Beijing: The truth is out there. It's hiding in the Shennongjia forest, eluding capture with its loping stride and superhuman strength - marks of its origin as half man, half beast, Yuan Zhenxin says. Or it's up in the sky, which Sun Shili scours for signs of life from beyond.
UFO buffs in China say their nation has become a popular destination of late for interplanetary visitors, and Professor Sun is determined to figure out how they come here - and why.
"Previously, most UFO sightings were in developed countries, like the United States," said Professor Sun, an expert in foreign, if not extraterrestrial, trade. "Now China is developing ... so this may have aroused the interest of beings from other worlds."
As China sheds the shackles of its Marxist past, the old Communist emphasis on strictly scientific, rational and atheistic thought is running into robust competition.
A cottage industry has sprung up around investigations into "X-Files"-type phenomena, ranging from the alleged existence of Bigfoot to a hill in northern China that reportedly causes passing cars to flip over without warning.
This explosion of interest in the paranormal follows 20 years of bewildering social change, years that included the erosion of communist ideology and sent many Chinese on a quest for some deeper meaning, or at least a little excitement and wonder, in their uncertain lives.
"Delving into the unknown is part of human nature," said Zeng Congjun, deputy editor-in-chief of Mysteries, a national monthly magazine (circulation 250,000) full of tales of lost civilisations, alien visitations, the secrets of the Pyramids and the astonishing powers of Siamese twins.
"In the past, Chinese people didn't dare air their imaginings in public," Mr Zeng said.
"Now, with the improvement of living standards, people have more leisure time ... and want to satisfy their spiritual needs."
As head of the Chinese
UFO Research Association, Professor Sun presides over a nationwide network
of government-approved UFO clubs that boast a combined membership of 50,000.
The group hosts national conferences to discuss principles of jet propulsion
as well as reports of sightings of flying saucers. Professor Sun counts
party officials and serious academics among his supporters, who see his
research as both scientifically valid and technologically valuable.
"If we were less
stringent, our numbers would be huge," said Professor Sun, 63, an
affable economics professor who once served as a Spanish interpreter for
Official media rushed to cover the news, which made national headlines and inspired a segment on China Central Television, the main state network.
"So many people have seen it, and there are even pictures of it. They can't be lying," said Yang Tao, 37, a government worker and believer in extraterrestrial life.
China also has its share of reports of alien abductions. Professor Sun gives credence to the account of a forestry worker who allegedly was kidnapped by aliens in 1996, experimented on then entrusted with an important message to impart to the people back on Earth: "Don't make war - and protect the environment."
"This is consistent with what's been heard in other places," said the professor, whose only personal encounter of the UFO kind occurred 30 years ago, when he saw a brightly shining object moving up and down in the night sky. At the time, he says ruefully, he mistook it for a Soviet spy plane.
While Professor Sun and his fellow enthusiasts scan the skies for signs of higher intelligence, Mr Yuan keeps his sights low to the ground for evidence of a creature of lesser intelligence: Bigfoot.
Mr Yuan is convinced that between 1,000 and 2,000 of the apelike creatures roam the forests of central China, particularly the Shennongjia Nature Reserve in Hubei province.
Like Professor Sun, Mr Yuan dabbles in stories of abduction, including those of two farmers who say they were kidnapped by Bigfoot but escaped to tell the tale.
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