The literal meaning of Shanzhai is mountain stronghold, referring to the bastion of a regional warlord/ bandit. Its remoteness protects it from centralized, official control. However, shanzhai also refers to an attitude, documented by Byung-Chul Han (1957 – ), a South Korean-born Swiss/ German metalurgist/ philosopher/ cultural theorist. He wrote Shanzhai: Dekonstruktion auf Chinesisch in German, published by Merve, Berlin in 2011. An English translation, Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese appeared in 2017, published by MIT.

The chapters in the book refer to Chinese terms and their definitions. They are Quan: Law, Zhen ji: Original, Xian zhan: Seals of Leisure, Fuzhi: Copy, and Shanzhai: Fake.

As indicated by the name of the last chapter, shanzhai typically refers to something that is copycat/ fake. Another English word associated with it is tinkering. Before: A shanzhai factory has traditionally referred to a poorly equipped, low-quality, family-based production facility making inferior products. Now: Fewer of the facilities and products are of poor quality, despite no or fake brand labels.

Han realizes that it can be difficult for people of European ancestry to set themselves into a Taoistic mindset. “… transformation takes place not as a series of events or eruptions, but discreetly, imperceptibly, and continually. Any kind of creation that occurred at one absolute unique point would be inconceivable. Discontinuity is a characteristic of time based on events. (p. 8)

Han quotes Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200), who offers insight into shanzhai, and incidentally some pertinent advice for these COVID-19 times, “Under normal conditions we adhere to the rules of convention, but in times of change we use quan.” (p. 10) A quan is a movable weight on a balance scale. The implication is that there can be no absolute values, only relative values that have to be moved to find the point of balance.

There are some who equate Shanzhai with piracy, inside as well as outside China. At about the same time Byung-Chul Han was writing his book, Ni Ping (1959 – ), a Chinese actress and television hostess, proposed the elimination of shanzhai works, arguing that their copycat nature stifled genuine creativity and blurred property rights. During the ensuing debate, it was pointed out that shanzhai products are not pirated products. Genuine creativity is not so much originality, as it is government sanctioned creativity, which may be considerably less original than manifestations described as copycat. At one level, shanzhai is rebellion/ resistance to the mainstream.

Discussing Zhen ji, Han writes, “The Chinese idea of the original is determined not by a unique act of creation, but by unending process, not by definitive identity but by constant change.” (p. 13) This contrasts with Plato’s concepts of the beautiful or good, which are immutable. Being is replaced with a multiform, multilayered process. Masterpieces will be deconstructed/ viewed differently in different ages. He notes, “Copying is the same as praising.” (p. 16)

Han then examines Orson Welles’ (1915 – 1985) docudrama, F is for Fake (1973). “Elmyr [de Hory (1906 – 1976)] is deliberately painting badly so that his forgery looks more like an original. In this way he turns the conventional relationship between master and forger on its head: the forger paints better than the master.” (p. 17) Han then goes on to remind readers that Michelangelo was a forger of genius, substituting perfect copies for borrowed originals. (p. 19)

Han regards seal stamps (xian zhan) as part of a picture’s composition. Indeed, space is left on paintings for later inscriptions. These seals vary in size from 4mm to 200 mm in diameter, and may include poetic or moral content. They open up a communicative space, vastly different from the signature affixed European artworks. (p. 21 – 22)

In the chapter Fuzhi: Copy, Han reflects on terra-cotta warrior copies. While the Hamburg Museum für Völkerkunde regarded them as forgeries in 2007, the Chinese replica workshop regarded its efforts as an attempt to restart production. (p. 31) Han further notes that the Japanese Ise Shinto shrine temple complex is completely rebuilt from scratch every twenty years, despite being 1 300 years old.

Modular production from stock components is regarded as appropriate behaviour, for in Chinese society originality/ uniqueness is not as valued as reproducibility, allowing variations and modulations. (p. 35) Han then refers people to one of the most famous Chinese treatises on painting the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (1679).

