Every few months, it seems, comes another report in the English-language press on the ‘scandal’ of Chinese copies of landscapes, monuments, and towns from around the world, but particularly from Europe. Last June, Spiegel reported on Guangdong’s plans to build a replica of the World Heritage village of Hallstatt. Its report on the ‘xeroxed village’ featured this sinister-sounding headline: “Chinese Secretly Copy Austrian UNESCO Town.” But there’s nothing secret about the explosion of replica landscapes that has swept China over the past decade.
In my previous post on Huaxi Village, I noted the many replicas (some more faithful than others) of famous Chinese and foreign buildings and monuments found there. This, however, is not something peculiar to Huaxi by any means. China is actually filled with copies of other places. Some of these copies are predictably found in theme parks, like Window of the World, in Shenzhen, which features slightly smaller versions of famous landscapes from New York, Paris, London, Venice and so on. There’s even a Mt. Rushmore, a Taj Mahal, and replica geoglyphs from Nasca, Peru. Window of the World even features a miniaturized version of Disneyland! Next door is China Folk Culture Villages, featuring 22 replica villages from China’s various minzu (nationality) groups. And next door to that is Splendid China, where you will find miniature versions of all of China’s most famous tourist sites. Across China there are many more theme parks featuring replica landscapes. There was even a replica Disneyland outside of Beijing which was claiming that any similarities were purely coincidental.
And that’s just the beginning. The China Archimage Phenomena (CAIP) Blog, which for awhile was keeping track of this sort of thing, found at least two replicas of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater House, and has featured many commercial and residential developments around China that include various kinds of replica landscapes. Shenzhen’s OCT East resort includes replica Swiss and Bavarian villages. The New York Times once reported on the Beijing real estate developer Zhang Yucheng, who lives in a replica of the French chateau at Fontainebleau, while not too far away is the ‘Hometown, USA’ resort, which is meant to be a copy of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Then there’s the Zhejiang village of Tianducheng, on the outskirts of Hangzhou, where they’ve built the world’s second-largest replica of the Eiffel Tower (Las Vegas, by the way, has the largest replica, and it is indeed telling that Las Vegas is the number one destination in the United States for Chinese tourists). Tianducheng also features a life-sized imitation Paris streetscape, complete with Arc de Triomphe, and rows of European-style villas hoping to attract wealthy romantics from far and near. It got one Marcus Trimble, on his SuperColossal blog, thinking:
Could China be the USB external hard-drive of the French built environment? Regular backing up of our data is a just a fact of life for most of us worried that we may lose important data. External USB hard-drives are being made for less and with higher capacities every day, such that the delete button is increasingly becoming irrelevant. So why limit our backups to data? China’s construction industry seems perfect for the task of backing up bricks rather than bits – cheap and powered by the brute force of sheer population. Copies of places may be made in a fraction of the time that it took to create them. If in the event of a catastrophic episode, the part of France in question could be restored and life would go on as it was before.
Probably the most well-known replica landscapes in China, though, are the nine satellite towns on the outskirts of Shanghai: Songjiang (‘Thames Town’), Anting (‘German Town’), Luodian (‘Northern European/Swedish Town’), Pujiang (‘Italian Town’), Fengjing (‘Canadian Town’), Fengcheng (‘Spanish Town’), Chengqiao (Southern Chinese Town), Zhujiajiao (Traditional Chinese Town), and Harbor New Town (generic European…). Of these, the most developed are Thames Town and Anting German Town, each designed by prestigious UK and German architectural firms and meant to serve as models for new concepts in Chinese urban residential life. Both have been, for the most part, colossal failures. They serve primarily as backdrops for wedding photos and sets for films, but otherwise they’re largely empty, collecting dust, and falling apart.
When Thames Town was built, Gail Caddy in Dorset, England, lodged a complaint that they had copied her pub and chippy: the Rock Point Inn and Cobb Gate Fish Bar in Lyme Regis. How the replica was slipped in unbeknownst to the British firm that designed the town isn’t entirely clear. But her complaint is echoed by some of the townspeople of Hallstatt who apparently weren’t too happy that a Chinese company – the mineral trading giant Minmetals Inc. – had been snooping around the village measuring buildings without asking anyone’s permission or informing anyone of what they were doing. In that sense, China’s mimetic impulse can be viewed as crass and somewhat rude.
But David Brussat offers a more interesting take on the situation, on the blog Architecture Here and There:
Attempts to copy beauty used to be the dominant basis for the advance of every art in every place and every era (except our own). Copying whole townscapes might not be entirely edifying, but it obviously brings pleasure to multitudes, and endows designers and builders with practice in the crafts required to invest new architecture with more originality. Therefore, copying has a very long history in architecture.
In this observation, Brussat actually captures some of the essence of mimesis, the act of imitation. For what he notices is something that is clearly obvious in China (and Japan, for that matter). Copying is not simply passive mimicry, and is not just an act of referencing, but is an act of ordering in which the original is made meaningful through its replication in a new context. Of course it’s only fair to admit that the meaning being made in the act of replicating European landscapes in China is often little more than the meaning of money. But there are plenty of ways to make money in China, so why all the foreign landscapes? There’s more to it, I think, and part of the answer involves mimesis as a cultural practice in China.