ZXM: There was no trademark, because it was DIY. It was 1975, in Nanjing. Some engineers in the danwei of my father—
ME: Which kind of danwei?
ZXM: It was a high tech danwei of its time, they had one of the first computers downtown. The size of one of these computers was like a cathedral, the size of a church, about 8 metres high and 80 metres long. It was a whole house, and we walked between the different machines on the metal frames.
ME: Did you go inside?
ZXM: Yes, people worked inside the machine, not outside.
ME: Was it loud or hot?
ZXM: It was not very loud, no, because it was so huge. It wasn’t concentrated. The controls were based on certain very long ribbons of paper with holes in them. It was a common system. They had some, let’s say, screens, different screens for different purposes. And 2 or 3 naughty engineers made a television just for fun; they knew how to make televisions but it was not their job to make them. They were naughty, and wanted to have some fun, so over several days they made a television—not like one TV set, but open with different parts on the table; however, it worked so they didn’t care.
ME: Did they use the tube for something in the factory, what was it used for in the computer? ZXM: Yes, in the computer and even in other machines. This was long before DOS. There were computers with sending-out possibilities, but there were also a lot of tubes or monitors, used only as surveillance for different parts of the machine. They had some of those tubes that had either been used or not for the big machine, but they had other smaller machines as well. You know, in an office job, it is always boring.
ME: But you could go into that big machine, that was no problem?
ZXM: I could only go once into that big machine.
ME: What were they using it for?
ZXM: They were using it to produce other machines! The most useful machines produce other machines.
ME: This thing on the table was the first television you saw?
ZXM: Yes, and the engineers kicked me out.
ME: What were they watching?
ZXM: I don’t know, I didn’t understand, they were laughing, but they saw a small kid so they turned it off. “We shouldn’t let a child know that we were making fun of ourselves,” it was a bad image of their work. I went to the factories especially because there were some empty areas for sporting events and so on, but to go into the big machine or the offices was just by accident, they didn’t want us in there. Perhaps the program was the “Red Detachment of Women” (红色娘子军) ... perhaps it was that, because there were women dancing...
ME: So you remember something. Was it clear?
ZXM: No, not at all! It was very small, not clear at all, the music was very noisy, with static, and the workers barely looked at it. They smoked, they talked. I think they made this TV only because they were bored by their daily work. My father was not so happy with that.
ME: Was he the manager?
ZXM: Yes, he was Director of the factory, not an engineer at all. He understood a little about it, but he was not a technical guy. He wasn’t happy. He said, “Zhang Xianmin, you shouldn’t tell others. Actually it’s not really a television.” But the idea didn’t go away. The problem was also that everything was under a quota system, even pork; each one had the right to a half-kilo of pork. The big things like bicycles or watches, a factory worker would have to accumulate 6 months of work in order to have one bill marked “Bicycle from the city of Nanjing,” to go to buy the bicycle. Money wasn’t enough. But the TV was so rare that its quota system wasn’t yet invented. So my father wasn’t sure that we had the right to own a television. The TV wasn’t yet on the market. But he wasn’t so much against the idea, he said, “oh, let’s see.” And fortunately nobody understood what I tried to tell them.
ME: How did you describe it to people?
ZXM: Yes, that was the problem! My friends didn’t catch it! They thought it was an imaginary invention, that Zhang Xianmin made it up!
ME: But what was so crazy, that there people dancing on this little screen, is that what you told them?
ZXM: I tried to pronounce the word television, saying that it was perhaps an upgraded radio system—
ME: So you had a theory about how it worked.
ZXM: Yes, I tried to be reasonable about it.
ME: Were you a technically-minded boy?
ZXM: No, not at all, but there was a noise and an image, and everything apparently had been transmitted from somewhere, and transmission was radio’s idea. But the image part, they didn’t believe it.
ME: But people had seen films, right? There were film screenings at that time, of news and stuff, right? But did they relate it, or did you relate it, to film at all at that point, the idea of a moving image?
ZXM: Yes, people had this idea. But the image in film is from a projector, and everyone could see the source of the image. The idea of transmission was a mystery; and anyway, it was a moment in my primary school when I was among the privileged families, meaning that perhaps 70–80% of families still didn’t have radios. At that point, there was a transition to transistor radios, and we began to see smaller pieces, not on a tube; but this only began in 1972, just 3 years prior. Some teachers understood it, and they tried to know if it was possible to know more about it.
ME: They heard you talk about it?
ZXM: Yes. Later, at the moment of Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, my father tried to popularize the idea of television to try to make it politically correct, and perhaps from this, we hoped to have the chance to have a TV without any problems.
