Season 1
From the Travel Journal: Jackson Hole, China: The Imitation Game

What’s a little bit of plagiarism – or is that homage – between world powers?


This week’s episode of Passport is all about the art of imitation. We headed to Jackson Hole, China, to find out how a slice of the American Dream ended up exported to a tiny, picturesque mountain town. Spoiler alert: they now have a potato club, so the real export is carbohydrates.

But underneath our fun exploration of Jackson Hole, we found a deep (deep) rabbit hole filled with questions about where our views on copying and imitation came from in the first place and why China and the US see it so differently. Why is China happy to “imitate then innovate,” while the US decries China’s behavior as egregious intellectual property theft? So come with us down the rabbit hole as we explore how a knack for knock-offs has played out in China, visit a city that produces up to 60% of the worlds replica oil paintings (coming to a hotel near you), put Plato and Confucius in a cage match, and finally — learn how the art of imitation might literally save the world.

But first, a test:

Take a quick look at the images below. Then keep reading to find out just how what you saw might have something to do with where you’re from and everything to do with how you view the art of imitation.


The saying goes that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But that doesn’t exactly jive with the view the West seems to have on copying — at least when it comes to art or commercial merchandise (sampling songs is a topic for another day). Viewed through a Western lens, copying is often seen as cheap or tacky at best, and like downright intellectual theft at worse. In China, not so much:

Yeah, look closely and climb aboard a Land Wind. A Land Rover will set you back somewhere from $100 — $200k. But it’s copyright infringement cousin, the Land Wind, just $21k.

So why don’t you just kick back with some Borios:

Pause your Sqmy:
And let’s take a quick hike through the history and future of the Chinese art of imitation.
So, for starters, even the words each culture uses when it comes to copying paint a very different picture. In English, there’s copycat, cribbing, fake, forgery, counterfeit, knock-off (thanks, Thesaurus) as well as fakest, fugazi, legitomite (thanks, Urban Dictionary)… the list goes on, but most of the words share the same connotation: negative.

Not so in China.  There are two words for copying in Mandarin, fǎng zhì pǐn and fù zhì pǐn — and they’re both fairly agnostic. They simply denote the skill with which the copy was done. Fǎng zhì pǐn is a less skilled replica and Fù zhì pǐn is an extremely skilled replica. There’s no inherent judgement made on copying itself — you just better do it well. And when it comes to the word for “knock-off,” things get a little more badass. It’s shanzhai, which translates to “mountain stronghold” referring to a fortified mountain fortress where raiders would’ve hidden their plunders from wars; so basically pirate’s booty. Two cultures, two very different images on copying.

Which, speaking of images, lets head back to that test. In the images above, what did you see?

Did you see a fighter plane and a tiger?

If you did, then congratulations, you’re a Westerner! Or at least, you see things with a Western lens. These images were presented to participants of a study out of the University of Michigan that was trying to understand the different ways people in East Asia and the West tend to view the world by digging into how they literally see the world. Turns out, participants from the West tended to focus on the objects in the foreground — the “subject” of a picture, as we would call it (which is in and of itself telling). And from there, they moved on categorizing the things they saw into groups; so, start with the subject, then use the parts to understand the whole. For East Asian participants in the study, it was the exact opposite. Their eyes tended to first focus on the backgrounds of the images — taking in the bigger picture or the environment as a whole to then see how the things in the foreground were related to each other or fit in; see the whole to understand its parts. Western lens = a tiger. Eastern lens = a forest. Western lens = a fighter plane. Eastern lens = the opening scene from the Chinese shanzhai version of Top Gun, Sky Fighters.  (You’re welcome).

So, what’s the way we see these images got to do with the way we see copying?  That’s where Plato and Confucius come in.

Though Eastern and Western philosophy aren’t as different as everyone at fancy cocktail parties likes to think they are, there is some truth to the generalization that Eastern philosophy tends to be more ‘holistic’ while Western philosophy tends to be more ‘individualistic’. Both traditions are looking for the same things (how to live a good, moral, and happy life, etc) and both are asking the same questions (whyyyyyyyyyyy????). But they often come at it from opposite sides — starting with the whole and then seeing the parts in the East, or starting with the subject and then seeing the whole in the West.