In the last chapter, Shanzhai: Fake, Han writes, “There are now also expressions such as shanzhaism, shanzhai culture, and shanzhai spirit. Today shanzhai encompasses all areas of life in China. There are shanzhai books, a shanzhai Nobel Prize, shanzhai movies, shanzhai politicians, and shanzhai stars.” (p. 37)

He then goes on to discuss where the term was first applied, cell phones. “In terms of design and function they are hardly inferior to the original. Technological or aesthetic modifications give them their own identity. They are multifunctional and stylish. Shanzhai products are characterized in particular by a high degree of flexibility. For example, they can adapt very quickly to particular needs and situations, which is not possible for products made by large companies because of their long production cycles.” (p. 37)

Shanzhai by example

Billi Sodd 2015 Anstendighet/ Modesty 1910

Billi Sodd is a persona representing an older prisoner with issues, yet in the process of developing himself to become a(n artistic) painter. Since he is learning, he refers to himself as an apprentice, rather than a journeyman or a master. Like everyone, he was imprisoned by his past, until he decided to break free of it. Yet freedom is a relative term. At the most fundamental level, no living human is free to stop breathing. Every person is a slave to biological imperatives.

Billi’s most significant work so far, Anstendighet/ Modesty, consisted of 8 paintings. These paintings are based on a single template, a stencil. They deliberately imitate cartoons with large patches of solid colour, and an absence of shadows. Anstendighet/ Modesty was made in 2015, and shows how the western concept of modesty has transformed itself during during a period of 100 years. It consists of six paintings showing a young (ca. 20 years old) adult women at twenty-year, generational intervals from 1910 to 2010, each dressed in bathing costumes of the time. In addition, there are two additional paintings, variations on this theme, showing potentially more extreme changes for 2030, labelled 2030 Mini and 2030 Maxi.

The so-called originals were given to Verdal prison. However, a reworking of the subject is planned, with the goal of releasing high-definition images, so that anyone could make their own giclée prints using ink-jet printers. As long as the printing instructions are followed, these prints would be regarded as equals to the original paintings. If the instructions aren’t followed, something even better than the original may result.

In many ways Billi is an antithesis to protesters in these COVID-19 times, who want to open society faster, pressing R0 (in this case the viral net reproduction rate) values to greater heights. It is disheartening to see people like Elon Musk complaining about the shutdown of Tesla’s Fremont factory. He seems to have forgotten the lesson learned from a childhood reading of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, reported by Neil Strauss, “you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one”.

An invitation to the original showing of Billi Sodd’s work Anstendighet/ Modesty (in Norwegian and English) in 2015 can be downloaded using the download button below. VF refers to Verdal fengsel = Verdal prison.

In 2020, Billi is considering a new series, PPE, based on current experiences of COVID-19. No decision has been made regarding the number of paintings. It could be as few as two. One showing protective measures taken during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, as well as the current one. A third, simply showing a child hiding under a school desk, and titled nuclear attack, could refer to events in the early 1960s.

After this re-emergence, Billi Sodd next appearance is expected to be a celebration of Billi’s permanent release from Verdal prison at a Halloween party to be given on Tuesday, 2028-10-31. The theme of this party will be shanzhai. Mark that date on your calendar now!

Here are three additional relevant quotations from Han’s book.

“In the Buddhist notion of the endless cycle of life, instead of creation there is decreation. Not creation but iteration, not revolution but recurrence, not archetypes but modules determine the Chinese technology of production…. Foremost in modular production is not the idea of originality or uniqueness, but reproducibility. Its aim is not the manufacture of a unique, original object but mass production that nevertheless allows variations and modulations.” (p. 35)

Shanzhai products often have their own charm. Their creativity, which cannot be denied, is determined not by the discontinuity and suddenness of a new creation that completely breaks with the old, but by the playful enjoyment in modifying, varying, combining and transforming the old.” (p. 40)

“The creativity inherent in shanzhai will elude the West if the West sees it only as deception, plagiarism and the infringement of intellectual property.” (p. 41)

Closing thoughts: People’s transformational abilities, that is, a competence to alter/ convert/ reconstitute raw components into something useful, are to be applauded. Take the steam engineer, who is able to extract latent energy found in assorted solids, liquids and gasses and mould it, so that it works for the benefit of humankind: moving train cars, drying lumber, generating electricity. Take the weaver, who is able to take flax (from Linum usitatissimum) or fleece (from Ovis aries) and transform it into cloth. Take the programmer who, using a simple vocabulary, instructs a computer to manipulate data to provide and display meaningful information.

For further information about early Chinese printing and related activities, see: The History and Cultural Heritage of Chinese Calligraphy, Printing and Library Work (2010, ISBN: 9783598220463), a publication of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, edited by Susan M. Allen, Lin Zuzao, Cheng Xiaolan and Jan Bos.

Yang Jianxin writes that “According to the historical records, wood blocks for printing started in the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.). During that time in the center of Zhejaing Province, a book store sold the collected poems of Bai Juyi and Yuan Zhen in an edition printed by wood blocks.” (Allen et al, p. 26)

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