Copycat “Shanzhai” Culture Becomes Innovation in China

The Chinese word “Shanzhai” literally means “small mountain village”, but it's meaning has been transformed into describing products that have names similar to famous brands or people who imitate celebrities. It first became an acceptable name for bogus goods about two years ago after the “Shanzhai cellphones” which were produced by small individual workshops in southern China became popular in the mainland market.


Besides Shanzhai electronic products, of which there are many, there are “Shanzhai” movies, “Shanzhai” stars and even a “Shanzhai” Spring Festival Gala, which dares to copy the 25-year-old traditional show presented by CCTV on Chinese Lunar New Year's Eve. According to news sources, the concept has taken off and is running amuck, now symbolizing anything that imitates something famous. The phenomenon has even been the subject of a very public controversy over whether it is healthy or sick being a copycat.”

Venues particularly associated with the Olympics have recently fallen victim to “Shanzhai” as well. In southwestern China, a “Bird's Nest” woven by farmers with bamboo attracts wide attention and the copycat “Water Cube” is popular with tourists.

Li Zonggui, a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in south China's Guangdong Province, had this to say about “Shanzhai”:
“It represents non-mainstream ideas and innovations, and it's also a new way for common people to express what they want.”

Tian Huiqun, a professor at the College of Art and Communication of Beijing Normal University, said:

“The concept of “Shanzhai” started in the business world and thus the it has a commercial aspect. “Shanzhai” culture never copies classic things, only trendy products. In that sense, it's like a computer virus, multiplying without meaning.
If we were too tolerant of such culture ... the culture of [true] innovation would be even harder to develop.”

“Shanzhai” culture will probably remain a controversial topic even though it is fast becoming a widely accepted phenomenon.

As is the way of all things, time will tell, but can we really be sure it will be the real time on a real watch we will be measuring?

Go figure.

Jan 8, 2009
by M Dee Dubroff
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M Dee Dubroff

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