Original Copies Inside China’s Imitation Binge
Text and photographs by Bianca Bosker
Here’s a travel tip for you: if you drive about 30 kilometers west of downtown Shanghai, past low concrete factories coughing out smoke and high-rises looming over the city like yellowed storm troopers, you’ll hit England.
It’s not technically Her Majesty’s terrain, but drop an Eton boy there and he’d never guess it’s not his home turf. Meandering cobblestone streets are lined with squat, three- and four-story townhouses in a smattering of styles. There’s a Tudor building here, a half-timbered one there, a brick façade just beyond, and, rising above them all, the spire of a Gothic cathedral that’s a spitting image of the Christ Church in Bristol. Statues of illustrious British icons, including Winston Churchill and Harry Potter, keep a watchful eye over well-kempt lawns and tidy rows of trees, while security guards bustle about in the red uniforms of Buckingham Palace Foot Guards. Like in many European cities, there are tourists snapping pictures of the landmarks and historic buildings. A smattering of pubs, cafes, and snack shops standing at the ready to quench their thirst.
This is Thames Town, where you’re invited to “taste [the] original British style of small town.” Conceived, constructed, and sponsored to the tune of around half a billion dollars by the Shanghai government, Thames Town is one of hundreds of communities that make up China’s massive movement in architectural mimicry, or “duplitecture.” In the suburbs of China’s megalopolises, larger cities, and even smaller towns in provinces throughout the country, developers are building enormous residential developments that replicate the towns and cities of the United States and Europe down to the most devilish details.
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is home a residential complex for nearly two hundred thousand that is the twin of Dorchester, England, from its Poole Promenade to the cobblestone paving. In the Yangtze River Delta, a 108-meter replica of the Eiffel Tower graces Champs Elysées Square in what has been branded the “Oriental Paris,” a faithful reconstruction of the City of Light that includes white Haussmannian apartments—shutters, wrought iron balconies and all. Not far away, Venice Water Town boasts doubles of Saint Mark´s Square and the Doge´s Palace edging up against manmade canals crisscrossed by gondoliers. Manhattan, Hallstatt, Amsterdam, Orange County, Beverly Hills, and the White House have all been doubled, often by Chinese architects who have studied the originals first-hand abroad.
In tracts recently occupied by collective farms, upwardly-mobile Chinese go through the familiar paces of life in unfamiliar settings. These duplitecture developments are, after all, no theme parks: what distinguishes the Chinese towns from Disneyland or Las Vegas is that the suspension of disbelief is temporary in the latter and permanent in the former. For theme park visitors, the escapist unreality the imagineered landscapes provide ends as soon as they leave the park. For the Chinese residents of these themed enclaves, the fantasy is lived—daily, monthly, yearly.
Architects and architectural critics tend to turn up their noses at replicas of any sort, dismissing copies as the rip-off work of unimaginative and thieving plagiarists who are stymying the evolution of design. China’s duplitecture is no exception: these copies have elicited derision and disgust on the part of Western and Chinese intellectuals alike, who have rejected these themed communities as “kitschy,” “fake,” “temporary,” “terrifying,” and “trash.”
A closer investigation of Thames Town and its ilk reveals, paradoxically, that in the way it copies the West, China’s duplitecture manifests a tremendous originality.
Though the forms of these replicas are old, the Chinese have appropriated these historic models to convey entirely new ideas and serve distinct uses these buildings never had before. The recreation of these structures—as familiar as they are—on China’s soil transforms their meaning and turns them into something else that is distinctively their own, and fully original. A copied White House in China is less a symbol of American power or celebration of democratic ideals. Instead, it has been co-opted as a testament to China’s strength and achievements.
China’s architectural mimicry also challenges the view of replication as something abhorrent and taboo, suggesting ways that imitation can lead to novel outcomes and concepts. The nation’s fondness for architectural replicas can help us understand copying as a source of creativity and ideas, as these copycat communities show signs of being a springboard for invention.
“On the one hand, you’re making something look like something that came before. On the other hand, you’re creating something absolutely new and totally of its time,” says Sam Jacob, an architect who built a Museum of Copying for the 2012 Architecture Biennale. “[Copying] is incredibly fertile. It’s a way of quickly breeding ideas, and it’s a way of bringing in far too much, far too soon.”
