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Shanzhai and Copying

Does angst about “copying” presuppose a culture that reads works as “art”?  The Knockoff Economy team posted last week about “shanzhai” culture in China and the circumstances surrounding a Chinese building designed by one of the world’s great contemporary architects, Zaha Hadid.  From the post:

China’s uneasy relationship with intellectual-property law is due in no small part to China’s “shanzhai” culture. What is shanzhai? The literal meaning of the word is “mountain stronghold,” but it has come to connote imitation, and more, imitation done in a way that is upfront about its fakery and may even be celebrated for it.

Shanzhai culture is incredibly vibrant and shows no sign of slowing down. Shanzhai cellphones, for instance, are sometimes applauded for their ingenuity. Some include nifty features not seen on the original they are imitating. Some mash-up features found on competing phones into a single device.  All are cheap. … [While copying of architecture in China is commonplace …]

In this case, the Chinese developer of the knockoff Hadid building quickly responded to news reports by incorporating the controversy into his marketing materials and, in a sense, owning it. “Never meant to copy — Only want to surpass,” he wrote. As Bosker said to us, this line may sum a specifically Chinese take on copying: it’s all about getting to the best; who’s first is not the point.

In a private message, I replied to one of the post authors with the following note.  I figured that it need not be so private:

Most cultures (especially Western cultures) accept architecture today as a form of “art,” but for much of (Western) history it was “craft” — a far less meaningful discipline, and really not a discipline at all. Practitioners were mostly anonymous, and its rewards were entirely material, not spiritual. That started to change during the Italian Renaissance. I wonder about the comparative history of building design in China. There are plenty of modern signature buildings in China by Western architects like Hadid. But building may have been viewed historically as an expression of universal values (think feng shui) rather than as expression of individual or distinctive creative work. Copying would be a way to tap into a universal spirit rather than an appropriation of someone else’s art. Perfection, in [the sense that imitation is aimed at mastery of an art, something characteristic of some traditional Chinese practices] would aim at that universality.