Encounters and EvidenceFor centuries, in remote regions of central and southern China, residents and travelers have spoken of something called the "wildman," or yeren. Early literary references to what seems to be the same creature also call it a "hill ghost," "mountain monster," "man bear," or "monkeylike, but not a monkey." A seventeenth-century account from Hubei province notes, "In the remote mountains of Fangxian County, there are rock caves, in which live hairy men as tall as three meters. They often come down to hunt dogs and chickens in the villages. They fight with whoever resists."
Though in the late 1950s some Chinese scientists took an active interest in the yeti, the "abominable snowman" of the Himalayas, China's native hairy giants attracted neither notice nor respect. Except to those who claimed direct encountersmostly peasants and soldiers in the provinces but also at least two scientists--conventional wisdom relegated the yeren to the realm of popular superstition--just another mythical beast to be found on stone medallions of bygone eras. Yet had anyone had been paying attention, he or she would have heard some interesting stories.
For example, biologist Wang Tselin reportedly saw a yeren killed in 1940 in the Gansu area. It was, he said, a female about six and a half feet tall and covered with grayish-brown hair, with a face that combined human and ape features in a way that reminded him of the prehistoric Beijing Man. In 1950 geologist Fanjingquan said he observed two wildmen, apparently mother and son, in a mountain forest on two occasions.
The first official inquiry was launched in 1961, following the reported slaying of a female yeren by road builders in a thick forest in the Xishuang Banna area. By the time representatives of the Chinese Academy of Sciences came to the region, the body was no longer available, and the scientists concluded that the animal had been nothing more than a gibbon. This skeptical analysis killed government interest in the question for the next fifteen years, though two decades later Zhou Guoxing, an anthropologist with the Beijing Natural History Museum, would interview a local journalist who participated in the investigation. According to Zhou, "He stated that the animal which had been killed was not a gibbon, but an unknown animal of human shape."
A multiple-witness 1976 encounter revived interest in the yeren and brought it international attention for the first time. Early in the morning of May 14, six local bureaucrats on their way home from a meeting spotted a "strange, tailless creature with reddish fur" on a rural highway near Chunshuya, Hubei province. Switching the headlights on high, the driver followed the creature as it tried to escape up an embankment along the roadside. It slipped and landed right in front of the jeep, which nearly hit it. The five passengers jumped out and surrounded the beast, now positioned on all fours and staring directly into the headlights.
Afraid to approach it too closely, the witnesses, who were not armed, got no closer than six feet. One of them, Zhou Zhongyi, tossed a rock at the yeren's buttocks, causing it to stand briefly. At this the group retreated, and the animal lumbered away and this time executed a successful climb up the slope.
The party described the creature as over six feet tall, covered in thick brown- and purpled-red wavy hair, with a fat belly and pronounced buttocks. The eyes struck them as humanlike, but the face was clearly apelike, with large ears and a protruding monkeylike snout.
Investigations and EvidenceThis sighting caused something of a stir at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which the next year sent 110 investigators into the field. They concentrated their efforts on the forests of Fang County and the Shennongjia area of Hubei, a massive forest preserve of steep mountains and deep valleys where a wide variety of rare and exotic animals, including the giant panda (discovered only in 1869), live. None of the participants had a personal sighting, but witnesses were interviewed and alleged yeren footprints, hair, and feces were collected.
Zhou Guoxing, one of the expedition leaders, later noted that there seemed to be two types of yeren: "a larger one of about two meters in height, and a smaller one, about one meter in height." There were also two types of footprints: "One is large, 30-40 cm, remarkably similar to that of man, with the four small toes held together and the largest one pointing slightly outwards. The other type is smaller, about 20 cm, and more similar to the footprint of an ape or monkey, with the largest toe evidently pointing outwards."
