Shanzhai Skyscrapers

(Photo: Börkur Sigurbjörnsson)

China is famously a hotbed of copying.  Western firms constantly kvetch about Chinese knockoffs of their products—and often with good reason. China’s intellectual property laws are fairly strong, at least on paper. The problem is that the laws aren’t effectively enforced – and it’s an open question whether the Chinese government is capable of shutting down the copyists. 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.

There is a lot to say about shanzhai in China, and we’ll come back to this in future posts. But here is a great example. Wired is reporting that a new Beijing building by starchitect Zaha Hadid is being copied even as the original is still under construction:

A Beijing building project by London-based architect Zaha Hadid is proving so popular that the structure is being pirated elsewhere in the country.

Hadid’s Wangjing Soho is an office and retail complex which uses three curved towers to echo the intricate movements of Chinese fans. But, according to Der Spiegel, the architect’s firm is being forced to compete with pirates to get the original structure finished before the copy.

“Even as we build one of Zaha’s projects, it is being replicated in Chongqing,” said Zhang Xin, the property developer who commissioned the structure. “Everyone says that China is a great copycat country, and that it can copy anything.”

Hadid herself seems a little more relaxed about the use of her work, provided the results contain a certain amount of innovation, saying “that could be quite exciting.”

The Hadid building is merely the tip of the iceberg as far as Chinese architectural copying is concerned.  China is full of copied buildings, in particular classic Western European designs.  In fact, a forthcoming book by Bianca Bosker, the senior tech editor at the Huffington Post, is all about this phenomenon: Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China tells the story of how entire neighborhoods in China are made to resemble, often in amazing detail, small towns in Europe and famous cities such as Venice.

Now of course this is not totally new, nor totally Chinese. One of us lives right near a place called Venice, CA, that was explicitly designed to evoke the great Italian city and its canals. That said, Venice, CA is more a gesture toward Venice, Italy than a copy of it. The California canals (many long paved over) are vaguely reminiscent of those in Venice, and the actual buildings look nothing like Venice. The Chinese examples Bosker discusses, by contrast, are often exacting in their verisimilitude and, moreover, don’t hesitate to mix and match from different eras and places.

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.

Hadid’s own view is also interesting.  Her equanimity over being copied is unusual, but it is probably wise. As we argue in our recent book, The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, copies are authentic advertisements: they show — convincingly — that you are an innovator who produces special things. As Bosker told us, “imitation may be the fastest route to ‘iconic.’”

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  1. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Reminds me of the Oriental deference shown by the Japanese in the trade wars of the 1950′-1980’s. They said, (disingenuously), “Oh, we can just copy– Americans are the great innovators and engineers!” The persistence of this illusion is astonishing.

    This enticed the excessively greedy American CEOs to send all their manufacturing to Japan and later other Asian centers where the manufacturing WAS done and the Asian engineers (with degrees from US universities) reinvented and improved the product while US engineers and product developers sat on their thumbs.

    The very notion that the “natural” (Hah!) changes to industrial society will evolve to leave the US smelling like a rose is a childish delusion.

    I don’t see anything good coming out of this in the short-run for the US. We will continue to compalin while real progress is being made in Asia.

    I still remember when I was in primary school that others saw cheap Japanese toys and laughed. I saw them and knew they were only practicing their manufacturing skills and would soon eat our lunch.

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  2. Jeff says:

    In the summer of `95 I was studying Chinese architecture and art in Beijing. I remember one thing we were told is that, historically, an apprentice painter is considered to have finished his apprenticeship when he can perfectly copy his master’s work. The implications for Chinese culture is that copying is seen very differently there than it’s seen in Western culture. The architects copying the Zaha Hadid building may think they’re showing that they’re ready for the big time, flattering Hadid, or at a minimum engaging in a normal way of deciding what to build.

    But, if you’re not the Master’s apprentice but copy the master’s work perfectly, I don’t know how Chinese culture, traditionally, viewed that copying.

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    • Jessica says:

      Interesting too is that you see a l0t of this in US graduate programs…[SOME] Chinese students have been caught “copying” from previously published works and seem to find little fault in it.

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      • Tomas says:

        I’ve noticed this too, it’s as though they don’t even realize they are doing something wrong. I went to one of the top schools in Canada for my undergrad, and every Chinese student I partnered with for projects cheated or plagiarised at least once. I even had a guy buy an entire frigging 10 page case analysis from a website, it was ridiculous. I always assumed it was due to the intense pressure to succeed that they get from their parents, but maybe it is just part of the culture.

