In 2012, the southern Chinese province of Guangdong spent $940 million constructing a complete replica of Austria’s most picturesque town, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hallstatt. Did the rest of the world think it was strange? Absolutely. Did China? Not at all. Gish Jen has grown up with one foot in the East and one in the West, so she’s in a unique position to understand why something so taboo in America—being a copycat—is so openly practiced in China. Gish chalks it up to different ideas of the self in these two places. The US zealously practices individualism, and people’s lives are spent in the pursuit of unique self-expression. Meanwhile, Asia has a more interconnected concept of identity, and of recognizing a network of ideas rather than a singular vision. In art in particular, there is the notion of education through imitation; before you can carve your own path in a tradition you should master the great ideas within it. Which explains why something that is considered an homage in China, would be an instant lawsuit in America.

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Transcript: Well of course you know China and the U.S. have very different ideas about intellectual property rights. About copying and things like that—imitation—very foundationally things that in the U.S. are completely taboo.

In China it might be wrong or maybe even not legal, but they’re not taboo, right? And we can ask ourselves, “Well why is that? Why is building a building that looks just like a chateau in France, you know, why do we not do that here in the West?” Why would we – we might do it, but it would be in an amusement park. It would be something, you know, if you did it, it’s tacky, right?

It’s things in the West that are tacky, in the East are considered fine. So, you know, you can have a very elaborate copy of a French chateau. You can pour $50 million into it. You can use the exact stone that they used in the original and have this copied every way perfect. And in China that’s seen as a great thing, right? Like no one would say, “You’re kidding. You spent $50 million on this copy?!” In the U.S. we would never do that. And why is that? It’s because we have two different models of self.

Quite the contrary, you know, if they see something which is great, they’ll say “Well I’ll do that too!” It’s homage.

So things that to us, you know, you just don’t do. To them it’s like, “Well, why not?”, you know? They have a much more playful attitude, I will say, toward these things.
And this goes right down to the educational level. I mean so the idea, you know, in our education we’re very much trying to coax out of people, you know, their unique vision, right? You know in Asia the idea that actually there are many great ideas kind of out there all around you in the culture—and that maybe before you think about how you can put your own stamp on things maybe you should absorb those ideas—it’s very important.

And so in order to absorb those ideas, well how do you do that? Often you imitate, right? So painters start, they find a great painter, a painter with whom they feel simpatico and they copy those paintings. What are they doing? When we think of copying we think if it as kind of a mechanical process. But actually they’re trying to internalize the greatness of this painting. So to them it’s not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. They’re taking in this influence.

Ultimately they want to add to the great tradition that they are signed up for, and ultimately they want their contribution to be theirs and to be singular, but they see that as coming after they have mastered their great tradition, right? And mastering it through imitation, through memorization is completely fine. And like I say, it’s a sign of homage.

Now you can only imagine a culture where there is this very longstanding tradition of education through imitation and through copying: You can only imagine to take a tradition like that and to sort of say to this culture, “Well, actually, every time you imitate something that’s actually taboo.”

I mean, they get it intellectually. You can tell them, but very foundationally that’s not who they are, and these are not ideas that they have had. It would be like telling us like every time you pick up a spoon, “That spoon is copyrighted. You really should pay a little fee every time you use that spoon.” They would just think: “well that is really very strange,” right?

So I think that when we look at these ideas we see a very big foundational split between the two cultures. And really copying is only one of the many areas where you see very divergent ideas.

36 COMMENTS

  1. All the hate in the comments is probably all from Americans.. You do know China will pass the rest of the world in every sector, right? Not creative my ass, humanity since the beginning has taken apart ideas, rebuilt and refined them. It wasn't until Capitalism gained full control did we start seeing people imprisoned for editing something to make it better or more efficient. Now in america your tech sector is an inflated bubble of incrementalism to milk the consumers for as much money as possible. Copyright, trademarks and patents are the death of creativity, not the foundation.

  2. in a thousand years, when white people disappear, we're gonna look back and say, DAMN those whiteys were cool weren't they?

  3. F*** China and their 5000 yr history. It is not a history of valuing human life. Nor does China give a shit about the rest of the world except as a source of plunder.

  4. The US doesn't spend $50 million copying French Chateaus? Has she been to any rich neighborhood? They are filled with them! In fact, most homes in every neighborhood are a copy of classic Euro styles.

    This woman is just flat wrong about her basic thesis.

  5. Taboo? Its strange yes, but China isn't unique in that department. The real story is how China is re-creating many cities throughout the world, are then left abandoned, becoming a ghost town. Destroying beautiful land to make way for so called art.

