Bigfoot Encounters

The Chinese Yeti
by Myra Shackley

The Chinese Yeti first burst upon an unsuspecting Western world in the Sunday Telegraph on 22 April 1979, under the dramatic headline, 'Soldiers ate a Yeti'. The article was based on one in the Chinese journal Huashi ('Fossils'), which reported that as long ago as 1962 soldiers of the Chinese army operating in an area vaguely described as 'the foothills of the Himalayas' had killed and eaten a 'yeti-like creature'.

The article spoke of the 'meat from a snowman' which the soldiers had killed in a remote part of Yunan province. At least ten other yeti sightings had been made since then in and around Tibet, including one as recently as 1976.

(1) A search of Huashi reveals that the whole yeti question had first been mentioned by one Shi Zhu in 1977, under the title, 'Does the wildman exist?', which concentrated on reviewing international 'wildman' stories and is not therefore of specific interest.

(2) The next articles from China in English ('Wild Man - Fact or Fiction?' and 'Shennongjia Forests: Home of Rare Species...') are to be found in the July and August 1979 issues of the current affairs magazine China Reconstructs.

(3) The former article is by far the more important, and is written by researchers at the Institute of Palaeoanthropology and Vertebrate Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, after investigations in northwest Hubei province into the reported existence of wildmen in that area.

Apparently ancient Chinese literary works and folk legends include references to big hairy man-like creatures that live in the vast forests of the Quinling-Bashan-Shennongj in the mountain region of central China (northwest Hubei province). The remote and mystical Shennongjia mountains abound in legends; it seems that even Shennong, god-king of fable and father of husbandry and farming, was deterred by their altitude and had to build a scaffolding when he came here to collect medicinal herbs. And that is how the area got its name — from Shennong and the Chinese word jia meaning 'scaffold'.

Shennongjia is an area of approximately 1,250 sq. miles, comprising steep, rugged mountains mostly up to 8,000 ft with the highest peaks at 10,000 ft. The mountains above 5,900 ft retain the temperatures of early winter even while the surrounding low lying hills swelter in July heat, giving a curious microclimate to Shennongjia that has resulted in the growth and survival of a unique and diverse fauna. The area has become one of China's major sources of rare and exotic woods as well as of desirable 'arrow bamboo' which makes first-quality paper — and provides food for giant pandas.

There are early references to the presence of strange primates. Two thousand years ago during the Warring States period, Qu Yuan (340-278 B C), the statesman-poet of the State of Chu, referred in his verse to 'mountain ogres'. His home was, significantly, just south of Shennongjia, in what is today the Zigui county of Hubei province. In Tang dynasty times (A D 6I8-907) the historian Li Yanshou in his Southern History describes a band of 'hairy men' in the region of modern Jiangling county, also in Hubei.

Later still, the Ch'ing dynasty poet, Yuan Mei (1716-98), in his book New Rhythms tells of the existence of a creature described as `monkey-like, yet not a monkey' in south-western Shaanxi province, Xianning county.

The first scientific observation of a Chinese Yeti was made relatively recently, by a biologist. Wang Zelin graduated from the Faculty of Biology at North-western University, Chicago, but returned to China at the start of the Second World War. In 1940 he was working with the Yellow River Irrigation Committee when he had the following experience:

(4) Around September or October, we were travelling from Baoji to Tianshui via Jiangluo City; our car was between Jiangluo City and Niangniang Plain when we suddenly heard gunshots ahead of us. When the car reached the crowd that surrounded the gunman, all of us got down to satisfy our curiosity.

We could see that the 'wildman' was already shot dead and laid on the roadside. The body was still supple and the stature very tall, approximately 2 metres [6 ft 6 in.]. The whole body was covered with a coat of thick greyish-red hair which was very dense and approximately one cun [1 in.] long.

Since it was lying face-down, the more inquisitive of the passengers turned the body over to have a better look. It turned out to be a mother with a large pair of breasts, the nipples being very red as if it had recently given birth. The hair on the face was shorter. The face was narrow with deep-set eyes, while the cheek bones and lips jutted out. The scalp hair was roughly one chi [c. 1 ft] long and untidy. The appearance was very similar to the plaster model of a female Peking Man [the Chinese Homo erectus]. However, its hair seemed to be longer and thicker than that of the ape-man model. It was ugly because of the protruding lips.

