An Eiffel Tower over a road in Hebei province. Image Source: Robert Harding/World Imagery/Corbis via WSJ.
In February of this year, the Wall Street Journal reported on Chinese fakes, knock-offs, copies and duplicates of western goods, landmarks and famous buildings. It is a great example of how globalization can spawn confusion and cognitive dissonance. A caveat: some critics of related reports assumed that this story was part of an anti-Chinese wave in the western media. Even if it is, it still exemplifies the Millennial taste for twins, doppelgangers and facsimiles.
Venice Water Town, Hangzhou. Image Source: Image Source: Bianca Bosker via Atlas Obscura.
In the west, copies are derivative, inferior products. Almost always, respect goes first and foremost to an original inventor, creator, designer or architect. Copies are considered to be disrespectful and unoriginal because they violate the western principles of intellectual and commercial creation and ownership. Those principles derive from John Locke's labour theory of property, "a natural law theory that holds that property originally comes about by the exertion of labor upon natural resources." You own what you create. And if you created it first, then you get the credit for breaking ground first. There are some exceptions, particularly in American cities like Las Vegas.
Luodian Town, a Scandinavian-themed town. Images Source: Bianca Bosker via Atlas Obscura.
But generally speaking, in western eyes, Chinese fakes constitute an admission that western creations (and even culture) are superior, and all the Chinese can do is furnish pale imitations of models established by stronger societies.
This is a misunderstanding.
The Wall Street Journal described a theory from author Bianca Bosker, namely, that when the Chinese make copies of another society's best goods and greatest buildings, they are asserting their cultural dominance over the other society. The other society is being symbolically diminished, incorporated and absorbed:
This "duplitecture" is not meant to flatter the West, nor is it a form of "self-colonization." The copies are built as monuments to China's technological prowess, affluence and power. The Chinese have seized on the icons of Western architecture as potent symbols for their own ascension to—and aspiration for—global supremacy.
It is an impulse with deep roots in Chinese architectural tradition, dating back thousands of years. In pre-modern China, emperors demonstrated their dominance by re-creating rival territories within their own: Sprawling imperial parks, which featured flora and fauna assembled from remote lands, buttressed rulers' authority by showing their ability to both create and possess an elaborate facsimile of the known universe.
China's emperors also used copycat buildings to convey their mastery—actual or anticipated—over their adversaries. In the third century B.C., the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, commemorated his conquest of six rival kingdoms by ordering that exact replicas of their palaces be built in his capital. Today, the ersatz Eiffel Towers and Chrysler Buildings symbolize China's power to control the world by transplanting Europe and the U.S. into its domain.
Traditional Chinese attitudes toward replication also help to explain the trend. While Americans view imitation with disdain, the Chinese have traditionally taken a more permissive and nuanced view of it. Copying can be valued as a mark of skill and superiority.
The BBC reported on the Chinese mash-up of English municipalities - Thames Town:
As you enter Thames Town, the honking and chaos of Chinese city life fall away. There are no more street vendors selling steamed pork buns, and no more men hauling recyclables on tricycles. The road starts to wind, and then, in the distance, you see what looks like a clock tower from a Cotswold village.
"It has this almost dreamlike quality of something European," says Tony Mackay, a British architect, and the master planner for the Thames Town housing scheme and the surrounding district of Songjiang.
When local officials hired Mackay in 2001, he found farms and ducks here.
Today, there are cobbled streets, pubs and half-timbered Tudor houses. There's even a statue of Winston Churchill, and a medieval meeting hall that advertises chicken wings and beer in Chinese characters. But Mackay is not happy. "It doesn't look quite right," he says. "It looks false."
Mackay says the architects who took on the designs for the buildings created a pastiche, throwing together different styles, and abandoning authenticity. Some of the half-timbered houses are six storeys high, for example, and the windows on the church just don't look right, he says.
"The proportions are wrong. The use of the different stones is all wrong. It would never be used like that in the genuine English church," he says.
The houses in Thames Town were largely bought as investment properties, so the town has always been quiet. It is only just beginning to develop a real sense of life and community.
To Mackay, the place looks like a film set. In fact, one Western blogger said it reminded him of the film, The Truman Show. ...
But Fan Yu Zhe couldn't care less. ... Fan and his bride Sun Qi Yao look ... deeply into each other's eyes as a photo assistant showered them with flower petals. Thames Town is crawling with young couples who want to have their wedding photos taken here. "I love European football, so I'm very interested in things from Europe," says Fan. "I really hope I can visit the real Thames River one day, sit along the banks, drink a cup of coffee and enjoy the British sunshine."
... Elsewhere in China, there is a replica Eiffel Tower, a mock Tower Bridge - even a recreation of Stonehenge.
Statue of Winston Churchill in Thames Town, Shanghai. Image Source: Bianca Bosker via Atlas Obscura.
I09 reported on China's copycat craze without pinpointing its underlying message. See more copycat buildings from i09 below the jump.
Copy of Hallstatt, Austria in Huizhou, China (2011-2012). The real town is on the left.
Copy of Manhattan in Tianjin, China.
The characteristics of the White House and the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. are mixed together in Shanghai Minhang People's Court, China. Original buildings are on the left.
Window Of The World, Shenzhen, China: "The theme park has more than 100 reproductions of the famous places around the world, including the 1:3 scale version of the Eiffel Tower, the Christ the Redeemer statue from Rio De Janeiro and the wonderful Taj Mahal."
More of Little London or Thames Town, near Shanghai, China.
A cross between Florence and Venice: "It was a corn field few years ago, but now this area has a grand canal, lots of Italian houses and a Colosseum-like shopping centre. The total project cost about $220 million, financed by a mining company." Florentia Village, in a district of Wuqing, Tianjin, China.
Huaxi, China "has a copy of the Great Wall, the Sydney Opera, the whole Tiananmen Square, the Arc de Triomphe and some of the world's best tourist destinations."
For the book that inspired all the news reports on this topic, see Bianca Bosker, Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China from University of Hawai'i Press.