, ex­am­in­ing the lore be­hind each— and ask­ing which, if any, of these leg­ends are true. So draw the cur­tains, light some can­dles, and pre­pare to shed some light on China’s great­est mys­ter­ies.

W “ild Man, come out and re­veal your­self to us!” Mr. Li bel­lowed into the quiet forests of Tian­men Moun­tain, lo­cated in Hubei prov­ince’s mas­sive Shen­nongjia Na­tional Park. He turned and smiled mis­chie­vously. “Be ready with your cam­era,” he in­structed. “If we get a pho­to­graph, we can sell it for 5 mil­lion RMB.”

Our des­ti­na­tion was a cave where, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal lore, the leg­endary yeren (野人)—a two-me­ter tall, red-furred “wild man,” some­times re­ferred to as China’s Big­foot—used to live. Our guides from the forestry dis­trict of­fice, Mr. Li and Fu Rao, had never trekked to this re­mote lo­ca­tion be­fore, so had lit­tle idea of what to ex­pect. The cave it­self—with its hid­den cran­nies, 30-me­ter ceil­ing, and panorama view of the moun­tains be­low—turned out to be worth the hike, but there was no sign of its al­leged for­mer in­hab­i­tants.

Al­though less in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous than the North Amer­i­can sasquatch or its Hi­malayan cousin, the yeti or Abom­inable Snow­man, Shen­nongjia’s yeren has cap­tured lo­cal imag­i­na­tions: Xin­hua con­ser­va­tively es­ti­mates the num­ber of yeren sight­ings at around 400, though some say it’s well into the thou­sands—a tes­ta­ment, per­haps, to the mil­len­nia-old mythol­ogy of the yeren’s ex­is­tence.

Shen­nongjia’s iso­lated and mostly un­touched karst moun­tain forests have long been a source of fas­ci­na­tion— the yeren is men­tioned as far back as the War­ring States pe­riod in poet Qu Yuan’s “Moun­tain Spirit.” Fos­sil ev­i­dence sug­gests the area was once home to a pre­his­toric gi­ant ape that stood as tall as three me­ters. Nowa­days, the re­mote re­gion is renowned for rare and en­dan­gered an­i­mals, like the clouded leop­ard and golden snub-nosed mon­key, which helped it gain UN­ESCO World Her­itage sta­tus in 2016.

Yet the most elu­sive of these

crea­tures, the yeren, is ar­guably the one that pro­vided the big­gest boost to the lo­cal econ­omy, with “wild man” tourism bring­ing a wel­come rev­enue to these iso­lated parts. There has been some rush to cash in (there is even a brand of hik­ing boot called Yeren), along with a few small at­tractions, but Shen­nongjia bucks the tourist trend of cyn­i­cal sites staffed by per­func­tory dis­be­liev­ers. Among its ham­lets, moder­nity has not yet pen­e­trated time­less be­liefs in the su­per­nat­u­ral.

In­stead, one en­coun­ters a nu­anced re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­mans and na­ture, science and the search for the yet-un­known. Al­though larger than the state of Rhode Is­land, Shen­nongjia has only 80,000 res­i­dents scat­tered among its three town­ships and small high­ways. Many lo­cals seem ready to be­lieve in the yeren be­cause, sur­rounded by un­ut­ter­able beauty ev­ery day, it’s easy to be­lieve in na­ture and all its mys­tery.

At Song­bai Town­ship’s Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum, 23-year-old lo­cal Wang Yul­ing of­fers a per­sonal tour. Be­sides a mother and her tod­dler, we were the only vis­i­tors. “This is our off-sea­son,” Wang ex­plained. “Dur­ing the sum­mer, we can have up­wards of 1,000 peo­ple per day vis­it­ing.” Many of them come just to see the mu­seum’s in­fa­mous “Wild Man Room.” The high­light is a life-size model of a fe­male yeren, whose furry fea­tures re­sem­ble a Ne­an­derthal from science text­books rather than pop­u­lar de­pic­tions of Big­foot.