According to the locals, there were two of them, probably one male and the other female. They had been in that area for over a month. The 'wildmen' had great strength, frequently stood erect and were very tall. They were brisk in walking and could move as rapidly uphill as on the plain. As such, ordinary folks could not catch up with them. They did not have a language and could only howl.

The fact that Wang Zelin was himself a biologist seems to rule out any possibility that the creature was a bear, or anything else already known to science. The precise location and details of the incident all tend to make it believable, and the description accords well with other sightings.

Then on 14 May 1976 at 1 a.m. the incident occurred which really sparked off interest in the whole wildman question, convincing even some of the most hardened Chinese sceptics. Six cadres from the Shennongiia forestry region were driving along the highway near Chunshuy, a village between Fangxian county and Shennongjia, when they came across a strange tailless creature covered in reddish fur, illuminated in the headlamps of the car. The driver kept the lamps on the creature while the others went forward to investigate, getting a look at it from distance of only a yard or so. They could say with certainty that it was neither a bear nor any other animal which they had ever seen before, and sent a telegram to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Peking.

This initiated a great degree of public interest, people writing in to report other sightings and groups of scientists and the army mounting expeditions into the forest. Finally it was decided that a proper investigating team must be organized, composed of scientists from Peking, Shanghai and Hubei, Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces, together with photographers and special infiltration teams of soldiers with rifles, tranquillizer dart guns, tape recorders and hunting dogs. The massive team (eventually comprising over 100 members assisted by army scouts from Wuhan) worked in the area during 1976 and 1977, interviewing hundreds of people. Together with local militiamen and commune members, the team organized several large searches, but (as is usual with such expeditions) they found nothing definite. Some significant things did, however, emerge.

On 19 June 1976 Gong Yulan, a thirty-two-year-old member of the Quiaoshang commune in Fangxian county was in the mountains cutting grass, accompanied by her four-year-old child, when they saw a wildman scratching its back against a tree trunk. The team was able to locate the tree which the woman described, and at a height of 4 ft 3 in. from the ground they found several dozen fine hairs. Later investigators examining the tree in August of the same year found two long hairs 5 ft 11 in. from the ground.(5) During the two-year project an area of 500 sq. miles was investigated, and data on local geology, flora and fauna were collected as well. The only actual traces of the wildmen were hairs, footprints and faeces. Where there were many records of sightings, the descriptions were, as usual, quite standardized. A typical example is that taken from a statement by Wu Jiayan and Niu Yong of the Shaanxi Biological Resources Investigation team in 1977, on the report of a hairy man from the Taibai mountains of central Shaanxi province. They recorded the following account from Pang Gensheng, a thirty-three-year-old team leader from the Cuifeng commune in Shaanxi's Zhouzhi county.

In early June, 1977, I went to Dadi Gully to cut logs. Somewhere between 11 and 12 in the morning I ran into a 'hairy man' in the woods on the slope of the gully. It came closer and closer. I got scared and kept retreating until my back was against a stone cliff and I couldn't go any further. The hairy man came up to seven or eight feet, and then to about five feet from me. I raised my axe, ready to fight for my life. We stood like that, neither of us moving, for more than an hour. Then I groped for a stone and threw it at him. It hit him in the chest. He uttered several howls and rubbed the spot with his left hand. Then he turned left and leaned against a tree, then walked away slowly towards the bottom of the gully. He kept making a mumbling sound. He was about seven feet tall [a Chinese foot is 73 cm — not 305 cm as in our system] with shoulders wider than a man's, a sloping forehead, deep-set eyes, and 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 and 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 down to below his knees. He had big hands about half a foot long and with thumbs only slightly separated from the fingers. He didn't have any 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 a foot long and half that broad — broader in front and narrow behind, with splayed toes. He was a male. That much I saw clearly.

This account both agrees and disagrees in details with other descriptions of the Yeti. General bodily proportions, hairiness, length of arms and so on are very similar, and the foot shape has also been mentioned in connection with both the Himalayan Yeti and the North American Bigfoot. The distribution of body hair is interesting since these creatures are more often described as having hairless faces. The curious propensity of the Chinese Yetis for leaning against trees has resulted in the accumulation of a large amount of their hair. Other features of the accounts which seem peculiar to China are the occasional aggressiveness (or just curiosity) which the creatures exhibit, and their wide range of sounds (in this account, for example, the creature both mumbles and howls). Of course the cry of the Yeti has been described in a variety of different ways and folktales contain references to the Yeti's being able to mimic the call of any animal, but these mumblings and howlings have a fairly authentic ring.

