China Unsolved is a SupChina weekly series profiling China’s most notorious unsolved mysteries.
Humans, cats, dogs, livestock — all disappeared from a Shaanxi village, seemingly overnight. Was it state-sponsored? or is the story mere myth, as credible as theories of UFOs?
Images by Katie Morton
Stories of wholesale vanishings exist in many national mythologies: There is North Carolina’s infamous lost colony of Roanoke, the Angikuni Lake legend in Canada, supposedly a whole village in Ireland, the legend of the Marie Celeste, and even Australia’s apocryphal Picnic at Hanging Rock. Despite only being 69 years old, the People’s Republic of China has accumulated more than its fair share of disappearances, many of them purportedly state-sponsored — including (if the tale is to be believed) an entire village in the central province of Shaanxi.
According to the undated tale, all inhabitants of a village in the Qinling 秦岭 mountains disappeared overnight in 1987 — not just the 1,000 residents, but their cats, dogs, even the livestock. Unsurprisingly for the era and location, information is scanty and the sources are sketchy: one of the main reports comes from New Tang Dynasty TV, a Falun Gong-owned enterprise that isn’t afraid to print stories made out of whole cloth.
Still, what a story. According to NTDTV, the villagers were “transferred” in the middle of the night as part of a top-secret operation that was linked to a secret project, likely of a military nature (though there is, allegedly, a nuclear base buried somewhere deep in the mountains). “A large number of troops were dispatched [to the site],” one old local tells NTDTV. “They moved the whole village somewhere else overnight, and persuaded the people to come along.” The mysterious mission apparently had a code name, Operation Night Cat, or 夜狸貓事件 (yè límāo shìjiàn), and was even denied by a local official who claimed it was “just a rumor!”
Perhaps. One of the story’s sources is an obscure novel called Chinese Archives, the contents of which may have permeated into urban myth, like Hanging Rock. On the other hand, the idea of a hyper-paranoid Chinese government vanishing an entire village under cover of darkness isn’t logistically impossible. The notion of strange military maneuvers is faintly persuasive. The PLA conducted innumerable experiments and exercises in the 1980s and 1990s to match overseas technology, and little is known about the results.
Certainly, there were several disasters and cover-ups during that time — famously, the 1996 Long March 3 catastrophe in Xichang 西昌. Details about history’s worst launch accident are only known because it was witnessed by numerous foreign experts. As Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine reported in 2013, “The village that used to border the launch center has disappeared, as if it never existed. There is no memorial to the victims, and their fate has never been mentioned in the state-controlled Chinese press.”
Of course, retellings of the Shaanxi village mystery usually offer numerous embellishments: Strange lights spotted in the sky, the appearance of several UFOs, and scores of snakes seen slithering out of the mountains for cover beforehand. In the end, the story is perhaps best filed under China Unsolved’s “unproven” folder, alongside the Cat Woman of Harbin and the 1995 Chengdu Zombie Outbreak.