Put simply, the West puts a high value on ideals like individuality, innovation, inspiration. It’s no accident they all start with “i”. Turns out, we’ve been a selfie culture for a long time. And within that philosophical framework, copying something has relatively little value. Copying might produce an artist who is competent, but not “one-of-a-kind”. And it might produce something that is useful, but not something that is “special”. Innovate and accept no imitations.

In the East, it’s often the opposite. Before you can understand or master anything, you must fully absorb it in its entirety. And for that, copying can be key. 

To see this philosophy in practice everyday, look no further than Dafen, China — an urban village that produces 60% of the world’s new oil paintings. SIXTY PERCENT. One village. Located just across the border from Hong Kong, Dafen has become the world’s factory for oil masterpiece replicas. Stroll down its streets and alleys and you’ll see lines upon lines of artists sitting at their easels all day, churning out Rembrandts, Vermeers, and Van Goghs. In fact, you’ve probably already seen a Dafen original if you’ve ever stayed at a Westin or a Marriott, who Dafen counts among its customers.

To copy something with great skill shows not only great respect for the original work or artist in question, but great dedication to a craft. And it’s only once you’ve copied something enough and truly mastered it, that you can then improve upon it. Imitate, then innovate.


Flash forward to today. When it comes to Western and Chinese relations there is perhaps no issue more central, or fraught, than intellectual property theft (of course, we’re talking about BC — Before Coronavirus).

For years, the West has decried what it calls the flagrant theft of intellectual property by China. And it’s hard to argue with that. If you’ve ever taken a stroll down almost any shopping street in any major Chinese city, then you already know — shanzhai products are EVERYWHERE. Shanzhai Gucci bags, Prada shoes, Apple Watches, software, hardware, and — who could forget — Calvim Klain underwear:


Shanzhai products started off with pirated DVD’s. But eventually, Western production houses caught on and added security measures on their DVD’s that meant they couldn’t be played on DVD players. So that called for some shanzhai DVD players . And on and on — until eventually there developed the entire shanzhai ecosystem that exists today.

And today, that ecosystem is MASSIVE — and so are its costs to Western nations. A study cited in Foreign Policy Magazine estimates that Chinese theft (or “acquisition” — again, it’s all in the eye of the beholder) of intellectual property costs the United States upwards of $225 to $600 billion dollars per year. There is increasing pressure on all sides for China to crack down on this kind of theft. And it’s starting to make an impact. In fact, just last year, the aforementioned Land Wind was dealt a huge, um, blow from a court in Beijing that ruled it had to pay Jaguar Land Rover for stealing at least 5 specific features from the Land Rover.

But that isn’t the view of all industry and thought leaders in China. Famously, Jack Ma, the founder and chairman of Alibaba (China’s Amazon) said, “The problem is that the fake products today, they make better quality, better prices than the real products, the real names.” Ma clarified his statement later and, at least on paper, Alibaba has cracked down on counterfeit sellers on its marketplace. But there is some truth in Ma’s assessment.

Chinese shanzhai phones were some of the first to feature a forward and backward-facing camera and the first to allow for 2 SIM cards to be used in one phone. And the same is true for countless other shanzhai products. They are no longer just fǎng zhì pǐn (poor) knock-offs. They’re fù zhì pǐn (much better) knock-offs. So then, are they even knock-offs anymore? And as shanzhai products outdo the originals, will there be anything left to steal? Those old, pirated DVD stalls have come a long way,

This is a topic that isn’t going away any time soon. The West and China have some fundamentally different views on the value (not to mention legality) of copying. Views that inform or are informed by our philosophy and the way we see the world.

But there is one instance of recent Chinese copying on which both sides can probably agree: researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China have now successfully cloned antibodies from COVID-19 survivors. 

So in this case, imitate, then innovate. PLEASE


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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.