ME: How did he popularize it?
ZXM: Afterwards, I thought the problem was that he had been pushed by his colleagues and the neighbors, because people were talking about it... the majority of people had never seen one but were curious about it. So he found the proper moment to bring home a TV, with the reason, “Ah, we will show everyone the funeral of Mao Zedong.”
ME: Did you have a house where a lot of people would gather?
ZXM: We shared a courtyard with 4 families, each of whom had 3 rooms. It was like a 四合院, but not exactly, it was a southern style of building. Some neighbors talked about it; one was a former Shanghai industrial capitalist, another was an artist family with one designer of radios. So they knew a little bit about what a television might be, and there was a little pressure from their curiosity. My father found a reason to bring back a television—a true television, with everything in a box.
ME: A wooden box?
ZXM: Probably plastic, not metal. Black plastic. He brought it back and he said, “We will see Mao Zedong’s funeral, a big moment that everyone has the right to see.” Other neighbors also came to our courtyard to watch, probably 80 people came to see this very small television. Everyone was crying and bowing to the television. The TV was black and white, but quite clear and the sound was also clear. The day after the funeral, we brought the TV into our home after the transmission—transmissions were only 1 or 2 hours a day—but during transmission time, we had to bring it out, and the neighbors tried to close the door to the courtyard, too many people kept coming. We did this for 15 days, and finally the programs became less and less serious: at the beginning there were no movies, no operas; but 15 days later, there was a little singing and dancing. My father became worried, and said, “Oh, the programming is becoming really not serious, we should no longer continue to watch it.” So he turned off everything and brought the television back to his danwei. The whole street knew about that, and said, “he is a really corrupt guy,” having the TV those 15 days; but on the other hand they also watched the TV. It became another kind of pressure. Finally 6 months later, my father made a concession, saying “perhaps we’ll make it ourselves,” and got some advice from his engineers.
ME: But did he change his mind about the content? It turned out he liked the songs?
ZXM: Perhaps—but it was too dangerous. Nobody could evaluate the risks if he kept the TV in his home. Anyway, it wasn’t ours, it was one of the televisions the engineers made on their vacation time. Perhaps it was the only TV for 10,000 people in this 3 or 4 block radius. We had heard of nobody with a television at that moment. My father made a calculation based on buying all of the electronic components at the market. The main problem was the tube, it was impossible to buy on the market; so at that moment, it may have been a small problem of corruption... He tried to buy some used major components, but if they were really used we wouldn’t have been able to see anything on the TV. His calculation estimated it would cost 6 months salary for him. We worked very slowly on it, because we got different pieces at different moments over these 6 months. My father didn’t really have time to work on it, so especially my brother and sister did the main jobs and I helped (at 12 I was considered too young to use the electric tools on my own).
ME: To whom did they sell these parts at the time, hobbyists?
ZXM: For example, model airplanes needed electronics, as well as radios, both allowed by law. We tried to make a coil and other components ourselves because they were too expensive. But it never worked as well as the readymade pieces. Several months later we had a television in a box.
ME: In that case, what was the box made of? Did you find a box or did you make it with wood?
ZXM: I forget. Also plastic, I think.
ME: It had buttons and everything?
ZXM: Yes... I do not remember clearly... Three buttons perhaps...
ME: And you didn’t invent a brand for it? 张家?
ZXM: No. And I am not sure how many years we used this—
ME: You watched it regularly?
ZXM: Yes, and it was the same story at first, the neighbors came to watch this television, but very quickly, perhaps 2 years later, people began to have Japanese televisions. It was very fast, like the I-phone; once one person has one in China, then every person has one.
ZXM: But why didn’t they make them in China?
ME: They also started to make them, brands like 牡丹, 熊猫 from Nanjing, but it was all still in the quota system, and one had to wait a long time to buy one. But, if someone had foreign currency, he was basically free at any moment to buy a television, with a very high import tax.
ME: And the content, was it basically like today’s content from the very beginning, war dramas and such?
ZXM: News reel, operas, some sports like volleyball, and a lot of ping pong... and it became boring very fast.
interview with Zhang Xianmin, Beijing, February 6th, 2013
Remember Wu Yulu, the farmer robot inventor?
He is still going, and more popular than ever on the art circuit, with participation at an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, and a touring exhibition organized by Cai Guoqiang. This particular model is used as an anti-smoking educational aid for children, who talks to his audience as he lights his own cigarettes, whose detrimental effects are demonstrated when his chest flips open to reveal glass lungs. Wu Yulu was more than accustomed to being photographed, taking off his hat as the camera was lifted in his "museum."