Article by Tim King
Ask any American you know, they’re probably familiar with the legend of Bigfoot: a meters-tall ape-like creature living in the North American wilderness. While enthusiasts say he’s as real as you or me, detractors say he’s a figment of the imagination, a fever dream of environmental concern made folk lore. However, while Bigfoot is certainly a unique facet of American culture, it’s not quite as unique as we’d like to think. That’s because China’s got its own Bigfoot. His name is “Yeren” (lit. “wild man,” hereafter referred to as Yeren because I’m very pretentious), and he allegedly lives in Hubei Province, in a 2000-square-kilometer block of pristine wilderness called Shennongjia.
Like any good myth, the story of the Yeren is rife with contradiction and mystery—the eyewitness accounts, the true believers who stop at nothing to prove its veracity, the scientific skeptics and the odd details that just can’t quite be accounted for. As with anything in this idiom, the sources one is able to find for research run the gauntlet from “blind, breathless credulity” to “bemused skepticism from a major media outlet that was having a slow news day,” so take all of this with as large a grain of salt as you need. But real or not, there’s still something fascinating and magnetic about a tall tale, so please join me for a quick little sojourn into the world of Chinese Bigfoot.
Some articles about the Yeren claim that his legend begins almost 2000 years ago, saying that there have been references in ancient poems and songs. For many people, the Tale of the Yeren starts in earnest on a spring night in 1976, when a car full of CCP officials drove through rural Hubei and had a now famous close encounter. The South China Morning Post quotes Chen Liangshen, one of the officials present, as saying, “[We] stopped about a meter away from the animal…Three of us in total got out of the car–it was so near that we could touch it.”
The description of the Yeren is always the same: he’s supposed to be about two meters tall, bipedal and covered in reddish hair. Mr. Chen’s description doesn’t deviate much from that. “It was covered in red fur…Its face was human-like, with upright ears and a protruding mouth. Its eyes did not reflect light, like human eyes. Its arms were thin but its lower half was very thick like a cow, and it didn’t have a tail.” That was the only look Mr. Chen would get of the Yeren, as a colleague apparently threw a rock at it, which caused it to flee.
The next day, he filed a report about the incident; additionally, he returned to the scene and found several reddish hairs, which were then donated for scientific research.
Observers see this as a flashpoint, the moment when the Yeren captured both the imagination of the public and the attention of the state. The government sponsored three expeditions into Shennongjia in the 1970s and 80s in search of the Yeren, but all were fruitless. They have since distanced themselves from any belief in the existence of the creature, though independent devotees have continued their search, with the most recent high-profile private expedition occurring in 2010 and allegedly costing about 11 million RMB, according to CNN.
Man or Beast?
Eyewitness accounts from people that allegedly encountered a Yeren seem to hedge closely to the idea that it is a relative of humans. A 2015 article about the Yeren that appeared in Ancient Origins (“the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives”) shares two stories that ascribe some uncannily human traits to the creature. The first is that of a hunter named Bu Xiaoqiu, who claims to have caught a small Yeren in Guizhou Province and was compelled to release it when he saw the creature’s eyes tear up, a trait not shared by other primates. The second story comes from an unnamed cowherd in Hubei’s Fangxian County, who says that in 1979 a Yeren grabbed his wrist and wouldn’t let go for what must have been thirty excruciating minutes, the Yeren laughing all the while.
As with any mythical creature, there are many theories as to what the Yeren could be, if not actually the Yeren, of course. Like his North American cousin, a leading theory is that he is actually a gigantopithecus, a particularly large species of primordial ape, thought to be extinct for some eight million years. But other, slightly more plausible theories have been floated as well. Members of China’s scientific community claim that, similar to the Yeti (which turned out to be a very ugly bear, apparently), it’s more likely that eyewitnesses are confusing native fauna for an undiscovered species.
China.org.cn, a news site “published under the auspices of the State Council Information Office and the China International Publishing Group in Beijing” seems to tacitly agree with this line of thinking in an article about the 2010 expedition. They paraphrase a paleoanthropologist named Zhou Guoxing, who was present on one of the state-backed expeditions in 1977, as saying “‘Wild men’ killed by human beings always turned out to be bears. Hair and footprints of alleged ‘wild men’ were shown to be of bears and human beings.” Indeed, the South China Morning Post references one of Zhou’s research papers, saying that “Hair samples believed to have belonged to Yeren were identified as wild boar hair, tree fibres and even dyed human hair.” It’s unclear if this also includes the hairs collected by Mr. Chen in 1976.
This “country bumpkin” stigma attached to many Yeren eyewitnesses has even given rise to yet another theory, that the isolated nature of the region resulted in inbreeding, and that the Yeren is nothing more than a wayward local with hypertrichosis (in more common parlance, “werewolf syndrome”).
Certain eyewitnesses like to push back on this idea that the quote-unquote “uneducated” local people would be so ignorant. Yuan Yuhao, a former soldier and Shennongjia native who was also on the 1977 expedition, was a skeptic, but claims to have seen the Yeren some three years later while trekking with a companion. “I’ve seen all of Shennongjia’s wild animals,” he told the South China Morning Post. “There are none I don’t recognize.”
Even if we were to accept that the forests of Hubei were filled with ignorant hicks that can’t tell an endangered golden monkey or an overly hirsute inbred from a Bigfoot (which, just to be clear, I don’t accept that at all), Chen Liangshen, the CCP official who had the roadside encounter in 1976, would surely be more highly educated, would he not? And he seems pretty certain about what he saw. “We had never seen anything like this in a zoo. It wasn’t a cow or a bear.”
Zhou Guoxing is quoted in the aforementioned Ancient Origins article as saying he has “evolved” in the decades since he’s researched the Yeren—“from acceptance with reservation, to vacillation with doubt, to basically denial.” A lack of conclusive evidence has frustrated many who get swept up in the legend of the Yeren, though people like Yuan, who owns a 40cm plaster cast of what is ostensibly a Yeren footprint, haven’t been swayed. The Hubei Wild Man Research Association continues their search for the Yeren to this day, and once quaint villages now bustle with tourists who come to go on “Wild Man Tours” or to visit the Yeren Museum. At this point, whether he is real seems more inconsequential than the reality—that perhaps he was just the friends and the sweet, sweet tourism money we made along the way.
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease Magazine and is also very upset that he didn’t know cryptozoology was an option before he got a degree in English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org