Other cultures, including the United States, have been avid copycats at points in their own history. Yet China’s replicas are firsts in their own right: no nation has replicated at the same speed or scale, while also pulling from cultures so far afield from their own. In the United States, for example, architectural knockoffs (built by the founding fathers and straight through to the present day) have been based on Anglo-Saxon (British Tudor, Queen Anne, Gothic), Mediterranean, or Teutonic models. These are the architectural styles and morphologies of peoples who share the same geocultural genealogy. In China, the dominant target of appropriation for residential enclaves is a geopolitically, temporally, and culturally alien civilization.
Another distinctive feature is the sheer number of these “alien” landscapes and the proportion of the total new housing stock that they represent. Where other nations—India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), or Japan, for instance—may have only a handful of themed developments for the ultra rich, China has billions of square feet dedicated to such projects, some already completed and others under construction, offered in a range of price-points that make ownership accessible to the increasingly economically nuanced emerging middle class. Fueled by rapid economic growth, a population of over 1.3 billion, and a muscular government apparatus, China’s importation of “prestige” historical architecture from the West is occurring on an unprecedented scale.
In its present iteration, the originality of these landscapes consists also in the novel circumstances of the historical moment in which this architectural mimicry is occurring. Specifically, China is seeking to reposition itself within a dynamically changing world in which forces of economic interrelation, environmental degradation, and technological advance are accelerating global interdependence; redrawing the balance of power among the super-powers; and redefining notions of economic and political superiority. The technology available to China for copying alien lifestyles sets it apart: it has the mechanical and infrastructural capability to create cities virtually overnight. It also has the financial resources to underwrite massive housing projects, recruit foreign consultants, and import expensive materials. It has a powerful government able and willing to support urban planning projects of extraordinary scales. And it has a client base for these developments—a growing middle class that includes a population of between 100 million and 247 million consumers and that is projected to encompass 40 percent of China’s total population by 2020.
Though on the surface these duplitecture developments look Western through-and-through, they are also manifestations of a uniquely Chinese view of replication that has its roots in traditional philosophical systems. The ontological status and value of the copy in China differ substantively from corresponding Western notions. The West, obsessed with the question of primacy, has largely embraced the original as legitimate and connoting technological supremacy, while rejecting the copy as inferior, tainted, and subversive. By contrast, copies have traditionally occupied a far more nuanced status in China: though originality is prized, replication is not only permitted, but has historically been praised as testament to cultural and technological achievement.
This cultural esteem for the copy, which has helped foster a permissive climate for such copycat constructions, is rooted in the cyclical imperial worldview, in Zen cosmology, and in imperial politics. In pre-modern China, for example, copies were the en vogue status symbols of the day. China’s rulers relied on replicas to broadcast their strength, creating enormous hunting parks that assembled imported plants and rocks to mimic the landscapes of well-known locales. These leaders hoped to show they were so mighty, they could move heaven and earth at their command. China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, even commemorated his conquest of six rival kingdoms by building replicas of their palaces within his own capital city.
This tradition of conferring merit to replicas suggests that China’s copies serve as more than just functional objects. Instead, they are also symbolically important structures that serve as monuments to China’s rise. In the grip of a massive and comprehensive transition, the Chinese have seized on the iconography of Western architecture as a potent symbol for their ascension to—and aspiration for—global supremacy and the middle-class comforts of the “First World.”
Moreover, the replication of Western cityscapes acts as a signifier of the nation’s advanced state of development, made manifest through its ability to replicate Western landscapes, technology, and forms. The knowledge and familiarity with the West implied in the construction of historical architectural types—Versailles, Venice, and ye-olde-England—offers testament to China’s erudition and thorough understanding of the “other.” In this ability to master the technology, design, and order of the West, the architecture fulfills a symbolic function as a sign of parity (economic, cultural, and social) with the top Western competitors.
“There is a very important symbolic value to this [duplitecture] architectural movement,” says Howard French, a former New York Times China correspondent. “It is a statement of having arrived, of being rich and successful. It says, ‘We can pick and choose whatever we want, including owning a piece of the West. In fact, we’re so rich we can own the West without even having to go there.’”
But there are more pragmatic drivers of this movement as well. China has embraced imitation in the hopes that it will lead to innovation, and already, there are signs this strategy is succeeding.
