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How China’s first bipedal robot sparked one of Japan’s longest-running memes

Xianxingzhe

This is one of those long-forgotten gems that occasionally make their way back to your computer screen after some accidental digging up on the web.

Some of you might remember China’s race to create its first humanoid robot back in the eighties — a time that, according to PC Mag, “witnessed a rare explosion in American robot mania.” China was one of many countries eager to be part of the boom in this exciting field of science.

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Its ambitious project took off after seeing Japan and America’s robots at the Expo 85 world fair in Tsukuba, Japan, these being the two countries with the most advanced robotic programmes in the world at that stage. In order to compete, Chinese scientists and engineers started development on a 140 cm tall, 20 kg robot.

After 13 years (1987-2000) China’s “major technological breakthrough” was finally complete.

Its creators named it “Xianxingzhe”, which literally means “Forerunner.”

At the time, their resources were primitive when compared to those of their competitors, but the National University of Defense Technology was on a mission to build China a robot. “China has independently developed its first two-legged robot!” raved state media. “This will push China’s robotics research to new heights!”

When news broke about China’s latest technological achievement it received rather damaging and, dare I say, comical reviews from outsiders. On 3 March 2001 an article on a Japanese web page called Samurai Damashii (侍魂), ridiculed this “breakthrough” moment in Chinese robotics. Samurai Damashii posted that the Senkousha (Japanese reading of Xianxingzhe) is “the crystallization of China’s four thousand years of scientific knowledge.” But it didn’t stop there, the post continued to poke fun at the robot’s anatomy, most notably the “Chinese Cannon”, as it called it, protruding from its crotch.

In a later article, the site posted that the “Senkousha was actually a military weapon”, focusing on the robot’s crotch. According to the page, the Senkousha would “first rattle the ground with its feet to stir the energy resting on the ground, then it will do squats to harness that energy and transfer them to its crotch cannon, then finally fire that energy in a massive white beam with a pelvic thrust.” It also emphasized its inferiority to famous Japanese robots like Honda’s ASIMO and Sony’s QRIO SDR-3X.

No one wants that kind of reaction from anyone when they believe they’ve just created their best invention yet. But the mockery did not end there. After the Samurai Damashii articles firmly established the Senkousha craze in Japan, the Silchov Brothers started developing the “Senkousha Games.” These games featured China’s Xianxingzhe being destroyed by its Japanese enemies, the ASIMOS and AIBOs. The Senkousha also came with many additions within these games, with names like “the Chinese Chop” and the “Chinese Drill”, all referring to its protruding bit. The first Senkousha game boasted that the robot would “singlehandedly save its nation from corporate capitalism using its crotch cannon” during the fictitious “Asia One Year Conflict.”

The author of the Samurai Damashii articles raised “concerns” about the “catastrophic destruction [Senkōsha] could unleash” and also expressed his concerns about the “future of world peace and Senkōsha’s ability to make people die laughing.” I think this quote firmly cemented the Chinese robot’s not so momentous legacy.

In most of the Japanese games that were born thanks to the works of the Silchov Brothers, the Chinese robot is portrayed very crude in comparison to the Japanese robots in development back then.

This video contains a clip of the Senkousha computer game and the anime “Angelic Layer” spliced together, Sankousha fights the Honda ASIMO.

The web page that ignited the Senkōsha parody and catapulted Xianxingzhe into Japanese modern folklore for all the wrong reasons, have ironically made the robot even more famous than it would have been had it not been for Samurai Damashii’s scowling remarks, turning “ the Chinese Chop” into an unstoppable meme.

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