Ian Johnson: “Faking It in China”

China expert, Ian Johnson, reviewed Bianca Bosker’s fascinating new book, “Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China”, and shared his own views on the “copying culture”.

jan johnson

What drives this obsession with foreign styles? Bianca Bosker gives some answers in her fascinating new book, Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. Bosker focuses on the suburbs for the upper class that began to be built in the late 1990s, following the privatization of real estate. These are not just individual buildings but entire streetscapes, with cobblestone alleys, faux churches (often used as concert halls), towers, and landscaping designed to reproduce the feel of European and North American cities. The city of Huizhou features a replica of the Austrian village of Hallstatt; while Hangzhou, a city famous for its own waterfront culture, now includes a “Venice Water Town” that has Italian-style buildings, canals, and gondolas. Other cities in China now feature Dutch colonial-style townhouses, German row houses, and Spanish-style developments.

A larger difficulty with trying to identify some essential Chinese attitudes at play in this kind of mimicry is that the people who live in such developments are hardly ordinary Chinese. (Bosker introduces us to one resident, a former ping pong star who has flashcards of famous automobiles that he’s training his son to recognize. She explains this by quoting from Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality: “Baroque rhetoric, eclectic frenzy, and compulsive imitation prevail where wealth has no history.”) As a result, these developments offer little insight into the overall situation of urban planning in even the wealthiest cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, let alone in the scores of second- and third-tier cities, such as Shijiazhuang, Jinan, Xuzhou, Wuxi, Hefei, and Bengbu. Most of the developments in these places are architectural nightmares, built by technocrats who want to warehouse tens of millions of peasants who have been kicked off their land.

As for their future, many of these architectural fancies—unlike the originals on which they are modeled—already seem dated, part of the go-go first decade of the twenty-first century when rich Chinese had serious money for the first time and were trying to figure out how to spend it. As in other countries that went through similar phases—one thinks especially of Taiwan—slavish imitation of foreign things eventually gives way to an appreciation of national culture. Bosker has a final chapter on the rise of Chinese-style gated communities, which make use of domestic architectural motifs like stone pathways lined with bamboo and slate roofs meant to evoke traditional building methods.

Does this signify a rise of creativity and a change in how China looks? It’s possible. Certainly China has creative architects, such as the Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu, who is known for recycling destroyed Chinese buildings—especially tiles and wooden beams—in his own edgy structures. In the past, when China wanted showpiece buildings it turned to foreigners. Now architects like Wang are getting some commissions.

It’s not clear, however, whether creative minds like Wang represent China’s future, or are an avant-garde enclave educated and feted in the West. Part of the reason that fakes have an appeal in China is that the country lacks cultural self-confidence. China’s leaders want to turn the country into a cultural superpower but they still manage intellectual life too tightly to allow for the free flow of ideas that would require.

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Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson has been coming to China since 1984 and has spent most of the past 20 years as a Beijing-based correspondent for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for his China coverage. The author of a book on civil society in China (Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, Vintage, 2005), he is working on another book about the country’s search for values and ethical standards to replace communism.

Ian was bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China. He has also won two Overseas Press Club awards for his work on China and Asian economics.

If you are interested in engaging Ian for a speaking arrangement please contact [email protected] for more information.