The Chinese robotics industry was nonexistent until the 1980s. However, after attending the 1985 World Fair in Tsukuba, Japan, Chinese scientists from the National University of Defense Technology came back determined to make a Chinese robot.
Within two years they had a prototype, called Xianxingzhe (“Forerunner”) that could move its feet; by 2000 the robot was complete with hands, a nervous system and visual sensors. In China, Xianxingzhe was hailed as a major breakthrough, which it was – for China. “China has independently developed its first two-legged robot!” raved state media. “This will push China’s robotics research to new heights!”
The Japanese, however, were unimpressed.
Today, Xianxingzhe is best known for the massive wave of ridicule his unveiling unleashed. Japanese website Samurai Damasii started the ball rolling with a webpage dedicated to Xianxingzhe that subjected the admittedly awkward-looking robot to merciless sarcasm. Samurai Damashii called Xianxingzhe “the crystallization of China’s four thousand years of scientific knowledge” and commented on the crudeness of the design, including the “Chinese cannon” mounted to Xianxingzhe’s crotch.
A separate article, also a satire, claimed that the robot was actually a military design. The author expressed concern about the crotch cannon and the robot’s ability to make people die laughing. The spoof was so popular that Samurai Damashii’s site traffic set a new record in Japan.
True to form, Japanese contempt for the Chinese robot eventually turned to affection, and then obsession. Once he was inserted into video games, Xianxingzhe became the leading icon in a pan-Asian gaming cult. The robot is the protagonist in one game that pits Xianxingzhe against Honda’s humanoid robot Asimo; Xianxingzhe engages Asimo using his crotch cannon, which can be upgraded to a Gatling gun.
Today, Xianxingzhe toys are still sold in Japan and Taiwan, and he appears in various forms in Japanese anime cartoons and as a paperweight on office desks.
But the craze has yet to take hold here, for some reason. A search on Taobao.com revealed only one paper model of Xianxingzhe for sale for RMB10, with no explanation of who he is. So far there have been no buyers.