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  3. Stefan K. says:

    China even copied a complete village, Hallstatt, from the Alpes. Here is a photo series from the german Spiegel:

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  4. Imad Qureshi says:

    I think the underlying reason for copying is more about saving money than getting to the best sooner. Imagine hiring Hadid for another building and asking her to design a distinctly beautiful building. I am sure she is quite capable of it. However, that would take lot more time and lot more money.

    They might not even know that they are doing this to save money.

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  5. Phil Persinger says:

    Jeff is onto something. It’s my impression that traditional Chinese culture viewed what we call copying as homage. Poets quoted without attribution other poets, painters copied elements from long-dead painters, etc., to deepen the meaning of their own work. The Chinese scholar/poet/painter had absorbed and memorized the entire Chinese canon– and all his (or occasionally her) friends, patrons, etc., were assumed to have done the same. In this culture, “copying” was neither crime nor pejorative since any reference to previous work would be instantly recognized and appreciated for the aptness of the quote to the “point” of the current work.

    True, the Empire was overthrown over 100 years ago and the old Confucian education system was pretty much destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. However, cultural attitudes– and shameless “copying”– live on. And if copying proves profitable and prestigious, so much the better….

    I would greatly appreciate any comments that correct this impression or amplify upon it.

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    • Ross says:

      Western, and particularly American culture places high value on originality. To produce an original work raises your status, and also the work becomes part of your identity. For someone to imitate the work too closely without permission could be thought of as stealing a part of the creator’s identity.
      The Chinese may have an entirely different view. Perhaps the work itself has its own identity, and the status of craftspersons is tied to how accurately they can reproduce work that already recognized as worthwhile. The original creator is not degraded, and therefore copying is considered not only acceptable but expected.

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      • Phil Persinger says:

        Let me expand on my previous remarks– and extend my request for corrections or comments.

        First, some practical and legal concerns apposite to others’ comments in this thread but not central to my earlier post…

        US copyright protections and licensing boards are strong disincentives for copying architectural or engineering drawings in this country. Liability concerns, as much as personal investment in design, rule here: no one wants to be drawn into a lawsuit over a building built from one’s drawings without one’s consent. (Construction documents such as drawings and specifications are the property of the architect or engineer, not the client. For a development company to own these documents, a design professional must be a major partner in that firm.) That said, designs are pirated and from them buildings are constructed all the time. But there are consequences in court and in licensing board hearings should these indiscretions be detected.

        Certainly, China has a basically wild-West legal environment. The quality of construction there can be very iffy. There is no doubt a healthy and active black market for drawing and specification computer files. But there are few practical consequences for this kind of stealing short of a building collapse.

        I think the products of traditional Chinese culture were seen to be original not because of sheer novelty but by the ways an individual piece reflects and comments upon previous work, whether one’s own or others’. An individual poem, then, not only speaks for itself over time but is also echoed by the folding of a significant phrase by others into their poetry. Similarly, elements of a painting will be “stolen” for incorporation into later works; they will even have their compositions altered by the poetry and personal seals each subsequent owner will add.

        Actual point-by-point reproduction of a “work of art” was not the goal in this way of thinking, but by the same token that idea of plagiarism would have been next to meaningless. My theory is that this attitude towards cultural objects still abides, however diminished, in the fundaments of modern Chinese culture– to the frustration, and enrichment, of US intellectual property attorneys.

        I should add that architects in the early US were shameless copiers of classical buildings in order to express the democratic and/or imperial qualities and aspirations of the new republic. In this respect, Chinese architects are no different when copying or alluding to Western buildings viewed as prestigious in some way– they just haven’t always waited for the original architects to be dead.

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  6. Zach Mitchell says:

    I think the copying coming out of China is amazing. The fact that most of the copies have more features than the original is great. A friend of mine bought a copy of the original iPhone before the the iPhone was even released. He pulled it of his pocket and woke it from sleep, I saw the same screen with the Nemo-like fish I had seen on internet that the Apple Phone was touting. I was pretty amazing and he got it for next to nothing. all possible because of the internet. I think that the internet has created a large incentive for the copying. I also think the copying itself have placed and incentive for companies like apple to increase the frequency of creating new products (not as much as money alone, but the prospect of more money).

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  7. Jonathan S. says:

    Isn’t this another way to say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”?

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  8. Gr4mb0 says:

    I feel that the Chinese have great incentive and little cost to copying such architecture. For one, the original is a masterpiece, so why not have another? I suppose too many copies and you would dilute the original a bit.. But since there is little cost (no punishment for use of another’s intellectual property), the benefits (having a wicked cool building without taking time to come up with an original) look pretty appealing. Besides, a building that has been copied several times may, indeed, become an icon rather quickly, so the copying may even be appreciated more. Ethically, however, it still seems a bit sketchy to me.. and the pride one has in designing a copycat building cannot possibly compete with the pride in designing your own original structure, in my opinion.

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