From replica White Houses to Chairman Mao impersonators, the “copycat” phenomenon is sweeping China. Is it an excuse for pirating or an inspiring challenge to authority?by Yu Hua / August 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
In China in Ten Words, the prize-winning novelist Yu Hua sets out “to compress the endless chatter of China today into ten simple words.” His book has been called a “much needed, and hugely subversive, dose of reality,” and invaluable for understanding modern China. The extract below deals with the copycat phenomenon, a sign of the moral confusion that threatens China’s future.
The story of contemporary China can be told from many different angles, but here I want to tell it in terms of the copycat, a national myth playing itself out on a popular level.
The word here rendered as “copycat” (shanzhai) originally denoted a mountain hamlet protected by a stockade or other fortifications; later it acquired an extended meaning as a hinterland area, home to the poor. It was also a name once given to the lairs of outlaws and bandits, and the word has continued to have connotations of freedom from official control.
In the past few years, with the increasing popularity of copycat cell phones that offer multiple functions at a low price, the word “copycat” has given the word “imitation” a new meaning, and at the same time the limits to the original sense of “imitation” have been eroded, allowing room for it to acquire additional shades of meaning: counterfeiting, infringement, deviations from the standard, mischief, and caricature. It would not be going too far to say that “copycat” has more of an anarchist spirit than any other word in the contemporary Chinese language.
Copycat cell phones began by imitating the functions and designs of such brands as Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson; to muddy the waters further, they gave themselves names like Nokir, Samsing, and Suny Ericcsun. By plagiarising existing brands and thereby skimping on research and development costs, they sold for a fraction of the price of established products. Given their technical capabilities and trendy appearance, they soon cornered the low end of the consumer market.