    They raised this ancient fishing village to re-create a Manhattan district which they thought would become a world renowned business centre. They abandoned it mid-construction, disgusting.

  6. The thing is, Chinese were not copying anyone when they invented the compass, fireworks, paper or created Qin dynasty, world's first modern state in history (Fukuyama) etc. Also, at the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, US was copying a lot from UK and Europe, before they became world's no. 1 country .

  7. Here's the real reason: most people are not creative no matter where you go. People in the west just pretend to be creative by spilling out the garbage we call modern art.

  8. a copy is a copy your mind fucking yourself. Stop copying are ideas and trying to void international patents china. fuck off get your own opinions and thoughts. oh wait sorry i forgot they censor that that in china shill off

  9. Of course it's tacky, Nothing illegal about it. Hell, Las Vegas has pyramids in it, it's tacky as hell, but it's not illegal, not should it be.

    If a country wants to make tacky structures what does it matter.

  10. I was just thinking this same thing few days ago, but about music.

    & how odd it is that we put strict copy rights on beats and lyrics.

  11. The single one reason they copy art is to make money from it, which is contrary to internalise it for a greater purpose.

  12. The entire argument is totally shit. If china wanted to do homage and not make quick bucks of it's populace and maybe tourists dumb enough to see such things then china would have some quality and shit quality is what china is well known for. Homage and stealing ideas are too different things. I know full well taking inspiration or copying great works as an artist, but plagiarizing and passing a below mediocre abomination as mine to make money would only do insult to the original on top of belittling myself

  13. The eiffel tower is special, because it's the eiffel tower. If you build your own, people see you ripping of the eiffel tower. Just building another doesn't make it special, it's being unique. To be able to create art, you have to be able to think freely. Something China isn't known for promoting.

  14. coping is objectively an uncreative, uninspired action. Its not always wrong, but it will lead you no where as a creative person.

  15. Let me ask one question: "If a typical person from china sees a copy of a French chateau, do they know it's a copy? Do they ask about the original?" – If the answer is NO, then I'll continue to have little to no respect for those copycats.

  16. No, they are not "internalizing" the greatness. They are doing what is easy to just get along. Basic human lazyness. Same reason China is a dirty trash heap everywhere you go. Same reason they don't wait to enter a train when others need to exit a train. Same reason traffic is a nightmare in China and it is everyone for themselves even if you completely block the intersection by turning on a red light. Selfishness. China's culture has imbedded, selfishness. It is an outgrowth of Communism. No one owns anything or has the right to own anything. So, to express their individuality, the small aspects of their life where they can be individuals, they do so.

  17. No. "Imitating" others intellectual property that they spent resources and human capital on is stealing. It's not flattery. Invest your own god damn money and time coming up with new stuff. Don't copy ours.

  18. is this woman a lawyer? if not she definitely should be. What a load of elaborate bullshit. I don't know why the Chinese copies but it's obvious she doesn't either. I think Americans try to be individuals is because they are mire artisitic and are creators. I know China has an enormous history of being creative and original but what happened? What gummed up their gears of creativity and originality? That is what I would like to know.

  19. You could never guess this woman race just by listening to her voice, she sounds like a very educated english person, you can tell she has higher than average IQ.

  20. yes it is strange to pay every time you pick up a spoon, but you know what else is stranger?
    Making a copy of that spoon, using lead, and flood the market with it.
    no one builds a brand ripoff because they "admire the original and want to contribute" that's bullshit.
    they do it because they are lazy and want to make money.

  21. Yes, Chinese copies are rubbish. And in Australia, Chinese copies of iconic furniture are legal. By slightly altering, or adding a mark is allowed. A copy from a distance may appear identical, but up close, the ideas reveal a shallow understanding of the overall design/designers intent and careful detailing. I am far more interested in the innovative and authentic design and technology Chinese designers/technologist will create in the future is now.

  22. so would the be okay if we copy their stuff? and also why would it be ethical to profit from copying? that can not be reconciled by the confucian culture arguement

  23. This 'copying' culture has been going on for quite sometime. So it might become a bad and normal practice as someone is always copying some others. The cultural revolution has also ruined a whole or two generations of ppl, so when economic reforms started, the Chinese ppl become obsessed with gaining wealth.Copying others, especially famous places of interest, is one way to attract the Chinese tourists to them. As long as they can make money, they will use any method to achieve the aim. Having said that, the younger Chinese are getting more and more self confident,sophisticated and confident, so hopefully 10 years from now, they can innovate more and more of their own things and gain ppl respect.

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