A bastardised version of this last story appeared in the 15 June 1981 edition of the British magazine Weekend, which carried, under the headline 'Hairy Encounter', a brief account of the sighting in Shaanxi province by 'Pong Ke-Shem' (= Pang Gensheng):

It was a good 10' tall [the magazine does not state whether this is Chinese or English measurement] and hairy all over. It had thick lips and big teeth, like a horse's. It was covered in long, brown hair and its arms were very long and its feet were huge. I was terrified and flung a rock at its leg, but instead of rushing at me it up rooted a small tree and, using it as a walking stick, limped away!

This is a splendid example of the way a story can be distorted in the reporting.

An even more curious incident was reported in the Daily Telegraph for 2 December 1980 under the sensational title, 'Chinese Child Fathered by Apeman'. The Telegraph's special correspondent in Peking had read in the official daily paper (Guangming) an account of a woman who had disappeared for twenty-seven days in 1939 in 'a forest area frequented by the "wild men of Hupen [Hubei]" province'. The mountainous area referred to is clearly Shennongjia, and the human interest of the story stems from the fact that the woman claimed she was captured by 'wildmen' and later gave birth to a 'monkey child', a somewhat curious circumstance at any time but made even more interesting since, although admitting to having been captured by apemen, she 'denied having any relations with them'. The offspring of this dubious union, the so-called 'monkey child' of the headline, died in 1960 aged twenty-one, but its bones, according to the Guangming daily, have recently been dug up, and examination showed that 'the child's skeleton had the characteristics of an ape and a man'. How frustrating not to have a proper scientific report on this skeleton, even if the flavour of the story makes one approach the incident with a certain measure of caution! Still, considerable public interest in the Chinese Yeti was now aroused, and it occasioned mention in scientific circles.

Zhou Guoxing, an anthropologist with the Peking Museum of Natural History, presented the findings of his study of the Yeti at a conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of Peking Man. The only reference to this in Western papers occurs in yet another sensationally-headlined article, this time in The New York Times for 5 January 1980, under the banner 'It's Tall, It Has Wavy Hair and Chinese Keep Hunting for It'. Mr Zhou has apparently published a dozen or so popular books on archaeology and anthropology and had been put in charge of scientific research for the 1977 expedition to Shennongjia. No creatures were captured but much evidence of their existence was gleaned. At one point the expedition search party moved near to one of the creatures; unfortunately 'before the beast could be captured an anxious soldier accidentally shot himself in the leg. The shot brought expedition members scurrying in from all directions and presumably frightened the creature away.'(6)

In 1981 there appeared this very strange report in the 19 January edition of the Peking Evening News, also from Shennongjia:(7)

New Information about the 'Wild Men'

A Report from Shennongjia by Peng Hengcai

The first year of the planned five-year investigation into the strange creatures of northwest Hubei Province that has attracted worldwide attention is drawing to a close. Members of the investigation teams have come in from Zhushan, Fang Xian, Dawan and other places and assembled at the centre of the investigation — Songbai in Shennongjia forest.

During 1980 the investigating teams, enduring hunger and exposure and triumphing over severe difficulties have uncovered new material and made important discoveries about the mysterious 'wildmen'. During this year, each team has discovered quantities of material evidence of these strange creatures including tracks, hair and faeces. 150 li [47 miles] from the main peak of Shennonglla, on Mount Quiangdao at 2,400 m [7,900 ft] above sea level, they discovered on two separate occasions a total of over two hundred footprints made by the strange creatures. The footprints discovered on the first occasion were 48 cm [c. 19 in.] in length, with an average stride of 2.5 m [8 ft 3 in.], the largest footprints so far discovered anywhere in the world. These continuous, distinct, firm footprints, in which the five toes clearly stand out, have been filmed by the Central News Film Unit.

