Is it a teardrop, a beard, the sun or the moon? And why do alien visitors toEarth leave these mysterious signs in our fields? Some answers may lie in the wilds of north-west China. There is no Chinese equivalent for "croppies" yet, but the global army of crop-circle enthusiasts just gained a key convert the their cause, virgin lands ripe for speculation, and a great leap backwards into antiquity.
Close to the Mongolian border, a Chinese explorer has discovered a series of stone circles and other shapes he claims are the 2,500-year-old prototypes of crop patterns found in recent years everywhere from Wiltshire to Western Australia. More than 70 countries worldwide, embracing each continent, have reported ever more bizarre examples appearing in corn and wheat fields, or grass, flowerbeds and even snow.
China was among the last major nations to resist a phenomenon so intriguing it has spawned its own science – cereology – and survived the pranks of confessed circle-makers. In the past year, Chinese man of mystery Zhang Hui, research fellow at the Xinjiang Museum in Urumqi, has harvested more than 20 patterns that appear to match examples found in other countries, but may pre-date them by up to 3,000 years. While croppies in the West debate which circles are genuine mysteries and which the "agrarian graffiti" of hoaxers, the Chinese finds are clearly man-made.
"The primitive peoples who lived there were inspired by the crop circles they saw," said Zhang, whose quest for the truth has taken him to the farthest reaches of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an expanse of Central Asian desert, mountain and grassland seven times larger than the UK. "They thought the circles were a way of communicating with the gods, and so placed rocks in the shape of the circles."
Zhang found several circles in the grasslands of Qinghe county beside the Sino-Mongolian border, ranging from simple circles to more elaborate teardrop and other shapes. Bemused by their geometrical sophistication, he went to Beijing to consult Chinese translations of reference works by British croppies. "I was amazed by the similarities," he said. "Both sets show characteristics of modern, industrial civilisations, as you would need modern instruments to make such perfect circles, yet these could be the oldest records of crop circles world-wide. They show that the phenomenon is much older than people thought."
Zhang published his findings in the latest edition of a Chinese magazine, Western, which is devoted not to gunslingers but the vast and under-populated provinces of west China. The region is home to many non-Chinese ethnic minorities, including most of China's Muslims. Several of Zhang's stone patterns surround vast piles of stones gathered to commemorate not ancient Chinese but warrior nomads known as the Scythians, an Indo-Iranian people with Caucasian features.
The Scythian connection will fuel fevered croppie speculation, since theirconquests were so extensive that Western historians have identified cultural interaction with the ancient Celts, whose religious sites have been among the leading locations for crop circles. Zhang suggests links to places such as Stonehenge, for luminaries such as John Haddington of the UK's Centre of Crop Circle Studies have noted that circles often appear close to the sacred sites of Celts, Australian Aborigines and Native Americans. Based in a region at the heart of the old Silk Road, Zhang is keen to explore these tenuous links between East and West.
The first publicly recorded crop circle. in 1678 in Stirlingshire, Scotland, came to be known as the "Devil's Circle". Zhang noted a similar reaction to a pattern in Qinghe, encircling a stone pile and tombstone with a deer engraving. "The nomads call it the 'magic circle', and believe whoever dares to touch the tombstone will offend the gods and be punished." He himself would have been punished if he had pursued such research two decades ago. For years, Chairman Mao waged war on "superstitious" beliefs he saw holding back his attempts to modernise China. "During the Cultural Revolution, a group of Red Guards in north-east China saw a crop circle appear in a field in a very short time," Zhang recalled from a rare eyewitness account of a formation actually in progress, published much later. "They were stunned, but at the time, nobody was allowed to believe in such 'superstition'."
In these more liberal times, 30-year-old Zhang has spent six years specialising in China's "mysterious culture". Other fans of the unexplained run China's booming UFO Society, with regional meetings and a newsletter of regular sightings. So does Zhang agree with some Western croppies that extra-terrestrial powers are creating these fields of dreams, and not bored border guards, wind vortexes, electromagnetic fields, or even hedgehogs as one theory goes?
"It's too early too say for sure," was his sensible reply, "but there is a definite connection with the cosmos. It could be a supernatural force, or even an alien civilisation." The truth is still out there.
By Calum McLeod in Urumqi, Xinjiang
26 August 2001, from The Independent