There are also il­lus­trated posters, in both English and Chi­nese, re­lat­ing some of the most ex­cit­ing re­cent en­coun­ters with the yeren: farmer Xiao Ren, who ac­ci­den­tally en­coun­tered two yeren cop­u­lat­ing in 1993; hunter Cai Yue­tian, who claims to have been ab­ducted by a fe­male yeren, who then killed a tiger to pro­tect her new “hus­band”; and the time that Kuom­intang troops caught and ex­e­cuted a yeren in 1942.

“There is bound to be one,” sur­mised Wang, after look­ing at the mu­seum’s ev­i­dence, which in­cluded fos­silized yeren foot­prints. It was a sen­ti­ment that was re­peated fre­quently dur­ing TWOC’S visit, with vary­ing de­grees of cer­tainty: Some sub­sti­tuted the sure­fire “肯定有” with the more diplo­matic “可能有 [there might be],” but no one ex­pressed any doubt that some­thing un­known lived in these misty peaks.

Skep­tics sug­gest this is sim­ply a scheme to boost in­ter­est in the na­tional park. Pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Zhou Guox­ing, for­mer di­rec­tor of Bei­jing’s Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum, is one. In 2012, Zhou pub­lished a dis­be­liever’s man­i­festo, “Fifty Years of Track­ing the Chi­nese Wild Man,” declar­ing he had found no ev­i­dence of the yeren’s ex­is­tence in all his decades of re­search, field stud­ies, and in­ter­views; most eye­wit­nesses could not even agree on the de­scrip­tion of the crea­ture they saw.

If the pur­pose of pro­mot­ing the yeren’s ex­is­tence is sim­ply ex­ploita­tion, though, the lo­cals seem slow to take ad­van­tage. The unashamed cash-in trade, ubiq­ui­tous at so many Chi­nese sites, is largely ab­sent; there are no Big­foot toys (though one can buy a stuffed panda or snub-nosed mon­key), no Big­foot ex­plo­ration coach tours, nor theme parks, other than a few mu­se­ums (free with en­trance to the park), with one of­fer­ing a “haunted maze” filled with lurk­ing wild men and loud­speak­ers emit­ting bes­tial shrieks; for 10 RMB, one can pose with a man in a yeren suit.

Re­searchers, though, have gen­er­ally taken the sub­ject se­ri­ously (even if it’s to dis­prove a sight­ing),


per­haps be­cause so many of the sight­ings have come from sup­pos­edly re­li­able sources, from sol­diers to party mem­bers, rather than un­e­d­u­cated peas­ants. Even gov­ern­ment engi­neers have glimpsed one: A plac­ard along­side the Tianyan Scenic Area marks the spot where a dozen spe­cial­ists from the Min­istry of Rail­ways re­port­edly en­coun­tered a yeren while vis­it­ing in 1993.

Adding to the cred­i­bil­ity is the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the coun­try’s top science in­sti­tu­tion, which launched the only state-backed ex­pe­di­tion to in­ves­ti­gate the ru­mors in 1977, after a lo­cal deputy di­rec­tor, Chen Lian­sheng, claimed that he and sev­eral col­leagues had spot­ted a beast (“cov­ered in red fur…face hu­man-like, with up­right ears and a pro­trud­ing mouth”) block­ing the road while re­turn­ing from a con­fer­ence early one May morn­ing. The ex­pe­di­tion was ul­ti­mately in­con­clu­sive, and was per­haps doomed to fail­ure, as much of the search was con­ducted dur­ing day­light hours by large, noisy groups.

If the ex­am­ple of the Ti­betan yeti is any in­di­ca­tion, though, deeper scru­tiny usu­ally brings dis­ap­point­ment for mon­ster-lovers. The up­right Hi­malayan biped called the metoh-kangi in the lo­cal lan­guage, or “man-bear snow­man,” has cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion ever since Bri­tish ex­plorer Charles Howard-bury re­ported see­ing one cross­ing a glacier in 1921. Most re­cent sci­en­tific ex­pla­na­tions, though, state that all the phys­i­cal ev­i­dence, and there­fore sight­ings, points to two species of indige­nous bear.

