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Fakes, Pirates, and Shanzhai Culture

A Sinica Podcast

Fakes, knockoffs, pirate goods, counterfeits: China is notorious as the global manufacturing center of all things ersatz. But in the first decade after the People’s Republic joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, a particular kind of knockoff began to capture the public imagination: products that imitate but do not completely replicate the designs, functions, technology, logos, and names of existing branded products. An old Chinese word meaning “mountain fortress”—shanzhai—was repurposed to describe this type of knockoff.

Chinese Internet users began to use the word shanzhai with a degree of approval. This was partly because shanzhai products, though aping the designs and names of established brands, often add innovations that the originals lack. This is particularly notable with mobile phones, the shanzhai versions of which were among the first to feature more than one camera lens and the capacity to use two SIM cards from different networks. Starting around 2008, the creativity and speed of release of such knockoff products began to be discussed as a type of innovation with Chinese characteristics and a creative approach suited to a poor country developing at breakneck speed.

This episode of Sinica is a conversation about shanzhai and the whole universe of Chinese knockoff culture with Fan Yang, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of the book Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization.

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