Remarks by Director and Producer Juerg Neuenschwander
“Yellow Peril,” “never trust a Chinaman,” and “the Chinese will come and eat us all up” – these are all sayings that I have known since I was a child. I overheard them as a small boy in the late 1950s, in the midst of the Cold War, without understanding what they meant. The words lodged themselves in my brain. They somehow made me prejudiced and mistrustful, but they also aroused my interest.
When I began engaging with political and social issues in the late 60s and early 70s, “China” came up again. The Cultural Revolution was at its height, and I came across an essay by Peter Schneider in the cultural journal Kursbuch 16 on the essence of the Cultural Revolution. A cinema in Bern, the Kellerkino, was showing movies that focused on China, such as Joris Ivens’ How Yukong Moved the Mountains: Pharmacy No 3 in Shanghai, which was about the blessing of the new system of self-governance and the power of individual initiative. That was grist to my mill; self-governance was my thing at the time. The cinema also showed Antonioni’s Chung Kuo Cina, a 220-minute film that gives a richly detailed account of the daily lives of people in China. It was so detailed, in fact, that it was banned in China. That was rough.
In 1989, I traveled via Beijing to Tibet, and shot my film Shigatse – One Injection Asks for More in just a few months. During this time, I experienced first-hand the dark side of China’s progress. My relationship to “China” remained ambivalent – I found it interesting and attractive, but I also felt insulted and angered.
To better acquaint myself with China, I relocated to Shanghai in 2008 and stayed there until the end of 2014. As a visiting lecturer and advisor to Professor Wu Zhiqiang, vice-president of Tongji University in Shanghai, I gained a direct insight into Chinese university life. I made the short film Bao, the Upright Judge in collaboration with the Shanghai Peking Opera Theater, and filmed the China section of Dagmar Brendecke’s film The Fear that has 1,000 Eyes, which I also produced. I traveled extensively throughout the country, researched my film, and continued investigating the water problems on the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai Province. In early 2016, I was appointed Foreign Expert at Tongji University, which means I will spend the next few years teaching and researching there for four months each year.
Over the years, I have developed a new relationship to Chinese culture, which is an at-times highly conflict-prone co-existence between 57 ethnicities, many of whom have very different beliefs. Muslims live side-by-side with Christians, Buddhists, and Taoists. Shenism, the Chinese folk religion, is not recognized by the government. According to official statistics, the majority of the Chinese population does not belong to a religion. China has everything, and a lot of it: 1.3 billion people, half of whom live in large, mostly newly built cities; high-speed trains and primitive donkey carts; state-of-the-art hospitals and poorly equipped medical centers in villages. The differences between rich and poor, between urban and rural, are vast.
Creative Development, not Crude Copying
The past 30 years or so have seen the opening of large factories and an enormous number of small and medium-sized enterprises that make products for Western clients and also channel the expertise they acquire into their own products and flood the market with what are usually low-grade copies. For some years now, these products have been known in China by the tongue-in-cheek term shanzhai. They are obvious imitations, fakes. People in the West mainly know about these cheap copies. They are considered illegal forgeries and plagiarism that threaten the West’s leading position in matters of expertise, and will cause businesses to lose money. This type of shanzhai, however, does not interest me, even though these copies do exist and a lot has been and will be written about them.
Shanzhai originally refers to the classic Chinese novel Water Margin, in which businesspeople, farmers, monks, and soldiers rebel in the manner of Robin Hood against the corrupt regime of the Song dynasty. Shanzhai – which literally means “mountain stronghold” – was a place to which the rebels could retreat in safety after their raids.