Zhou, the Bei­jing pa­le­on­tol­o­gist, also be­lieves that the “strange foot­prints” found around Shen­nongjia most


likely be­longed to a bear. In his 2012 pa­per, he dis­misses hair sam­ples as be­long­ing ei­ther to a wild boar or a hu­man hoaxer.

At the area mu­se­ums, much of the dis­cus­sion about the yeren is couched in aca­demic terms. While the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum at Song­bai takes an an­thro­po­log­i­cal view, ex­hibit­ing oral his­to­ries of the leg­end, ex­hibits on Guan­men Moun­tain and Tian­men Moun­tain delve deep into the science, with the lat­ter claim­ing to “seek the miss­ing link in the process of evo­lu­tion.”

For the new Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum at Guan­men Moun­tain, an in­tro­duc­tion to in­fa­mous yeren is a means to pro­mote the di­verse flora and fauna of the re­gion. With over 3,700 unique species of plants and 4,300 dif­fer­ent types of in­sects, Shen­nongjia is home to var­i­ous pro­tected species, as well as an un­usu­ally large num­ber of al­bino an­i­mals (some­times cred­ited for the tufts of yeren “fur” found by lo­cals). The mu­seum urges vis­i­tors to ex­plore the forests fur­ther, claim­ing that there are still many dis­cov­er­ies yet to be made, a mes­sage that likely res­onates with prag­matic of­fi­cials and ama­teur en­thu­si­asts alike.

Science les­sons aside, there is an al­most whim­si­cal na­ture to the yeren that’s pre­sented to tourists. The gate at Guan­men Moun­tain, made up of minia­ture metal cut-outs of the ho­minid, fea­tures a 10-me­ter-tall statue of a fe­male yeren giv­ing her in­fant a kiss—tarry a while, and the gate­keeper may even sur­prise you by pulling a hid­den lever that makes the baby yeren “uri­nate” left­over rain­wa­ter, giv­ing any ve­hi­cles un­der­neath an im­promptu wash.

These fan­ci­ful por­tray­als are am­pli­fied by the magic of Shen­nongjia for­est, where traces of civ­i­liza­tion are few and far be­tween, and moun­tain roads per­ilously wind around dizzy­ing cliffs, cor­roded rock faces, and roar­ing wa­ter­ways. “Have you looked around at our forests?” I over­heard a vis­i­tor ask­ing her com­pan­ions at din­ner. “If a yeren could be any­where in China, it would be here.”

The logic of this ar­gu­ment has res­onated with many who have made it their life mis­sion to dis­cover the yeren. An in­de­pen­dently funded, vol­un­teer-run “Hubei Wild Man Re­search As­so­ci­a­tion” or­ga­nized ex­pe­di­tions in 2010, which proved as in­con­clu­sive as the CAS one. Per­haps most fa­mously, an ama­teur ex­plorer named Zhang Jinx­ing spent over two decades liv­ing in Shen­nongjia as a her­mit, vow­ing to keep grow­ing his beard un­til he was suc­cess­ful in find­ing Hubei’s Big­foot.

But the Shanxi na­tive re­cently left the for­est mys­te­ri­ously, clos­ing down his pri­vate yeren mu­seum. “It is quite a pity,” our guide, Fu Rao, noted. “He spent so many years ded­i­cated to Shen­nongjia, re­search­ing the yeren, yet he was never able to re­al­ize his life dream of see­ing one for him­self.” What had hap­pened to Zhang? Some re­ports claim he only ever found hairs, fe­ces, and foot­prints.

In 2016, though, Zhang told the Global Times that he had in fact en­coun­tered yeren sev­eral times in the wilder­ness, but was hes­i­tant to share his so-called dis­cov­ery with the world. “Once I make it known,” he asked, some­what the­atri­cally, “will the yeren still be able to live freely and peace­fully?” – EMILY CON­RAD


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