During 1980 members of the public from, amongst other places, Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces have given many eyewitness accounts of 'wildmen' to the investigators. Yan Mingde, an elderly peasant from Bancang No.2 Brigade, Bancang Commune, told an investigation team that during the ninth lunar month [October-November] of 1947, while he was a conscript in the KMT [Nationalist] army, eight red-haired wildmen ran out of the virgin forest at Yangjiaodong [Ram's Horn Cave] and were pursued by over two thousand soldiers for more than ten days. Eventually the eight wildmen took refuge in a hermit's cottage deep in the mountains. The soldiers surrounded the three-roomed thatched hut, put up machine guns and set fire to the building, whereupon seven huge wild men over eight chi [7 ft 10 in.] tall lifted up the rafters and thatch and broke through the encirclement. A small one was left behind; he had stumbled and fallen into the inferno and been burned. He was caught and hacked to pieces in the open. Yan Mingde's account of the largest group of 'wildmen' ever recorded in northwest Hubei is a highly significant new discovery.

Not long ago, Liao Conggui and his nephew were cutting firewood at Dayanwu. Because it was very misty, they kept calling out to one another, which attracted two 'wildmen'. After this incident an investigation team found at the scene of the event large numbers of distinct footprints 39 cm [15 in.] in length, together with other convincing evidence.

During a year of practical investigation, the investigating teams have established something of the lifestyle of the strange creatures. Analysis of consistent eye-witness accounts suggests that they have very probably abandoned the life-mode of diurnal activity in order to reduce the threat posed to them by mankind. The teams have also concluded that peripatetic group investigation is a major cause of low efficiency in investigative work and is not suitable for their purposes.

The first part of the report, containing the descriptions of the huge footprints, actually made world news on 20 January 1981. Yet the story of the eight red-haired wildmen strikes me as fable. The third incident, the sighting of two wildmen by woodcutters, is much more credible, especially as the sighting was backed up by footprints. But one of the most significant features of the report is the low-key comment at the end, confirming a suggestion which some scientists (including myself) have been making for years — that a small party of people staying in one place for a long time will be the only possible way of obtaining definitive scientific information about these creatures. Valuable parallels may be drawn here between the large and expensive operations to track the Yeti in China and Nepal, and the smaller but infinitely more rewarding studies of the mountain gorilla by Dian Fossey, or of chimpanzee behaviour by Jane van Lawick-Goodall.

One can propose the following hypotheses to account for the Chinese Yeti:

1 Everything is invented and these creatures do not exist.

2 These creatures do exist and are either a previously unknown or a previously unclassified variety of primate.

3 Other possibilities, such as 'throwbacks' to primitive types, men who have literally 'gone wild', hermits/idiots living in wild places.

If hypothesis 2 is accepted, the question of classification remains, and in order to solve that it would be necessary to compare behaviour and skeletal/morphological characteristics with other primates. There is no question of the Chinese Yeti being manlike, since it does not resemble Homo in any way. At least in China the remains of hairs and faeces have been found, but hair analysis and description are notoriously difficult. The Peking scientists were only able to say conclusively that their Yeti hairs were very different indeed from either brown or black bear. Four other primates live in Shennongjia, and the next stage is clearly to compare their hairs. Many thousands of footprints were found, most of which turned out to be from bears or similar animals, but some were highly peculiar. These were of elongated feet (exact measurements of length are not recorded in the literature), 4 in, wide in front and narrower (c. 2 in.) at the back, with the toe marks oval in shape and one toe rather separated from the others. When the footprints followed each other in single file the distance between varied from 19 in. to 39 in.

Some faeces were also found in September 1976,(8) little piles of dung on top of a steep rock halfway up a mountain in the Hongta commune of Fangxian county. During the period before and after this find, four wildmen sightings were made in the area and on three occasions, March, May and July 1976, these involved a female and its child. In the November of that same year a single adult was seen. The faeces (very much dried out) were similar to those of human beings and contained bits of undigested fruit skins and wild chestnuts, but no animal fur or bones. This is interesting and probably significant, since Gigantopithecus, a possible Yeti ancestor, was primarily a vegetarian, as is the mountain gorilla, whose habitat resembles Shennongiia in many ways. However, other faeces found on 30 August 1977 at Tielu Gully in the Panshui commune, Shennongjia, came from a hill slope and a cave, and suggested a more varied diet. They contained the remains of insect cocoons, and had been obtained by investigators following a wildman's footprint trail where the creature had apparently stopped at one point to dig insect cocoons out of the bark of birch trees and eat them. The faeces closely resembled those of an omnivorous large primate, and differed markedly from those of either bears or hoofed animals. The most likely possibilities are that the Yeti represents either another branch of the primate family tree, or a supposedly extinct species sharing a common ancestor with other primates (for example, the mountain gorilla) and, ultimately, with man himself.

