China: Copycat Nation

James T. Murray

In his new book, Yu Hua uses ten common words to analyze China. "Copycat" may be the most prominent one of all.

The story of contemporary China can be told from many different angles, but here I want to tell it in terms of the copycat, a national myth playing itself out on a popular level.

The word here rendered as “copycat” (shanzhai) originally denoted a mountain hamlet protected by a stockade or other fortifications; later it acquired an extended meaning as a hinterland area, home to the poor. It was also a name once given to the lairs of outlaws and bandits, and the word has continued to have connotations of freedom from official control.

In the past few years, with the increasing popularity of copycat cell phones that offer multiple functions at a low price, the word “copycat” has given the word “imitation” a new meaning, and at the same time the limits to the original sense of “imitation” have been eroded, allowing room for it to acquire additional shades of meaning: counterfeiting, infringement, deviations from the standard, mischief and caricature. It would not be going too far to say that “copycat” has more of an anarchist spirit than any other word in contemporary Mandarin.

Copycat cell phones began by imitating the functions and designs of such brands as Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson; to muddy the waters further, they gave themselves names like Nokir, Samsing and Suny Ericcsun. By plagiarizing existing brands and thereby skimping on research and development costs, they sold for a fraction of the price of established products; given their technical capabilities and trendy appearance, they soon cornered the low end of the consumer market.

With the rapid growth of the copycat industry there is now a dizzying variety of knockoff phone brands. One has recently appeared in stores under the mantle of Harvard University. Claiming to be manufactured by “Harvard Communications,” the brand presents President Obama as its spokesman and sports a beaming Obama on its advertisements. His smile, seen everywhere these days, has to count as the most famous—and the most powerful—smile in the world, but now it’s been hijacked and made to appear in promotions for Chinese copycat cell phones. “This is my BlackBerry,” Obama tells us with a grin, “the BlockBerry Whirlwind 9500!”

Obama is today’s symbol of that long-running American dream, but I am pretty sure he could never have imagined such an outlandish misuse of his image, and Americans at large would no doubt be flabbergasted to see their president serving as brand ambassador for a Chinese knockoff. We Chinese take it all in stride, for we don’t see anything wrong with copycatting Obama. After all, in China today, with the exception of the party in power and our current government leaders—plus retired but still living party and state leaders—everybody else can be copycatted, mocked and ridiculed, imitated and spoofed, at will.

In these past few years, Mao Zedong—our erstwhile Great Leader, Great Teacher, Great Commander and Great Helmsman—has been copycatted constantly. In the most bizarre instance, a female Mao impersonator appeared in southwest China, making such an immediate impact that she was hailed by the Chinese media as “sweeping aloft in majesty,” a literary expression to which Mao once claimed exclusive rights. When this 51-year-old woman made herself up as Mao and walked along the street, waving to the crowds that gathered, she looked uncannily like the Mao who waved to the parading masses from Tiananmen, and the crowds pressed toward her, rushing to be the first to shake her hand. In a moment the street was a dense throng of humanity, and it took her more than half an hour to walk just a few hundred yards.

Everybody felt that this female copycat was more like Mao than any male impersonator they had seen. Of course, the cost to her personally and financially was far higher, for she had to invest enormous effort to master Mao’s accent and mannerisms to the point where she could resemble him so closely in every way. Each time she made herself up to look like Mao, it took four hours and cost 2,000 yuan, or $310, in cosmetic expenses. To conceal her deficiencies in the stature department, she wore the highest possible elevator shoes. The real Mao was six feet tall, and she was not quite five foot six. After careful viewing of newsreel footage and endless hours perfecting the simulation of Mao’s gait, this female copycat Mao managed to walk with her thickened insoles in such a way that she looked just like Mao strolling along in his flat cotton shoes.

Once copycat cell phones had taken China by storm, copycat digital cameras, copycat MP3 players, copycat game consoles and other pirated and knockoff products came pouring forth. Copycat brands have rapidly expanded to include instant noodles, sodas, milk, medications, laundry detergent and sports shoes, and so the word “copycat” has penetrated deep into every aspect of Chinese people’s lives. Copycat stars, TV programs, advertisements, pop songs, Spring Festival galas, Shenzhou 7 space capsules and Bird’s Nest national stadiums have all made a splash on the Internet, each revealing their own special flavor and gaining instant popularity.

Copycat TV programs, released as videos on the Internet, tend to be send-ups of official TV programs, and China Central Television’s Network News, notorious for its rigidity and dogmatism, has become a perennial target of mockery. And some versions of Copycat News have been quite incisive in confronting sensitive social issues. When official media outlets hem and haw, Copycat News gets straight to the point, telling things as they are and adding liberal doses of derision and sarcasm. In one spoof, two completely unfamiliar anchors appeared in a skit inspired by the 2008 milk-powder scare. In the ponderous tones of Network News they announced that the regular anchors had been poisoned by contaminated milk and rushed off to intensive care; they had been brought in at the last minute to deliver that evening’s broadcast.

China Central Television’s annual Spring Festival gala provides the best possible chance for budding entertainers to make their name overnight. A decent female singer normally makes only about 1,000 yuan, or $155, for a day’s work, but after she makes an appearance at the Spring Festival gala, she can ask a much higher fee—10,000 or 20,000 yuan for a single song. The result is that getting a place on the gala program becomes a life-or-death struggle for many performers. They pull out all the stops, begging businessmen to underwrite them, imploring leaders to intercede on their behalf; sex is traded for money or power. The gala keeps growing and growing, giving the director endless headaches.

It is against this backdrop that copycat variety shows are broadcast on the last evening of the traditional Chinese year, the same time as the official CCTV gala. In 2009, more than a dozen such copycat events were broadcast on the Internet. As Spring Festival approached, their organizers unleashed a flood of copycat advertising, sending vehicles out into the streets to publicize their events, conducting news conferences in city squares, marching through downtowns holding aloft wastepaper baskets emblazoned with promotional quips. Advertising slogans for the copycat galas took multiple forms; one, borrowing Mao’s calligraphy, had the line: “The People’s Gala—for the people and by the people.” Viewers who are fed up with the CCTV gala—young people in particular—turn off their televisions on the last night of the year and flick on their computers. As they eat and drink, they can relish on the Internet the copycat galas produced by the grass roots.

From this we can see that the copycat phenomenon has a certain positive significance in China today. In this way, it represents a challenge of the grass roots to the elite, of the popular to the official, of the weak to the strong.

Excerpted from the forthcoming China in Ten Words, by Yu Hua, translated by Allan H. Barr. English language copyright © 2011 by Yu Hua. Reprinted with permission from Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.