Home World China's emerging inventor culture finds an unlikely hero

China's emerging inventor culture finds an unlikely hero

Geng Shuai, a social media comic strip star who demonstrates his unusual inventions, stands in his workshop in Yang Village, China. (Yan Cong / for the Washington Post)

His fans call him "The Useless Edison". But the inventor Geng Shuai does not mind. In fact, he somehow likes it.

"People say my inventions are useless, but I think the benefits come in two dimensions: practicality and pleasure," said the 30-year-old former welder, who left his job last year to focus entirely on his questionable Equipment to concentrate a motorcycle with its own toilet. "I like doing it. So it's useful. "

Every country has its inventors. But China, which gave the world a moving type pressure, gunpowder and compass, has spawned a population of hobbyists who show an over-ambitiousness that has helped the country become a global economic giant.

There is a surprisingly large subset of farmers and other home improvement workers who have built submarines and light aircraft or various types of robotic plows and monster trucks.

Geng is now the best known of them – a new kind of social media star whose business card is his bizarre.

Geng stands in his workshop in this tiny village outside of Beijing, showing his inventions. There's the butcher's ax, the hair comb was filmed. And there is a watermelon cutter in tennis racket size.

There is the earthquake-proof noodle bowl swinging in its stand so that the eater can continue sifting through seismic waves. There are slippers made of metal nuts.

But Geng is most proud of his hammer pocket. It is a hollow steel hammer with a tray that slides out of the head. Perfect, he says, to stash cell phone, keys and wallet. It has a strap to hang over the shoulder of the wearer.

"It's very fashionable," he said with obvious gravity, modeling his creation. "And if someone tries to steal your bag, you can just throw it on."

But Geng, who grew up in his family's pump factory, is a special kind of Chinese entrepreneur. He does not make any money with his inventions.

Well, not directly.

He lives on inadvertently funny videos – filmed with the Chinese beauty filters that make everyone look like an airbrush star – showing how he makes his inventions, then showing them to the camera while demonstrating how he uses them becomes.

With glowing eyes, he combs his messy hair with the meat cleaver. He falls out of his slippers as he tries to walk down a country lane. And he presents a motorcycle with a seat that lifts and releases a squat toilet. Just turn the throttle to rinse. (Fortunately, the video cuts out before Geng opens his fly.)

He now has nearly 2 million followers on the Kwai video site, and they give him cell phone tips for his accomplishments – the Internet equivalent of a Busker dropping money into a hat. His biggest tippers carry their names in the workshop on plaques on the wall, which are often used for videos. The bigger the tip, the bigger the badge.

Geng tries to develop a new invention every week and make videos two to three times a week. Every time he makes a live streaming broadcast, he earns about $ 150 – decent money in a city where five people can enjoy a hearty lunch for a total of $ 25. He makes enough to feed his family – he and his wife have two children – and his brother who makes the videos.

"Most people think I'm an entertainer, but I consider myself an inventor," he said, naming his eccentric Serbian American inventor Nikola Tesla.

His fame is due to Geng China's rapid industrialization. Millions of people migrated from rural areas to small apartments in the big cities where they work long days.

"Chinese love inventions and inventions, but because of economic development, most people do not have time for it," he said. "That's why I'm so popular – they watch how I build things because they can not make them themselves."

It's a phenomenon similar to the "live eating" videos that have started in South Korea and are now popular in China. Internet stars eat in front of the camera, often so that spectators can eat with them and not feel alone.

Geng launches its video feed on Kwai, one of China's largest platforms for short video sharing and live streaming. He has almost 2 million followers. (Yan Cong / for the Washington Post)

Once, a fan who was particularly annoyed by Geng's videos sent him $ 720. Luckily, because he would not earn much if he needed to sell.

When he first stopped "boring" construction to follow his passion, he began to spin out of brazed metal nuts. He offered it for sale on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media app, for about $ 10. He sold two or three.

No one wanted his water pipe, which allegedly filtered toxins from cigarettes. But the metal nut cannon that shoots rubber bands was one of his bestsellers. He sold four.

Geng's best-known product is the Meat Chopper Smartphone Case, which it can order according to the customer's phone. He walks out of his own pocket with a butcher's clasp, which he grabs to rip out his phone as needed. So practical. He sold 10.

But it's the videos that have catapulted him to success.

"People may not want to buy my inventions, but they like to watch my videos, so they tip me off," he said.

His family did not quite share his passion. Geng's wife, Ji Xiangying, initially opposed his decision to use his permanent job to lead a choppy life on the Internet.

"But I accepted it after seeing how many people like his inventions," she said, holding her baby, the youngest of her two children, by the waist.

And when Geng told his grandmother that he had won over 1 million fans online, she asked how he could eat so much. The phrase in Chinese sounds very much like "a million bowls of rice noodles".

Now his fans encourage him to cross the borders. Some threaten to follow him if he dares to do something practical.

"I realized that my little inventions can not satisfy you, so I spent a lot of money to buy this bike," Geng said in a recent video clip. "This time, I'm going to do something really useful."

Cut to the next shot and there's Geng with a wheelbarrow with half a motorcycle behind. A motorbarrow tears a warehouse around and can barely control the device, which fortunately is empty for filming.

The shortage of sales is neither there nor there for Geng. It's the online celebrity that motivates him. After all, it was only his family and friends who laughed at his inventions. Now almost two million people are laughing at him.

Luna Lin contributed to this report.


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