I was interested in the entrepreneurs behind the other type of shanzhai products. These goods are so much more than simple copies. They are bursting with inventiveness and variety, and follow the “Chinese recipe” of skillfully combining what already exists with continuous developments and refinements. In his book, Shanzhai – Dekonstruktion auf Chinesisch (Shanzhai – Deconstruction the Chinese Way), the philosopher and cultural scholar Byung-Chul Han writes: “In terms of design and function, shanzhai products are not inferior to the originals. Technical and aesthetic modifications give them their own identity. They are functional and fashionable. This means they can very quickly adapt to specific needs and situations.” These products consistently manage to surpass their prototypes in matters of functionality and quality, and end up becoming bestsellers. Shanzhai providers subvert the established monopolies and thus also chip away at dominant market rules and power structures. By unifying the best that the whole world has to offer, shanzhai is the epitome of globalization. Shanzhai thinks and acts at the local and global level simultaneously. It is an audacious mixture that has the potential to be explosive – especially when shanzhai products sell better than their prototypes and strike fear into the hearts of established corporations.
Shanzhai builds on the traditional Chinese notion that everything is constantly moving and developing, that there is no beginning and no end. This is why there is no traditional Chinese concept of an inviolable, absolute original. Instead, works and inventions are never finished and, through constant copying and combining, are transformed into the state of the art and renewed. This is the Chinese recipe. Or as Byung-Chul Han aptly writes: “Those re-creations and ongoing creations that continually change the oeuvre of a master and adapt it to new circumstances are themselves nothing more than masterful shanzhai products. Continual transformation is establishing itself in China as a method of creation and creativity.” As soon as the copy has become a new original, the copied original is junk. Regular copying shows that a work or a product is highly regarded. Byung-Chul Han again: “The Chinese notion of the original is not defined by a single creation, but by an endless process; not by a definitive identity, but by perpetual transformation.”
The Chinese Economic Reform as a Turning Point
When Deng Xiaoping initiated major economic reforms in the late 1970s, China was at rock-bottom. Its factories were outdated, its people impoverished. Many skilled workers and intellectuals were dead, and the country was utterly isolated. China began buying machines from other countries, dismantling them, and re-creating versions of them that were adapted to the requirements of the time. In other words, shanzhai. Later, many Chinese people who had studied abroad returned home, bringing with them a great deal of knowledge and experience. Through collaborations with Western companies, China also gained extensive high-tech expertise and began producing cars, high-speed trains, and intelligent electronic devices for the masses. The shanzhai way of thinking fostered a dense network of factories. Today, this ecosystem of micro- and macro-manufacturing allows products to be rapidly tested and adapted for specific target groups, and often subverts the existing and inherently sluggish production structures of established corporations.
As early as January 22, 2009, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Rebellion in China. Shanzhai thus became a synonym for a counterculture, for a democratization of the world of consumer products, for a critical stance on corporate power. And since everything in China is controlled centrally by the government, it also became an indirect criticism of the political status quo and censorship.
The knowledge that companies outside of China also copy each other (see the patent wars between Apple and Samsung), and the discussions about a burgeoning new understanding of copyright in the West cast shanzhai in a new light. Western trends that are reminiscent of shanzhai include open innovation, open source, open design, and open-source hardware. They also include the Creative Commons movement, in which authors voluntarily waive their copyright either in full or in part. Pioneers of Chinese shanzhai are convinced that China could lead the way in many respects in the future. If Western “open” thinking and the Chinese shanzhai approach came together, it could democratize and accelerate the development and dissemination of technology. This is how David Li, founder of China’s first hackerspace (XinCheJian) and co-initiator of the Hacked Matter research initiative, sees things: “Shanzhai and open-source hardware are twins separated at birth. If we can bring them back together, it will create some very interesting opportunities.” A Wired article by Clive Thomson, How a Nation of Tech Copycats Transformed into a Hub for Innovation, provides a good insight into the current trend.
My film tells stories about people from three different generations of entrepreneurs in China. As a teenager, Ruilin Wang experienced the injustices and suffering of the Cultural Revolution first-hand. He is at the end of his career and has entered into a joint venture with Switzerland’s Bühler Group. Xiaohui Zhou’s company has successfully completed the launch phase, and Chuan Angelo Yu’s startup celebrates its first success in Silicon Valley.
The mountain stronghold has changed – as have the bandits.
“Those re-creations and ongoing creations that continually change the oeuvre of a master and adapt it to new circumstances are themselves nothing more than masterful shanzhai products. Continual transformation is establishing itself in China as a method of creation and creativity.” Byung-Chul Han