China

The Cultural functioning of Chinese architectural ‘knock-off’ practices

Written by Chris Brisbin.

Copying is nothing new in China, nor in the West. From computer games, clothes, to technology, China has been widely derided as the ‘knock-off’ nation. More recently, this reproduction culture has broadened to include the architecture of western icons of modernity. The copying of Zaha Hadid Architects’ Wangjing SOHO in Beijing by Meiquan Properties Ltd, the alleged ‘developer pirates’ responsible for the Meiquan 22nd Century Building in Chongqing, is perhaps the most contentious contemporary example of architectural copying to date. Most alarmingly, the construction of the copy was due to be completed in Chongqing before the construction of Hadid’s Wangjing original in Beijing (2014). The similarities are striking between the buildings. However, it is my contention that there is much more to this particular case, and the widespread cultural practice of copying in China, than reductive ideological questions of copyright to explain ‘knock-off’ culture.

In previous publications, I have outlined the implications of copying in China through the lens of western Copyright and Intellectual Property, however in this discussion I will argue the cultural functioning of copying in influencing Chinese cultural identity. In order to understand the value that is embedded within creative works of art and architecture, it is necessary to understand their critical cultural functioning as an assemblage of cultural practices, fused into subsequently designed artefacts. For example, the cultural value for works of architecture is understood not simply in terms of the building’s function or utility, but also in terms of its expressive cultural voice. That is, what the building conveys about the culture in which it operates.

This can take the form of an indirect, or deliberate, critique that is expressed in the architecture’s design narrative and/or form, such as the façade composition of Wang Shu’s Ningbo History Museum (2008). The facades of the Museum are composed as a re-assemblage of roof tiles, bricks, slate, and terracotta that gives aesthetic form to Shu’s critical unease with the prolific State sanctioned demolition of China’s built heritage under the guise of modernization. Shu’s compositional technique both embraces local vernacular traditions, which sustainably repatriate fragments of old buildings into new building elements, whilst formally symbolizing the systematic erasure of Ningbo’s history in the Museum’s resulting façade materials and form. The work therefore acts as an active critique of the broad socio-political conditions in which the work operates and contributes to a cultural discussion about the role of architecture in arresting inconvenient truths about the State.

Indirect critiques can be found in the appropriation of architectural styles from one culture which are subsequently redeployed in another as an aesthetic trope, freed of the linguistic meaning specific to the original. As Jianfei Zhu has noted, a stylistic morphing occurred when local Chinese builders attempted to construct European architectural styles in the Qing Empire Changchun Yuan Garden (Beijing); architectural styles were appropriated from Europe and reused for their symbolic roles in promoting Chinese nationalism. Based on limited knowledge concerning how to build authentic European baroque and Rococo architectural styles in China, the resulting building’s architectural language was simplified into an aesthetic likeness. As in Mao’s systematic commodification of Nationalism, the imitative translation of European architectural aesthetics was enacted in order to demonstrate Chinese cultural superiority. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the design of Chinese public architecture was also contrived by the State as symbols of Nationalism: expressing “grand narratives of the nation, its grand tradition, its heroic revolution and its glorious future.” In each case, architecture can be understood as a cultural edifice in which the symbols and values of a nation are latent.

The appropriation and re-translation of canonical architectural styles has continued into the twentieth century in the 2004 Zhengzhou reproductions of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp (1954) and in the 2007 Tianducheng 1/3 scale reproduction of the Eiffel Tower. The Tianducheng Eiffel Tower is critical here in that it reveals the cultural complexity of copying. The content that is being appropriated and reproduced, is actually not the tower’s form itself, but rather the semiotic associations of its shape as the letter A, symbolising the French word ‘Amour’ (a love affair), embedding with its romantic symbolism is the populist view of Paris as the ‘city of love’. The attraction therefore for the Eiffel symbol, and its numerous reproductions across China, has more to do with its romantic connotations than in the literal reproduction of the Parisian original, or any of its associated cultural signification of Modernity. What is important is its likeness, not its indexical reproduction.

Whilst Chinese Copyright Law reflects Copyright Law in the West, the ongoing prevalence of the ‘culture of the copy’ in contemporary China reveals the complex nature of the friction between what different cultures understand as the perceived value of a creative work. For example, the Chongqing 22nd Century building is not a direct indexical copy of the Hadid’s Wangjing SOHO. The similarity to the original presents the copy as a sibling, rather than a clone. This article has, in part, argued for a more nuanced understanding of the critical cultural identity embedded within all creative artefacts and an open debate about concepts of ‘idea’ ownership that may very well contradict the foundational keystones of Capitalism itself: the commodification of knowledge.

The Chinese actively dwell in a pluralist postmodern milieu of hyper-real surfaces, images, and simulated environments. Contemporary China has, in the past, fashioned itself as a simulacra of other cultures’ cultural production. However, Chinese attitudes to this trend are shifting. At a literary symposium in 2014, General Secretary Xi Jinping called for an end to the “strange looking buildings” being built across China. General Secretary Xi’s aim was to engender a greater sense of inclusive Chinese-ness. More than simply an assemblage of familiar tropes appropriated from the West, this article echoes General Secretary Xi’s call for a Chinese identity freed from the postmodern mish-mash of western aesthetics. Through such a critical recasting of the cultural value of copying in China, the aesthetic character of the copy thus transforms from the reductive category of the kitsch, to a purveyor of more pronounced cultural symbolism, meaning, and Chinese identity.

Dr. Chris Brisbin teaches design studio and history and theory in Architecture and Interior Architecture. He is currently the History & Theory Studies Coordinator in Architecture at the University of South Australia. His current research explores the cultural interchange between China and the West, specifically focusing on how to better understand Chinese middle class consumption and the cultural role of authorship, originality, and Copyright in China. Image credit: CC by Hufton and Crow/Flickr.