01 December 2008

via io9, the imaginative robotic creations of Wu Yulu (吴玉禄):

Rural Robots by Wu Yulu from microwavefest on Vimeo.

Wu Yulu was invited to participate in the Microwave International New Media Arts Festival in Hong Kong, which produced this short video. As the video shows, Wu has been a popular fixture in Chinese media, where he’s invariably referred to as “peasant Wu Yulu”. In one extended interview with Wu, one peasant is quoted as saying “For an ordinary peasant to use his mind, it’s not easy, if you asked me to make [robots] I couldn’t” (就一个普通农民动者脑子,那是不简单,要让我做我不成).Likewise, a Chinese Academy of Sciences researcher says it’s not easy for someone like Wu to create such machines because his “cultural level is not very high” (文化水平也不高). Cultural level (wenhua shuiping) is often used to strictly refer to educational level, but has much broader implications. Someones cultural level can be applied to matters of courtesy and etiquette, such as littering or queueing, and generally how “civilized” they are. Measures of civilizing have roots in Qing scholarly elites and rural/urban distinctions and biases, as well as social Darwinist ideas that influenced Chinese 20th century society. A related concept, suzhi (素质) or “human quality”, also touches on these ideas of lesser and greater levels of civilized citizens, and is a core principle of Chinese educational theory. It’s a hierarchy, where progress is measured in comparison to ideal notions of the scholar, the gentry, the elite, the sophisticate.

The whole world makes similar distinctions between city slickers and country bumpkins, aristocrats and farmers, intellectuals and the illiterate. It does seem more clearly articulated in China, however, both in general speech and in the educational system. But this seems irrelevant to Wu’s work. Wu’s robots are primarily mechanical - they don’t appear to have any technological breakthroughs, but are more like mechanical sculptures. It’s hardly surprising that a peasant would be able to learn how to build machines like this, since mechanical repair is an important skill in any Chinese village. What Wu has accomplished doesn’t really have anything to do with formal schooling, it has to do with practical knowledge, obsession (in building one robot, he burnt his house down) and creativity. In the following video, a visiting foreign reporter observes that had Wu been to university, he would be running China’s space program. But to be creative as Mr. Wu has requires the time and space to tinker, to experiment, to burn your house down once or twice. If he had gone to university, he never would have had a chance to do so. If his “cultural level” was higher, he may have been just another middling technician.

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