Chinese officials involved in the support and sponsorship of China’s duplitecture maintain that by copying Western models, China gains experience and expertise in Western construction and design that allows it to advance more quickly. Consider the Shanghai Urban Planning Bureau’s rationale for the European style of the “One City, Nine Towns” plan, a 2001 government initiative that erected ten European-style towns, including Thames Town, around the metropolis. The government officials stressed the opportunity to learn from international experience and use it to China’s advantage in much the same way that Western intellectual property is being appropriated as it relates to manufacturing smartphones, or pharmaceuticals. The planning memorandum on the development of Shanghai notes, “As we enter the twenty-first century, we must draw on the successful expertise of foreign nations to achieve a high-quality planning model, high-quality construction, and a high level of efficiency, constructing several types of towns, each in a unique style.” The bureau even proposed offering financial subsidies to lure foreign architects and planners into the building and design processes.
This strategy of seeking out the best achievements of alien cultures and applying them, through selective adaptation, to meet domestic needs and to solve domestic problems has characterized China’s approach to technological change in the past. The Chinese have “eagerly acquired all the technical discoveries of the foreigners,” observed Johan Gunnar Andersson during his travels to China in 1928. Xing Ruan, professor of architecture at the University of New South Wales, points out that the tendency to embrace the skills of outsiders when they stand to benefit China runs deep in the nation´s history and forms a part of its cultural character. “The Chinese basically have no problem with accepting something ‘alien,’ ‘exotic,’ or ‘Western’ if these things are considered to be at the ‘center of the cosmos.’ These days, we’re talking about Western civilization and the Western image as being the representation of that,” Ruan says. The architecture and engineering of the developed world are seen as promising solutions to China’s rapid urbanization and thus have been both studied and emulated by local developers and architects. By importing the “hard skills” of Western urban planners, designers, business people, and engineers, the Chinese are betting that the experience of foreign experts and the replication of globally acknowledged jewels of urban design will bring about the nation’s rapid transformation into a global leader and will ensure the continuation of its “peaceful rise.” This is learning by doing at its most massive.
China’s duplitecture shows signs of being a stage in the nation’s transition from imitative to innovative, and may even accelerate this progression. Already, there is originality even in these copycat landscapes. The ingenuity required to create credible copies of Venice or Paris is impressive. In constructing a British hamlet like Thames Town, the Chinese architects actually developed novel processes and approaches to build something that appears old. Beneath their brick and half-timbered exteriors, the buildings of Thames Town actually hew to a more Brutalist style: they were not made of the traditional materials English architects would have used, but created from cast concrete. Neither do the homes completely disassociate from their home turf. Elements of traditional Chinese vernacular architecture have been incorporated even in places like “Majesty Manor,” “Palais de Fortune,” and “Blue Cambridge.” It’s not unusual to find Baroque or Beaux-Arts exteriors on homes with interior courtyards, deep consideration for fengshui, and surrounded by classical Chinese gardens.
Numerous other artistic fields, from painting and poetry to jazz composition and fashion design, have relied heavily on imitation as a form of inspiration that stimulates new ideas and forms. So why not architecture? It may not be typical for architects and planners to copy their way to creativity the way an aspiring painter sketches the masters to hone his style. But perhaps that is only because no other nation has been able to erect, experiment with, and copy buildings at the rate of China, with its deep pockets and plentiful labor. In this sense too, the duplitecture represents a novel undertaking. China has the opportunity to play with architecture the way musicians sample music, or technology companies try copying their way to market dominance. The ultimate result of the copycat binge could well be a distinctive, creative architectural language that is all China’s. Or maybe we’re looking at it: probing deeper into China’s duplitecture reveals an original undertaking that, in a plethora of ways, is the first of its kind.
As a Thames Town homeowner observed, “The hardware may be all Western, but the software is all Chinese.”
Adapted from Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China (University Of Hawai’i Press, 2013)
Bianca Bosker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China (University Of Hawai’i Press, 2013). She is currently the Executive Tech Editor of The Huffington Post where, in 2009, she co-launched the tech section. As a columnist and feature-writer focusing on social media, artificial intelligence and the intersection of tech and culture, she has explored technology’s role in creating a faking-it-big world where people fall in love with video games, and Twitter celebrities turn out to be mere chatbots. Bosker is also the co-author of Bowled Over: A Roll Down Memory Lane (Chronicle Books, 2002).
www.biancabosker.com | @bbosker