February 04, 2015

If you go to Hangzhou in China, and visit the Tianducheng housing complex, look up high – and you'll see a very peculiar sight:

The Eiffel Tower.

It's not the real Eiffel Tower, of course. It’s a replica, one third the size of the original. But it looks pretty good! And it's part of a neighborhood where every building is a precise copy of ones from 19th century France. These Chinese residents live, work, and shop in a sort of fake Paris.

And this isn't the only fake area in China. In recent years, developers have built dozens of neighborhoods like this. There's a miniature Venice – complete with canals and gondolas. Chengdu has a “British Town” modeled on Dorchester. And Shanghai has a copy of the White House.

What is this stuff?

Well, there's a name for it. It’s called “duplitecture” – a phrase coined by Bianca Bosker, who wrote about it in her book Original Copies.

And it turns out that these fake buildings are a fascinating window into understanding how and why China so often copies Western products.

Western companies often complain that China rips off their intellectual property. Chinese markets are crammed with knockoffs – fake iPhones, fake Gucci, fake iPads, fake everything.

Some Western firms are now “insourcing” – moving their production back to the U.S. so they won't get knocked off. And even some Chinese high-tech critics worry that their new entrepreneurs don't have the zeal to invent new things – because they're so busy copying Western designs.

But the thing is, the culture of copying in China isn't just knocks offs. As Bosker points out, in China, copying has a long and venerable artistic tradition. Back in the fifth century, Chinese art scholars wrote about how a really good copy could capture the spirit of the original. It was “a wild goose that flies along with its companion." For them, copying had deep aesthetic value.

So, maybe we're the ones who need to revise our ideas about copying. In the West, we often see creativity as pure individualism – something that bursts out of your personal genius. So our copyright law has increasingly tilted in favor of creators, specifically corporate creators. We've probably tilted too far. Many artists and authors and documentarians complain that copyright law is now too rigid.

In contrast, many Chinese firms have been improving on their copies. Look at Weibo, the Chinese social network. It started as a pure copy of Twitter – but then added so many brilliant new features it's better than the original.

Sometimes imitation is more than just a sincere form of flattery. It can be a way to innovate as well. So maybe we have something to learn from the fake Eiffel Tower too: The curious power of a really good copy.

From a piece originally published in Wired Magazine: Imitation Can Be the Sincerest Form of Innovation

duplitecture, Culture, Clive Thompson, China

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