Forget China's astronauts. The country's most famous intergalactic traveler lives in the last house on his lane at the edge of a Siberian forest. Meng Zhaoguo's odyssey began at the Red Flag logging camp in the Manchurian province of Heilongjiang, when he saw a metallic glint thrown off nearby Mount Phoenix. Thinking a helicopter had crashed, he set out to scavenge for scrap. The 36-year-old lumberjack stood gazing at the wreck from across a valley when "Foom! Something hit me square in the forehead and knocked me out."
That collision four years ago, and what followed, has made Meng a celebrity even today among the growing number of Chinese gaga for little green men. In a country that bans "evil cults" and monitors faith in anything but the Communist Party, a belief in extraterrestrial life is one of the few fringe convictions that's been allowed to grow into an organized movement. The government-approved China UFO Research Center boasted 50,000 members and held annual conferences before splintering into competing factions three years ago. A 20-year-old Chinese bimonthly magazine about UFOs enjoys a circulation of 200,000. "We have so many visitation reports that if people don't have pictures, we won't bother investigating," says Zhang Jingping, director of the Beijing UFO Research Association.
Chinese fascination with interplanetary life isn't entirely new. Believers point to a 4th century text called the Collected Legacies
, which describes a "moon boat" that floated above China every 12 years. Today's focus is on the science of UFOssomething tolerable to a Chinese Communist Party that advocates "scientific socialism." It helps that heavy hitters such as the former president of Beijing Aerospace University have long advised UFO-research organizations. The hard-science bent means it's acceptable to publish research on close-encounter stories. It's not O.K., however, to wonder if such stories result from people searching for higher meaning in the hurly-burly of a changing China by turning to God, Buddha or even E.T. "Chinese may feel a spiritual impulse that leads some to believe they've been abducted by aliens," says Richard McNally, a psychologist at Harvard University who has researched Chinese alien-abduction claims.
Few have enjoyed as remarkable a journey as Meng. Several nights after his wallop on the head, Meng says he found himself floating above his bed. As his wife and daughter slept below, a 3-m-tall, six-fingered alien with braided fur on her legs straddled his waist. After 40 minutes of levitational copulation she departed through the wall, leaving Meng with a 5-cm mark on his thigh. A month later, he says, he was transported through the wall into a spaceship. Meng asked to see the woman with the braided fur. Impossible, they said. But they gave him hope. "In 60 years, on a distant planet," they said, "the son of a Chinese peasant will be born." Meng asked if he would ever see this child. He would. The aliens did not say where.