In an older post on mimetic landscapes in China, I mentioned the Zhejiang town of Tianducheng, which features an Eiffel Tower replica (1/3 the size) surrounded by Parisian streets, fountains, and apartment buildings. Earlier this year, Bianca Bosker published a book called Original Copies, on architectural mimicry in China. She has a lot of interesting things to say about this phenomenaon – more than I can summarize here. She calls places like Tianducheng ‘simulacrascapes’, and observes that in China copies are not stigmatized like they are in the ‘West.’ She says that
…the ability to render a good copy has historically been taken by the Chinese as a marker of technological and cultural superiority, and the coexistence of an original and its virtually indistinguishable double does not trigger an ontological crisis that is characteristic of the West.
In theory, at least, “…a good simulacrum – one that manages to capture the essence of the original – will be imbued with a ‘life force,’ or qi, making the sign a perfect substitution for the ‘original.’”
Well, there’s not much ‘life force’ in Tianducheng. A good copy may draw life force from the original in theory, but Tianducheng is little more than a not-so-clever real estate venture gone wrong. I’ve recently discovered that the filmmaker Caspar Stracke has a great Tianducheng video project that can be viewed on Vimeo:
In addition to being great film work, the video also conveys the sense of abandonment or emptiness that one often feels in simulacrascapes like this. Part of this is due to the fact of China’s slowing economy and the current squeeze on what used to be easy credit. Gargantuan projects like Tianducheng, built for real estate speculation when money was cheap, have been failing all over China, leaving a landscape of grandiose ‘ghost towns.’ These empty cities, built entirely from scratch, are plopped down on the land like aliens masquerading as living places. Perhaps China’s most famous ‘ghost town’ is Ordos, which was the subject of an earlier post on this blog. The urban sociologist Saskia Sassen refers to such building of whole new cities for profit as, ironically, part of the forces of ‘deurbanization.’ By this she means the powerful forces that undermine the spaces of freedom that emerge, organically, within urban environments. For Sassen, those spaces are the ‘speech’ of the city. But in places like Tianducheng, as Stracke’s video so brilliantly conveys, the city is eerily silent.