THE AMATEUR INVENTORS OF CHINA

Remko Tanis • 07 November 2018

Over the weekend, the Washington Post had a piece by Anna Fifield on Geng Shuai, a 30-year old inventor of useless stuff.

wapo-useless-edisons

This paragraph jumped out at me:

Every country has its toolshed inventors. But China — which gave the world movable type printing, gunpowder and the compass — has spawned a population of tinkerers who display the kind of outsize ambition that has helped the country become a global economic giant.

It reminded me of one of the first exhibitions, in 2010, at the then newly opened Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. The exhibit featured the work of Chinese farmer-inventors.

During the day, they’d plow land, herd sheep or feed cattle. But during their spare free hours, these farmers would toil away at realizing a vision they had to build their own real working airplanes, submarines and robots.

 Helicopter build by farmer-inventor Xu Bin at the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Helicopter build by farmer-inventor Xu Bin at the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, China. (C) Remko Tanis

I visited the exhibition in Shanghai and found that you’d have to be in a really persistent bad mood if you manage to leave it afterwards and still be pissed off at the world. The museum was filled to the brim with objects that inspire and testify how a lot is possible if you really want it. Although some items were outright ridiculous.

 A flying saucer made by a Chinese farmer-inventor, at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, China. The text reads it never learned to land. (C) Remko Tanis

A flying saucer made by a Chinese farmer-inventor, at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai, China. The text reads it never learned to land. (C) Remko Tanis

There’s submarines shaped like giant fish, airplanes made out of wood, weird looking ufos and robots that will pull your rickshaw for you.

Make no mistake: the farmer-inventors are deadly serious about their projects. Some have been laboring for decades. Having failed most of the time, or let’s be honest: all the time, they’re determined to keep going and one day build that small aircraft that will actually take to the skies.

And until then they just keep trying, fueled by a harsh realism that failure is more likely than not. But, as it was written on a wall next to farmer Xu Bin’s manmade helicopter:

Whether it can fly or not is not important.

My full 2010 piece on the exhibit here.