Monday, May 2, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 1

Before Us
              Throughout Chinese legend, certain characters have so offended the gods that they were exiled from earth and sent to live on the moon. Like an ancient Chinese Siberia, the moon is now home to several unhappy people who, in one way or another, have attempted to achieve immortality without the gods’ consent.
               A woodcutter named Wu Gang is up there. Sent to the moon with only his axe, he will be allowed to return to earth once he cuts down a lunar tree. But try as he may, each tree he cuts down grows back before the gods can notice. And so he continues to search, cut down, and watch helplessly as each stump sprouts new branches.

Chang'e, circa Ancient Times
             Another legend tells of the moon goddess Chang’e, who floated to the moon from her bedroom window. Two versions exist. In the first, her husband goes on a painstaking search to give her immortality, and finds a pill strong enough for two people—perfect for man and wife. However, Chang’e finds the pill, hears him calling, and swallows both doses in a panic. Her husband watches, terrified and full of remorse, as his beautiful wife floats away from some sort of fantastic overdose.
               One more being lives in lunar rhapsody—the jade rabbit. A friend of Chang’e, the rabbit sits under a tree with mortar and pestle, making herbal medicine for the gods, and has long been combining jade and ore in hopes of curing Chang’e’s loneliness.  
               The stories have been retold over the centuries. Mao Zedong wrote about Chang’e in his poetry, and China’s Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the legend. But the characters have also found their way outside of folklore. The satellite Chang’e 1 appeared in the form of a bronze-colored box with solar wings. It lifted off from China’s southwestern Sichuan province in 2007 and orbited the moon for nearly a year and a half before successfully (yes, successfully) crashing into its surface.
               Chang’e 2 launched last October, and will orbit the hunk of cheese for the next several weeks, sending transmissions and photos of the lonesome craters. Chang’e 2 was the most recent accomplishment in Chinese space flight, which has endured a long history of strange events not unlike the legends that inspired the names of its rockets, satellites and missions.
               And it’s been a long time coming.

Feng Ru in San Francisco
               The story necessarily began in 1908, in a small workshop that caught fire one night in Oakland, CA. The blaze started when Feng Ru, a Chinese immigrant, lost control of his homemade airplane and crashed through the roof of his office.
               Known locally as Fong Joe Guey, Feng arrived in San Francisco in his early teens. Fascinated by the shipyards and factories across the Bay Area, he took up odd jobs to learn machinery and mechanics. He earned the confidence of the local Chinese businessmen, who were impressed with his early inventions—a new kind of telephone, alternative generators, and a strange water pump. But it was the Wright Brothers, who flew for the first time only a few years earlier, that truly inspired Feng. He translated flight notes and anything else he could find, studying what he could, and imagined what his plane would like.
               He opened the Guangdong Airline Factory-- a small workshop with a creaking roof. Two years later and his first plane was, like many firsts, nowhere near his best. His neighbors must have been terrified, seeing something like a huge bat fly over their houses at night. It was around then, in 1908, that he crashed that first plane into company HQ and burned down his sole workspace. But it proved he could do it.
Feng Ru, date unknown
               He then found assistants, moved operations to the open Piedmont Hills outside of town, and made his breakthrough. With the financial backing of the restaurant owners who were so impressed with him years earlier, Feng had different parts of a new 6-horse power engine built in different factories to ensure secrecy. His biplane, which is the name for those old fashioned planes flown at the time (the ones with two sets of wings), had a wingspan of 25 feet. He named it the Feng Ru 1. His test flights, varying in length according to how long it took for something to snap off, crack or come loose, attracted onlookers, and Feng is credited as the first Oakland resident to build an airplane.
               He completed a twenty-minute test flight in 1909, circling the low hills of Piedmont. The plane crashed, nose-diving from 12 feet, but he only got a few bruises. Newspapers were writing about the growing number of Chinese immigrants showing up in San Francisco, and some began adding jokes at the end their articles, wondering if any could arrive by plane. Swelling with pride, Feng kept his secrets to himself. Sun Yat-Sen, the revolutionary that helped topple the final Chinese Dynasty, was also in the US at the time, somewhere in Colorado. He encouraged Feng, helping to convince him that his homeland needed his expertise. Feng was honored, enjoyed a lavish farewell dinner with members of the Chinatown community, and went back home in 1911. He took Guangdong Airlines with him.
               He was made Captain in the revolutionary army, though little is known about what exactly he did in the war. He died a year after he returned, when his plane crashed into a bamboo grove from 120 feet in the middle of an airshow. Reportedly, he gave a very heroic speech while lying in the wreckage of splintered wood, informing his assistants of how they weren’t dissuaded by his impending death. His bust survives him, and on his tombstone Sun Yat-Sen inscribed “Pioneer of Chinese Aviation.” He was given a full military funeral.

Feng Ru and Friends in 1907

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