At Home With the Man Who’s Made Robot ‘Children’ for 30 Years
“They are closer to me than my actual children in some ways.”
Image: Aurelien Foucault
"My inspiration usually appears during the night," said Wu Yulu, gesturing towards a metal shoebox with legs, a ratty tail, and a crude, pubic-like hair design scrawled on its back and 'face' in marker pen. He flicked a switch on the robo-rodent, causing it to noisily clunk-lurch forwards. "Sometimes at night, after my family falls asleep, I get up and walk in circles in my courtyard," continued Wu. His voice trailed off as he flicked the switch again, rendering his creation still.
Earlier this week I visited the home of Wu, 54, who has become something of a mini-celebrity via Chinese media due to the vast family he has created. In a move that the over-analytical among us could view as the ultimate artistic statement against China's recently scrapped single child policy, he has built 63 robots, mainly humanoids, which he describes as his "children." They are additions to the two flesh and blood human children he has also produced.
Wu keeps his bionic babies in two lock-ups in Ma Wu Village, in Beijing's Tongzhou district, about an hour's drive from the city centre. The first room I visited resembled a cross between a chaotic car repair shop and the apartment of JF Sebastian, the genetic engineer character in Blade Runner who literally "makes friends" to share his home with.
Rows of mildly disturbing toy-sized robots with doll heads and drawn-on gurns were lined up, pride of place in front of a wall covered with crispy old newspaper cuttings that named Wu as "Robodad." Elaborate designs—a humanoid riding a bug; a hopping robot with a mullet haircut—were taped up too: small paper insights into Wu's obsessive mind.
Many of the robots just walked, but there were many other skills on show, albeit most of them fairly rudimentary. One mustachioed yellow bot had a lighter in its hand and tubes running through its body, allowing it to 'smoke.' One had a boxing glove used for administering massages skewered on its right limb, with a hand fan held in its left. Another, with a permanent look of eye-popping surprise on its square face, smashed cymbals together at ear-spiking volume.
Wu named all the robots after himself and the number order in which they were created. Wu Number One, a small walking robot with a drawn-on beard and a battery power pack for a crotch, was the first he made, back in 1986. "After making Wu Number One I became so passionate, if not crazy, about robots," he said. "My passion for them is beyond language."
Wu said that before his robot passion came his passion for legs. He dropped out of high school, later working as a factory technician and garnering knowledge of robotics, but it was during school that the seed of his future vocation was sown. "I remember my classmates playing in the playground, chasing each other, dancing and hopping around," he said. "I wondered: 'Why are humans able to walk with two legs, with such flexibility and coordination? Is it possible to mimic humans' walking through a machine?'"
When Wu powered up his most famous creation, Wu Number 32, it became clear that this was indeed possible, even on a tight budget. Most of his robots were made from scrap, or low-cost metal from a nearby steelworks.
Wu flung open the lock-up's doors then leaped into a red rickshaw with a man-sized, Simpsons-yellow humanoid in front of it. He hit the 'on' switch. The robot's ears waggled as it shouted a tinny but friendly message: "Hello everyone! Wu Yulu is my dad and I am taking my dad to the shops. Thank you!" It stepped forward, hauling Wu out of the building for a stroll.
The ludicrous spectacle of the rickshaw ride and the array of oddball robots arguably presented Wu as a talented eccentric, maybe one with a bit of 'mad genius' in him. But he actually came across as an introverted, understated sort: slightly weary at answering questions, and making grumpy mutterings about his electricity bill being affected by my visit. "Many farmers are into making inventions," he said with a shrug. "They may not make as many things as I do, but many are interested in this."
He's right, to an extent: instances of rural Chinese with spiraling penchants for construction and invention often pop up in Chinese media. The 2014 case of the Shandong province farmers who gave up work to build massive Transformers robots out of cars is a particularly striking example. But still, Wu's sustained creativeness—30 years of robot building for personal use and counting—feels unique.
I wondered how the obsession affected Wu's family life. British comedian Paul Merton visited him for a 2007 documentary about China, in which Wu's wife said she had considered leaving her husband due to his all-encompassing hobby. The fact that he burned the family house down in 1999 due to unstable voltage levels in equipment he was using can't have helped, either.
Wu's two sons are now 28 and 29, and he claims that his family now supports his robot interest. It took them a while to come around, though.
"When I first started my family, friends and neighbours called me idle, a black sheep, insane and stupid," said Wu. "I didn't farm so the farmland went to waste. I couldn't make money—for the first ten years of this I was living on credit. But in 2004 I was invited to a farmers' invention competition where I won first prize and 10,000 Yuan ($1,450 US). Since then, they started to understand."
Wu now makes money renting out his farmland and occasionally making robots to order, although he still keeps the vast majority of his creations for himself. After 30 years making these metal kids, his attachment to them isn't waning.
"They are closer to me than my actual children in some ways," he said, perched next to a weird bowing robot with corrugated tube arms and a grubby doll head impaled on top of it. "The time and energy I have invested in every single robot is huge and every time I finish one I have a great sense of achievement and feel like the happiest person in the world."
Wu didn't crack a smile once during our meeting, but I'll take him at his word.