The second, smaller type of yeren seems beyond dispute, and in fact it is possible, according to Zhou, that both living and dead specimens are already in scientists' hands. One was killed on May 23, 1957, near the village of Zhuanxian in Zhejiang province. A biology teacher had the presence of mind to preserve the hands and feet. When Zhou learned of this in 1981, he went to the site and collected the specimens. After some considerable study he concluded that they "belonged to a kind of large stump-tailed monkey unknown to science." Subsequently he identified the animal as a stumptailed macaque. Not long afterwards just such an animal was captured in the Huang Mountain region and taken to the Hefei Zoo. Zhou wrote that this specimen is mainly ground-dwelling.... The body is large, about 70-90 cm in standing height. A tall individual could reach one meter. Its extremities are strongly built. It weighs more than 20 kilograms. A large male could weigh over 33 kilograms, while females would be smaller. The back hair is brown in color. The adult male has whiskers, and has a reddish color on the face.
Ohio State University anthropologist Frank E. Poirier suggested that many yeren reports-he made no distinction between the taller and shorter varieties-were probably sightings of a rare, endangered animal which inhabits the region but which is seldom seen: the golden monkey. After a 1989 expedition, however, Poirier moderated his earlier conviction that the yeren does not exist, at least as an unknown animal, notwithstanding the fact that, as he and colleague J. Richard Greenwell acknowledged, "the umbrella-term yeren (Wildman) has encompassed a wide variety of known animals, such as bears, gibbon apes, and macaque and golden monkeys." Poirier himself was once mistaken for a yeren, after villagers who had never seen a Westerner encountered a near-nude Poirier napping by a river.
Poirier and Greenwell speculate that the smaller, quadrupedal yeren may be "orang-utans (Pongo), either the known species or, more likely, a related species-perhaps even a fossil form-populations of which may survive in rugged and isolated pockets of the country."
The smaller yeren, in short, is a question largely of interest to primatologists. But the other yeren, if accurately described, is something else: a Chinese cousin of North America's Bigfoot/Sasquatch. Entirely bipedal, it stands between six and eight feet tall and has a strikingly humanlike face. A witness gave this description to Academy of Sciences researchers:
He was about seven feet tall, with shoulders wider than a man's, a sloping forehead, deep-set eyes and a bulbous nose with slightly upturned nostrils. He had sunken cheeks, ears like a man's but bigger, and round eyes, also bigger than a man's. His jaw jutted out and he had protruding lips. His front teeth were as broad as a horse's. His eyes were black. His hair was dark brown, more than a foot long and hung loosely over his shoulders. His whole face' except for the nose and ears, was covered with short hairs. His arms hung below his knees. He had big hands with fingers about six inches long and thumbs only slightly separated from the fingers. He didn't have a tail, and the hair on his body was short. He had thick thighs, shorter than the lower part of his leg. He walked upright with his legs apart. His feet were each about 12 inches long and half that broadbroader in front and narrow behind, with splayed toes. He was a male. That much I saw clearly.
Investigators have collected dozens of alleged yeren hairs and examined them in laboratories. Li Jian, a historian of science and secretary general of the Society for the Survey and Research of the Chinese Wildman, told the New York Times that microscopic comparison of eight such hairs with samples from human beings, apes, goats, and pigs had indicated the "wild man is in the middle between bears or apes and human beings." Studying samples from various regions of China, physicists at Fudan University determined that the proportion of iron to zinc was 50 times that found in human hair and seven times that in the hair of recognized primates. As Poirier and Greenwell observe, this appears to suggest that "some specific Wildman hairs derive from a higher primate not yet known to zoology." An independent analysis produced an identical finding.
Biologists at East China Normal University used a scanning electron microscope to examine yeren hairs which they compared to samples of human and primate hairs. Their conclusion: the former were neither human nor known primate hair but from an unrecognized primate with a morphological affinity to humans. This discovery, of course, is consistent with what one would expect from eyewitness descriptions of the large yeren.
Among zoologists prepared to accept the possibility of the large yeren's existence, a favorite speculation, shared by Bigfoot researchers, is that the creature is a surviving Gigantopitliccus, a giant, apparently biped primate believed to have gone extinct in China some 300,000 years ago after an 8 million-year evolutionary history. "It takes only a little 'push' to propose its survival another halfmillion years to the present time," Poirier and Greenwell write, pointing out that the giant panda, which is just as old, shares the same habitat.