The Chinese incline towards the view that their creature is related to Gigantopithecus. Homo and Gigantopithecus were probably descended from common stocks which diverged about 20 million years ago, but then underwent certain evolutionary stages broadly in parallel.(9) The taxonomy of Gigantopithecus is uncertain - it is known only from a few teeth and fossil jawbones from China and India(10) — but apparently it was a large, ground-feeding, apelike genus about the size of a modern gorilla, with molar teeth well adapted to crushing tough material and flattened canines. It seems more plausible that the Yeti is a descendant rather than actually a living representative of Gigantopithecus. Gigantopithecus is supposed to have died out hall a million years ago, but he or his descendants could possibly still survive. The coelocanth was once supposed to be extinct, yet is now known to be very much alive. The Shennongjia region is full of plants referred to as 'living fossils', including the metasequoia, the dove tree and the Chinese tulip tree, and rare animals have also been found there - a white bear, the giant panda, the takin, and the golden monkey, three varieties of which have now been identified from this region, the only part of the world where they are found. My own view is that this unique flora and fauna provide the perfect refuge for an unknown primate, whether Gigantopithecus himself or his descendant.

There is, however, an alternative (if less scientific) hypothesis. The first Chinese emperor, Hwang-Ti, builder of the Great Wall, may have had an unwitting hand in Yeti-making. According to an ancient legend, some people tried to avoid compulsory labour on the wall by taking to the forests and hiding there where, even after many generations, their descendants became wild, large and hairy but retained the power of speech. They emerged periodically from the forest and enquired, 'Has the wall been finished yet?'. But, although the answer was 'Yes', they didn't believe it and returned to the forest where, alas, reality is about to catch up with them.

Wildmen: Yeti, Sasquatch and the Neanderthal Enigma (Myra Shackley, 1983, Thames & Hudson)


1 Daily Telegraph, 2 December 1980, by 'Our Staff Correspondent in Peking'.
2 Zhu, Shi (1977) 'You Yeren Ma?' ('Does the wildman exist2') Huashi (Fossils), vol. 15.
3 Zhenxin, Yuan and Wanpo, Huang (1979) 'Wild Man - fact or fiction?' China Reconstructs, 28, 56-9; Zhi, Xiao (1979) 'Shennongjia Forests: home of rare species,' China Reconstructs, 27, 28-32.
4 Zhenxin, Yuan and Wanpo, Huang (I98I) 'A Challenge to Science: The Mystery of the Wildmen' , in Fortean Times Occasional Paper No. 1, entitled Wild Man. China's Yeti, 5-15. A monograph containing reprints of several articles on this theme. This article was originally published in Huashi, 19 (1979), no. 1.
5 Jingguan, Fan (1980) 'He "yeren" mu zi xiangyu zai lishu lin' ('An encounter with a "wildman" mother and child in the chestnut forest'), Huashi, 23, no. 1 reprinted in the Fortean Times monograph,
6 Quoted by Zhenxin and Wanpo (1979) op. cit. (note 4).
7 I am indebted to Charles Aylmer for translating this article from the Chinese.
8 According to Zhenxin and Wanpo (1979) op. cit. (note 4).
9 The best (but not uncontested) overviews of these early stages of human evolution are those of Richard Leakey in his books (1979) Origins, London and New York; and (1980) The Making of Mankind, London and New York.
10 Le Cros Clark, W. (1978) The Fossil Evidence for Human Evolution, 3rd edition, Chicago; Eckhart, R. B. (1975) 'Gigantopithecus as a Hominid', in Tuttle, R. (ed.) Palaeoanthropology, morphology and paleoecology, The Hague, 105-29; Frayer, D. W. (1979) 'Gigantopithecus and its relationship to Australopithecus', Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 39, 413-26.

Myra Shackley

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