Copycat China

Prospect Magazine

Copycat China

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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?


“Hands up if you’re Chairman Mao”: a lookalike competition in 2008 in Hunan, Mao’s home province


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.

With the rapid growth of the copycat industry there is now a dizzying variety of knockoff phone brands. One, claiming to be manufactured by “Harvard Communications,” has recently appeared in the stores. The brand presents President Obama as its spokesman and sports a beaming Obama on its advertisements. His smile, seen everywhere these days, has to count as the most famous—and the most powerful—smile in the world, but now it’s been hijacked and made to appear in promotions for Chinese copycat cell phones. “This is my Blackberry,” Obama tells us with a grin, “the Blockberry Whirlwind 9500!”

Obama is today’s symbol of that long-running American dream, but I am pretty sure he could never have imagined such an outlandish misuse of his image, and Americans at large would no doubt be flabbergasted to see their president serving as brand ambassador for a Chinese knockoff. We Chinese take it all in our stride, for we don’t see anything wrong with copycatting Obama. After all, in China today, with the exception of the party in power and our current government leaders—plus retired but still living party and state leaders—everybody else can be copycatted and ridiculed, imitated and spoofed, at will.

In 2008, Hunan province—the home province of Mao Zedong, our erstwhile Great Leader, Great Teacher, Great Commander, and Great Helmsman—embarked on a campaign to select Mao lookalikes from all over the country. “This is an innovation in our cultural system reform,” a local of?cial explained. “It will effectively promote the development of our cultural tourism industry.”

One hundred and thirty Mao Zedong lookalikes travelled from all corners of the country, braving every hardship to arrive at their destination. After several elimination rounds 13 finalists entered the last stage of the competition. At the news conference they sat in a row on the stage, each with a fake mole stuck on his chin. Some struck the classic pose of the historical Mao Zedong, a cigarette between their curled fingers and an ankle resting on their knee. The real Mao Zedong spoke with a genuine Xiangtan accent; copycat Xiangtan accents spilled from the mouths of the copycat Maos.

One was so confident in his appearance that he refused to put on makeup; another put on makeup but claimed to be “the most physically unaltered.” A third mock Mao, facing the packed audience below, improvised as giddily as a pop singer. “I’m 115 this year,” he declared, clutching the microphone tightly, “but it gives me such a lift to be here, I feel just as young as you see me!”

Yet another Mao Zedong lookalike imitated Mao’s speech at the founding ceremony: “Greetings, comrades!” His phony Xiangtan accent enlivened the atmosphere, and the audience cried happily in return, “Greetings, Chairman Mao!”

“Long live the people!” he continued.

“Long live Chairman Mao!” the crowd roared.

These past few years Mao Zedong has been copycatted constantly. In the most bizarre instance, a female Mao impersonator appeared in southwest China, making such an immediate impact that she was hailed by the Chinese media as “sweeping aloft in majesty,” a literary expression over which Mao once claimed exclusive rights. When this 51-year-old woman made herself up as Mao Zedong and walked along the street, waving to the crowds that gathered, she looked uncannily like the Mao who waved to the parading masses from Tiananmen, and the crowds pressed toward her, rushing to be the ?rst to shake her hand. In a moment the street was a dense throng of humanity, and it took her more than half an hour to walk just a few hundred yards.

Hui County clearly did not qualify for such glory, but the locals went ahead and organised for themselves a homegrown version of the relay, passing from one person to the next a simple handmade torch. Every villager was qualified to participate; no government approval was required. They all looked pleased as punch, for their love of China was not in the least inferior to that of the official torchbearers, and when footage of their exploit began to circulate on the internet, it got a rapturous reception.

* * *

Copycat phenomena are everywhere in China today, and even the political arena, so long untouchable, has suffered an invasion. When the National People’s Congress and the National Political Consultative Conference were in session, a man from Yibin in Sichuan, who described himself as a “Copycat Delegate to the National People’s Congress,” introduced several motions on the internet regarding such issues as insurance, old-age pensions for peasants, and personal income tax, hoping for a wide airing of his ideas. His election was laced with black humour, for he explained that he had been the unanimous choice at a family gathering—a sardonic commentary on the government’s practice of carefully vetting potential candidates for election to the NPC and NPCC. Although his election was the outcome only of a family get-together, this copycat delegate actually re-elected more of a democratic spirit than those official delegates, for he won votes from relatives sincere in their support, not votes rigged by the authorities.

As a product of China’s uneven development, the copycat phenomenon has as many negative implications as it has positive aspects. The moral bankruptcy and confusion of right and wrong in China today, for example, and vivid expression in copycatting. As the copycat concept has gained acceptance, plagiarism, piracy, burlesque, parody, slander, and other actions originally seen as vulgar or illegal have been given a reason to exist; and in social psychology and public opinion they have gradually acquired respectability. No wonder that “copycat” has become one of the words most commonly used in China today. All of this serves to demonstrate the truth of the old Chinese saying: “The soil decides the crop, and the vine shapes the gourd.”

Four years ago I saw a pirated edition of [my novel] Brothers for sale on the pedestrian bridge that crosses the street outside my apartment; it was lying there in a stack of other pirated books. When the vendor noticed me running my eyes over his stock, he handed me a copy of my novel, recommending it as a good read. A quick flip through and I could tell at once that it was pirated. “No, it’s not a pirated edition,” he corrected me earnestly. “It’s a copycat.”

