On the outskirts of Beijing, in a small village of red-bricked farms flanked by rows of fields, lives an unlikely inventor. Wu Yulu, a 41-year-old repairman, builds robots of his own designs, using nothing but scrap and a fifth-grade education. He spends more than two-thirds of his monthly 1,000-rmb salary on an obsession that keeps him up at night and has plunged his family into debt.
Such single-minded dedication to invention is rare, and rarer still in China's farming communities, where life usually centers around the family and the harvest. And though he has never sold a single robot, Wu won't stop. He's been building robots for years, he said, starting with nothing but a compulsion to see how things worked.
In a bid to earn a little money from his obsession, Wu built a giant eight-legged robot the size of a pony, one that can carry a single person and that he hoped children will pay to ride during local festivals. It was the act of a desperate man, a man caught between his love of machines and the demands of his family. The machine cost 8,000 yuan, and was finished late last year.
"This is the biggest one yet," he said, flashing a look of pride at his wife before mounting the giant walking machine for a test drive through the village.
Wu hit the start switch and the monster lurched to life, thumping as the rusty tractor cogs and wheels inside it began to spin and turn. It was in November, and a warming afternoon had started melting the snow in the villages narrow alleyways, slicking them with mud. Wu and his machine headed straight out of the gate. The rattling machine did pretty well, too, its eight legs carrying it through the slick alley and soft mud, until Wu rounded a corner that led to a street paved with concrete. The hard surface proved too much for the walker. A strut came loose and scraped along the road for a few meters before the whole machine shut down, as a crowd of onlookers gathered.
"It's too tired!" called one old woman, laughing.
Undaunted, Wu dismounted, and called for one of his sons, who soon showed up hauling a portable arc welder on a bicycle-trailer. Ignoring the heckling, curious crowd, Wu got to work, and within a few minutes, the machine was able to limp back down the muddy alley and into his compound.
"He devoted all his money into this," Dong said. "He gives his love to the robots [and] he'll never, never, never stop."
With a different upbringing or education perhaps, Wu might have become an engineer. But his teachers were no good when he was school-aged, he said, so he stopped going. He learned to make robots by making mistakes.
"I refused anyone who pushes something into my head," he said in a recent interview. "I'm only thinking my way."
He's never actually considered what his little machines would do for him in the long run. He just knows he likes to build them.
His wife, Dong Shuyan, standing in a yard littered with scraps and rusted skeletons of neglected inventions as her two teen-age sons help their father, said she hoped that this time Wu would find a way to start repaying the family's debt, a figure that has risen past 20,000 yuan. They had to borrow money from their neighbors and the local government to build the walker. That loan was added to the money they'd had to borrow after an electrical fire that started with one of Wu's inventions burned down their house and almost everything in it.
Wu said he felt sorry about that, but the fire hadn't stopped him from thinking up new projects.
Nor was that fire the first time his obsession hurt his loved ones. Wu grew up in a family where sometimes there was "no oil for cooking," Dong said. Once, the family scraped all its money together and bought him a remote-control car. He broke their hearts, she said, when he immediately took it apart to see how it worked.
"Please do not keep going on," she used to tell him. "You need to pay more attention to the family."
Eventually she stopped asking because, she said, "it's no use."
Wu's other robots constitute motley assemblies of wires and gears in shapes inspired by a farm's natural surroundings: Next to the robot that looks like a grasshopper is the one that looks like a frog. Some of the robots hop, others crawl. One lights cigarettes and pours tea. None of them earn money, but all of them are labors of love.
"The best part is when it's finished," Wu says, "when it's alive."
I talked to Dong in February, to see if the eight-legged walker had made any money for the family.
"No," she told me, it hadn't. But now Wu was planning on building a new robot, from the toes up. This one, he promised, would be able to do anything the human body could. Work was already underway.
Wu Yulu (right) devotes most of his time, energy and money into building his robots, despite the pleas of his wife, Dong Shuyan (left), to pay more attention to the family.
Wu Yulu grimaces as his walker, "the biggest one yet," breaks down in front of his neighbors.
Many of Wu Yulu's designs mimic creatures from rural life, like a grasshopper (above).
(China Pictorial May 21, 2004)