Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Chinese UFO and Yeren Flaps - Not that Surprising

Mainstream media, never mind fringe topics blogs and sites, have been awash with stories in the last week of UFO sightings over China. The closing of an airport due to concerns over the UFOs seems to be the focal point when these stories grabbed hold in the global media. The coverage has been skeptical from the beginning, focusing on current social context or materialist explanations (much speculation about Chinese military activity). I guess distance allows for some distillation away of both the ridicule factor and the mystery mongering for clicks factor.

Forgetmori has an expose on the various images coming out of this wave.

Less high profile have been some recent reports and activity about the Yeren, China's wild man.

Especially in regards to the UFO wave/panic, there seems to be some element of viewing Chinese interest in fringe topics to be evidence of recent Westernization and affluence. But this view misses a lot of history and context. The concept of "anomalies," ranging from miracles to odd occurrences and phenomena, in Chinese natural and historical writing is quite old. Robert Ford Campany's Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China discusses the role of anomalies in views of the government and its relationship to nature, and how they were utilized by various religions.

More recently, both the topics of the yeren and the UFO have had complicated and contradictory relationships with the populace, science, and the Chinese government. Sigrid Schmalzer discusses the popular image of the yeren in her book The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China, those who have sought it, its intertwining with "Peking Man" fossils of Homo erectus and China's identity as both a scientific society and one with concern for ancestors, and changing government attitudes in the 20th century towards science and the benefits and dangers of "peoples'" organizations in society. Much ink has been spilled on North American attitudes towards its Bigfoot wild man and how it relates to populism, masculinity, attitudes towards nature, and so on, but arguably the story of the yeren is more complex. And unlike the case of Bigfoot, yeren researchers have had changing relationships with the government, ranging from regulation and control to sponsorship, as government officials have alternately not wanted to promote yeren stories because they are "superstition," to supporting research into the yeren to debunk superstition.

Likewise, the history of UFOs in China has a similar tension of government tacit support or at least lack of disapproval of UFO research groups. UFO Evidence has a solid collection of news articles from the last decade on UFOs in China, many discussing the issue of Chinese social and political attitudes towards the topic. UFO groups and researchers are not as politically worrying as other grassroots organizations that concern the government (such as religious groups like Falun Gong), and are seen as falling into the realm of science and scientific interest. For an urbanizing society pursuing high technology based manufacturing and a growing space program, such an emphasis is not surprising. It bears noting that the golden age of UFOs (as interpreted through the nuts and bolts Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, and apart from earlier theosophical or hollow earth concepts) in American culture dates to the formative years of its own space race, reaching a height as the Apollo program ramped up to lunar missions, and with the end of Apollo branching substantially into more esoteric and less "technology in the sky"-based topics as abduction, crash-retrieval conspiracies, ultraterrestrials, and paranormal viewpoints. Not completely ostracized from the government through either disinterest or active hostility in the vein of the Robertson's panel's suggestions and some of Blue Book's shoddier explanations, the more outre topics are not as welcome in a government-responsive Chinese ufology.