That’s not the only time something like this has happened. In China today, in some spheres there is still a lack of freedom, while in others there is so much freedom it’s hard to believe. More than 20 years ago I could say whatever came into my head when I was interviewed by a journalist, but the interview would undergo strict review and be drastically edited before publication; ten years ago I began to be more circumspect in interviews, because I discovered that newspapers would report everything I said, even my swear words; and now I am often amazed to read interviews I have never given—remarks that the reporter has simply concocted, a gushing stream of drivel attributed to me. Once I ran into a reporter who had fabricated just such an interview and I told him firmly, “I have never been interviewed by you, ever.”

He responded just as firmly: “That was a copycat interview.”

I was speechless. But that is our reality today: you may have done something illegal or unconscionable, but as long as you justify yourself with some kind of copycat explanation, your action becomes legitimate and above board in the courtroom of public opinion. There’s nothing I can do about it, except pray that in the future, when people make up conversations with me, they don’t make me talk too much nonsense. If somebody has me say something clever, I’m even prepared to say thank you.

If we conceptualise the copycat phenomenon as a form of revolutionary action initiated by the weak against the strong, then this kind of revolution has happened before in China—in the Cultural Revolution 44 years ago.

When in 1966 Mao Zedong proclaimed, “To rebel is justified,” it triggered a release of revolutionary instincts among the weaker segments of society, and they rebelled with a passion. Everywhere they rose up against those in positions of authority. Traditional Communist Party committees and state organisations totally collapsed, and copycat leadership bodies sprouted up all over the place. All you needed to do was to get some people to back you, and overnight you could establish a rebel headquarters and proclaim yourself its commander-in-chief.

Soon there were too many copycat organisations and too little power to go around, triggering violent struggles between the various rebel headquarters. In Shanghai the struggle involved guns and live ammunition; but the rebels there were outdone by the ones in Wuhan, who used artillery pieces to assail each other’s positions. In efforts to expand their power bases, copycat leaders fought incessantly in conflicts that differed little from the tangled warfare between bandits that was once so common in China. Eventually the victors would incorporate the remnants of the vanquished and emerge with enhanced authority. Once the traditional bases of party and state control had been eliminated, revolutionary committees—representing the new power structure—were soon established, and those copycat commanders who had triumphed in the chaotic factional struggle transformed themselves into the revolutionary committees’ official heads.

Why, when discussing China today, do I always return to the Cultural Revolution? That’s because these two eras are so interrelated: even though the state of society now is very different from then, some psychological elements remain strikingly similar. After participating in one mass movement during the Cultural Revolution, for example, we are now engaged in another: economic development.

What I want to emphasise here is the parallel between the sudden appearance of myriad rebel headquarters at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and the rapid emergence of the private economy: in the 1980s, Chinese people replaced their passion for revolution with a passion for making money, and all at once there was an abundance of private businesses. Just as the copycat challenges the standard, so too the private sector assailed the monopoly status of the state-owned economy. Innumerable businesses soon went belly-up, only for countless others to take their places, just like the constant setbacks and dynamic comebacks associated with revolution, or like Bai Juyi’s lines about the grassland: “Though burned by wildfire, it’s never destroyed/ When the spring winds blow it grows again.”

China’s economic miracle was launched in just this way. Through its continual cycles of ruin and rebirth the private sector demonstrated its enormous capacity for survival, at the same time forcing ossified, conservative state enterprises to adapt to the cutthroat competition of the marketplace.

In their colourful history during these past 30 years, the grassroots have performed feats unimaginable to us in the past, doing things their own way, through different channels. Their roads to success were highly unconventional, and so too were their roads to failure; the social fabric they have created is equally peculiar. Just as the reveille wakens soldiers from sleep, so too, as “copycat” took on a rich new range of meanings, it has suddenly brought into view all manner of things that have been churning below the surface during these years of hectic development. The awesome spectacle that has ensued is rather akin to what would happen if, in a crowded square, someone yells “Copycat!” in an effort to catch a friend’s attention and everybody in the square comes dashing over, because that is the name they have all adopted.

As miracles multiply, desire swells. Tiananmen Gate, the symbol of Chinese power, and the White House, the symbol of American power, have naturally become the structures most vigorously emulated by copycat architects all across China. There is a difference, however. Mock Tiananmens tend to be erected by local officials in the countryside: newly prosperous villages convert their local government offices to miniature Tiananmens so that when the lowest-level officials in the Chinese bureaucracy are ensconced inside, they can savour the beautiful illusion of being masters of the nation. Imitation White Houses, on the other hand, supply office space for the rich and also meet their living needs. By day a company executive sits at his desk in a copycat version of the Oval Office, directing the activities of his employees by telephone; by night he takes his pretty secretary by the hand and leads her into the copycat Lincoln Bedroom.

In the course of China’s 30-year economic miracle many poor people from the grassroots have acquired wealth and power and have begun to hanker after a western-style aristocratic life; moving into spacious villas, travelling in luxury sedans, drinking expensive wines, wearing designer brands, and saying a few words of English in an atrocious accent. As copycat aristocrats proliferate, so too do the social institutions catering to their needs.

The social fabric of China today is shaped by a bizarre mixture of elements, for the beautiful and the ugly, the progressive and the backward, the serious and the ridiculous, are constantly rubbing shoulders with each other. The copycat phenomenon is like this too, revealing society’s progress but also its regression. When health is impaired, inflammation ensues, and the copycat trend is a sign of something awry in China’s social tissue. Inflammation rights infection, but it may also lead to swelling, pustules, ulcers, and rot.

  1. August 28, 2012

    GM williams

    Mr Yu seems to think that China must be inferior, because it is doing things differently from the West. Even though China is currenly the most successful large country by a large margin.

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