A Love of Fakes


Image by via Flickr (cc)

by David Beer

Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese,
by Byung-Chul Han. Translated by Philippa Hurd,
Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2017.

Byung-Chul Han’s writing breezes across the pages of Shanzhai. Laconic in style and concise in argument, this short book briefly outlines and illustrates some deceptively intricate arguments. Like those glass floors at the top of a high building, the surfaces of its five mini-chapters hold the reader above a dizzying philosophical drop.

At the centre of the book is the argument that deconstruction is a kind of ever-present in Chinese thought. The roots are long and well-established. This, the book implicitly suggests, provides a range of avenues for thinking creatively about notions of originality, fakes and copies. The result is a volume that faintly sketches out a range of possibilities, problems and openings. It is a short book with a raft of lines of thinking, little threads, held out for the reader to pull upon. Occasionally more detail would have helped to see where the logic might take us, but the sketchiness has a certain draw, not least because it leaves the reader wondering and wanting a bit more.

Populated with visual images, the book follows the pattern of introducing a philosophical insight and following it with some sort of illustration. Most often these come from art, and are used most frequently to highlight an issue with the separation of the original from its copies. Elsewhere photos of buildings or advertising imagery are used to exemplify similar types of points. The difficulty around the use of official UNESCO heritage labels for the Shinto temple, that is painstakingly reconstructed every 20 years, is a particular striking example. In this case of the repeatedly rebuilt temple, he argues that it represents a ‘total inversion of the relationship between original and copy’, and that it can even indicate that the ‘difference between original and copy vanishes altogether’. These and other visual cues are used to make concrete the problem of demarcating an original as a stand-alone moment in creativity and production. Much of this comes down to questions of ownership – who owns that image, that style, that framing or that form of expression? Do anyone own them or are they part of a process? The point here being that the relations between the master and the forger or the copy and the original can be undermined through a change of perspective. The book seeks to elaborate this alternative perspective. It works us towards trying to think without these fixed points, to see creativity and cultural production in much less rigid terms and to hold less deference to the artist, author or creator.

There are other attempts at illustration. The 14 page interlude of selected poems works a little less well, largely because there isn’t enough commentary to explain their selection or how they advance the point being made. As stand-alone poems they are interesting in their own right, but it is much more difficult with these than with the more visual illustrations to appreciate where they are intended to take the reader.

The real opening, the direction that the book seems to work towards and then leave as a marker of future work, is the final chapter. That six page closing shares the title of the book and seems to provide a tracer for where Byung-Hal Chun wants to direct the questions he has created. The earlier chapters seem to be an attempt to set the scene for that very brief last section. The closing section opens by pointing out that Shanzhai is a ‘Chinese neologism for “fake”’. This is not to dismiss them. These are particular types of fakes that are not necessarily inferior, the opposite is the case. These are creative interventions and have the advantage of being more adaptable in form than the thing that they seek to update or modify. Shanzhai, we are told, are products that ‘are characterized in particular by a high degree of flexibility’. The result of that flexibility and ‘ingenuity’ means that, it is argued here, shanzhai products ‘are frequently superior to that of the original’. So these are not poor imitations of the thing they seek to copy, but are something altogether different. Han focuses on mobile phones to illustrate how the copies can end up advancing the form. They can be stylish and functional, they are not just rip-offs but have their own properties and qualities. A phone that can identify counterfeit money is one mentioned example. These adaptations mean that they can even become superior to the original. They can even, as he argues, become the original themselves.

So at the centre of this type of advancing fakery is a type of creative energy that drives mutation and modification, rather than simply accepting that they are a pale version of the source of inspiration. So, it is suggested, ‘the shanzhai illustrates a particular type of creativity’, and through that creativity, ‘gradually its products depart from the original, until they mutate into originals themselves’. The implications of this is that it is a ‘combination of subversion and creation’ that come together to shape and energise the product. At play here is a kind of impulse to mutate, to add and to redefine the limits (rather than work within them). Shanzhai are boundary breaking, they are not constrained but move beyond limits as they update and develop from the foundations of the form being copied. Here, subversion is productive. Yet, Han warns us of the potential for understandings of shanzhai to become too reductive, arguing that ‘if we reduce shanzhai to its anarchic and subversive aspect, we lose sight of its playful and creative potential’. The point here is that understanding shanzhai requires an acknowledgment of the playfulness and the subversion, it is the tension and blending of these that appears to define it.

That leaves the question of the intention and reception of the fake or the shanzhai. Byung-Chul Han points out that these are not usually about deception. As he puts it,

Shanzhai products do not deliberately set out to deceive. Indeed, their attraction lies in how they specifically draw attention to the fact that they are no original, that they are playing with the original

The modification involved is made visible, it is not hidden in an attempt to mislead. The names of the products, for instance, clearly play on those being imitated. ‘Samsing’ and so on, or toying with logos and straplines, indicate the open acknowledgement of the original. They aren’t an attempt to trick the consumer into purchasing something they think is not a copy, rather they are obvious and visible attempts to play with those original reference points. The creative process underway here is rather about explicitly engaging in the ‘playful enjoyment in modifying, varying, combining, and transforming the old’.

It is probably a product of the terseness required by the length of the book, but all of this does create one problem for Byung-Chul Han. In explaining the position taken in relation to the concept of shanzhai, the terminology of the original and originality persists. As the above shows, the notion of an original is not escaped. The next step might be to explain how such a framing can be elided through the concept of shanzhai, or through other concepts that might accompany it. The problem of the closing argument of the book is that it still needs to talk in those terms in order to advance is key notions. The book, in seeking to break the lockdown of originality, turns back to that language to make its case. The points laid out across the previous chapters of the book make a return to such a framing a bit of an issue. Yet Shanzhia is part of a movement that points somewhere that this short book doesn’t seek to fully map. As an exercise in thinking though, this book’s splashes of style and thinking are themselves full of creative verve and are left for the reader to mutate and modify.


About the Author:

David Beer is Professor of Sociology at the University of York. His new book The Quirks of Digital Culture has recently been published by Emerald.