Mimesis Part IV – the Shanzhai Taj

Shanzhai Taj on the left, non-shanzhai Taj on the right

Shanzhai Taj on the left, non-shanzhai Taj on the right

I recently discovered that a shanzhai Taj Mahal has been built in the city of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.  As reported in the Daily Chinese Herald (澳洲日报), “The wonders of the mainland never cease!”  It turns out the shanzhai Taj is little more than a shopping mall, a status shared by many shanzhai landscapes throughout China.  It contains room for some 344 businesses.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the shanzhai Taj is its location in Inner Mongolia, which brings up the question of the supposed link between the Mongols and the Mughals of India (Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, built the original Taj).  Debate about this link continues, but it’s generally thought to be pretty flimsy.  The Mughals were Chagatai Turks with hereditary links to the great Mongol Genghis Khan.  But to claim that Mongols built the original Taj would clearly be a kind of shanzhai history.  And so, in a shanzhai sort of way, this might be a story of the Taj finally ‘coming home,’ as it were.  Whether this new Taj was actually built by a Mongol is, however, doubtful, since the vast majority of Hohhot’s population is Han Chinese.  So the whole thing is shanzhai all around.

But the story doesn’t stop there.  It turns out that there are other shanzhai Taj’s out there.  China, after all, may be the world’s shanzhai leader, but it by no means has a monopoly on copycat architecture and replica landscapes.  The first fake Taj was recently completed in Bangladesh, about 10 miles outside of the capital Dhaka.  According to Wikipedia:

Unlike the original, work on the building took only five years. Ahsanullah Moni, a wealthy Bangladeshi film-maker, announced his ‘Copycat version of Taj Mahal’ project in December 2008. The project cost about USD$ 56 Million. …  Mr Moni says that he came up with the idea in 1980 when he first visited the real Taj in Agra, northern India. He said that his homage had been built because most people living in Bangladesh – where nearly half of the population exist below the poverty line – cannot afford to travel to India to see the real thing. “Everyone dreams about seeing the Taj Mahal but very few Bangladeshis can make the trip because it’s too expensive for them,” he said. Mr Moni first visited the original in 1980 and has made six return trips. So enamored was he of the site that he hired a group of architects and sent them to India to measure it. He said: “I used the same marble and stone as in the original Taj. We used machinery, which is why it took less time. Otherwise it would have taken 20 years and 22,000 workers to complete it.”

Shanzhai Taj in Bangladesh

Shanzhai Taj in Bangladesh

Apparently the Indian High Commission intended to sue Mr. Moni for copyright infringement, much in the same way the mayor of Venice once threatened to sue the city of Las Vegas for copying the Piazza San Marco and Campanile (there are plenty Piazza San Marco’s in China too, as you might expect).  In the end, though, the High Commission gave up the idea, perhaps realizing that there is scant legal basis for copyrighting landscapes.

And in Dubai, a replica Taj Mahal is also planned.  According to BBC,

The Taj Arabia complex would be much bigger than the original monument to love and include a 300-room hotel, shops and commercial buildings, developer Arun Mehra said.  It would be ready by 2014 and be known as the “New City of Love”, he said.  The complex will also house other structures such as the Eiffel Tower, Pyramids and the Great Wall of China.

The Dubai Taj will cost something like $1 billion, and will sit in the heart of Dubailand, a huge theme park featuring replica landscapes from around the world.  Here’s a view of the architect’s model:

Dubailand Taj

Dubailand Taj

So, does the copy honor the original?  Does it steal it?  Is it just bad taste, or does Moni have a point when he claims that his Taj will give poor people in Bangladesh an opportunity to experience the visit without having to travel to Agra, in India.  Somehow I doubt that a visit to the Taj Mahal is high on their list of priorities, but I could be wrong.  I suspect, however, that Moni’s shanzhai Taj is more about his own sense of self-importance.

And the Hohhot Taj?  Just another roadside attraction…

Hohhot Taj

Hohhot Taj

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