Close Encounters

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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.

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September 29, 2003 Issue

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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 UFOs—something 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.