In the spirit of Shanzhai

By Helen Zhang (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-04 08:46
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In the spirit of Shanzhai

The word shanzhai originally means "mountain village", but the term was given new life in China implying any type or form of "imitation".

I started to research this topic and found a whole new shanzhai world. There are shanzhai products and online games, shanzhai culture and a shanzhai economy just to name a few. It was so popular that some people say to each other "have you shanzhai'd today"!?

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Like it or not, shanzhai has become part of our life in China. There is much to be explored in the shanzhai spirit (some call it shanzhaiism) - the capability to imitate and improve, speedy delivery to market, affordability to many and innovation where possible, plus a sense of fun/satire where appropriate.

I met a young American IT professional recently who has just acquired his shanzhai mobile. He was so proud of it and would not stop talking about all the functions while showing off the look of his phone.

I could hardly see the back cover as he had stuck on so many fake logos - iPhone, Nokia & LG to name but a few!

But why has shanzhai become such a phenomenon in China? Why do over 50 percent of the people surveyed by CCTV support it?

Firstly, many may not realize it but for Chinese people, the word shanzhai also reminds us of "the heroes of Liangshan" - who represent the equivalent of the Chinese "Robin Hood". They challenged the corrupt authorities at the time seeking justice for the weak and common people.

Secondly, one can honestly say there would be no shanzhai without the Internet. Even though it originated through mobile phones, the shanzhai phenomenon has somehow caught the imagination and interest of millions of Chinese netizens.

It is these consumers that have unwittingly conspired to create such a following for this new Chinese contemporary culture.

For example, one manifestation is shanzhai events. Some of the most well-known events include an online Shanzhai National Spring Gala (an imitation compete with the most popular CCTV Chinese New Year Gala), and the Shanzhai Nobel Prize.

Notice that they both imitate high-end, popular yet authoritative events - "grassroots parties for the grassroots" as one of the party organizers puts it.

By the way there are also shanzhai celebrities. Many shanzhai singers can be seen performing in out-of-the-way or remote places, where people cannot afford to or do not have access to performances by the actual "real" stars. These events are very successful, even though the audience fully knows that they are not getting the "real" thing.

I know many (including both Chinese and Western people) who have expressed their concerns about shanzhai being a shameless act of piracy or purely profit-oriented operations.

However the cheaper shanzhai products do enable people with less spending power to access products and services that they would have not been able to afford otherwise.

Remember in China there are over 900 million farmers - even though their living standards have been improving constantly, their spending power is much less than the same demographic of a developed country. Without shanzhai mobile phones, I don't think that China would have over 700 million mobile phone users today.

However there is the danger of bad quality shanzhai products that can cause injury (for example mobile phones with unsafe batteries).

These producers should most certainly be banned and manufacturers penalized. Fake or clones of brand products that infringe Intellectual Property Rights that others worked hard to establish need to be curbed. Too many copycats only hinder the progress of China moving from "made in China" to "created in China". But is imitation a crime?

In the spirit of shanzhai, may I declare that none of the thoughts or words in this article are original - I found them via Google, Baidu, and other sources online and offline.