piracy, simulacrum and forgery in china


It is said that upon hearing news of the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, people in places as far away as Egypt celebrated. The victory was almost entirely unexpected to outside observers, because it was the first time a Western power had been defeated by a non-Western power. Like the September 11, 2001 attacks, it was a symbol that the West was not invulnerable to defeat, and was seen as a sign that Western domination would soon come to an end. While the victory did raise the prestige of Japan, the war was not actually a harbinger of decolonization, as the conflict originated from competing interests in Manchuria and Korea, and lead to the acceleration of Japanese military domination over China. Russia’s defeat also sowed the seeds for the Russian Revolution.

Japan owed its victory over Russia largely to its strategy of assimilation of Western ideas, technologies and customs beginning with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki laments this abandonment of traditional Japanese and Chinese forms for flashier, Western forms in his 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics "In Praise of Shadows." Even before the Meiji Restoration, Japan had a long history of borrowing culture nearly wholesale from its more advanced neighbor China. Westerners perhaps reassured themselves in the wake of the Russian defeat with the stereotype that the Oriental races (including the Jews) were good at imitation, but did not possess creativity or originality.

Should the Meiji Restoration be considered a grand act of cultural plagiarism? In actuality the event was a revolution or a coup, but calling the event a "restoration" implies a return to traditional values, which is how the idea was sold to Japanese citizens. Plagiarism implies dishonesty. The Japanese rulers may not have wanted to acknowledge their appropriation of Western technology and culture. But perhaps the very idea of "Western technology" is a myth, formed as it is upon discoveries made all around the world. If copying from another culture is unvirtuous, it certainly worked wonders for Japan, which was able to transform itself from an isolated country into an industrialized, modern nation in relatively little time.

The Critical Art Ensemble ask us to reassess plagiarism; not merely to consider it "not a crime" but even as a heroic act, a "necessary strategy" (CAE, 84). All work appears in a cultural context, and all culture does not appear in a vacuum, but is a result of the exchange of ideas between cultures. Critical Art Ensemble ask us to consider plagiarism as a myth, a power game to preserve ownership of symbols. Particularly in the age of the internet, the question of intellectual property has become much more prominent.

While both plagiarism and piracy are considered immoral behaviors, piracy is considered a criminal offense while claims of plagiarism are merely a civil law matter. Counterfeit, forgery or "piracy" are related to plagiarism. The plagiarist claims original authorship, while the pirate does not; rather, in the case of the counterfeit the authorship and origin are usually meant to be attributed to another source, whether government or luxury brand. Plagiarism is typically understood concerned with the unearned increment to the plagiarizing author's reputation that is achieved through false claims of authorship. CAE discuss copyright as a "mythology" keeping plagiarists "in a deeply marginal position" (101). Piracy and plagiarism are closely related and Critical Art Ensemble’s thoughts on plagiarism can help us understand piracy today.

The largest country in the world is also the world’s largest pirate kingdom. China today is where everything is manufactured, but little is invented. A huge sector of the Chinese economy (an estimated twenty percent) revolves around the manufacture and distribution of pirate goods, whether counterfeit luxury goods (watches, handbags, shoes, clothing), DVDs, or even cigarettes, software, golf clubs, jewelry, Viagra, medicine, and cars. There is a fake Disneyland outside of Beijing. Whole markets mainly for foreigners house the equivalent of Canal Street. Stores selling legitimate DVDs are almost impossible to find. Piracy is not unique to China, but is merely where it can be found in its most extreme situation.

Piracy is illegal in China just as it is in the West, but everyone involved is protected by poor enforcement of these laws. Under the regulations of the World Trade Organization, China is obliged to conform to certain international standards regarding intellectual property rights. But piracy is so profitable and now such a part of everyday life that no one seriously considers it a crime. In the West, we are told that downloading music or movies online is a crime, but at the same time it seems to be an entrenched part of internet culture. In this sense the piracy debate is like the drug war; millions of Americans are engaged in behaviors which are criminalized. There is no victim (except the wealthy music and film industries). It does not feel like a crime but people are told that they are criminals.

China could be interpreted as an alternate reality in the intellectual property struggle, one in which the pirates have free reign except in the name of the law only, similar to an Amsterdam for piracy. There are some interesting cultural implications. A fake Prada handbag may be more valuable than a fake Louis Vuitton handbag simply because of the label attached to it. The items retain their aura of luxury (and hence value) despite their illegitimacy. There is the concept of the "good" fake- the use of real rather than imitation leather for example, or high-quality DVDs as opposed to those shot in a theater.

Another interesting aspect is piracy gives rise to a free play of cultural signifiers; "Abercrombie & Fitch" and "Polo Sport" might appear emblazoned on the very same sweater, an example of CAE’s lauded "recombinant." Sometimes the brand name is misspelled. Recently, there were copies of Harry Potter books which were not actually written by J.K. Rowling, with titles such Harry Potter and the Crystal Vase and Harry Potter and Leopard Walk Up To Dragon.

DVD piracy specifically reveals an interesting economic structure; pirate DVDs are so inexpensively copied that DVD sellers barely make a profit, since they must sell their wares at the near-cost of manufacturing and distribution, lest another salesman undercut them. This brings the street-price of the typical DVD to roughly 5 RMB, or 68 cents. The selection rivals what you would be able to find at a specialty DVD store in New York; releases from the Criterion Collection or Artificial Eye are all available. The distribution system for pirate DVDs must be highly efficient, since the once a new film is released it immediately appears everywhere in large quantities. The DVDs approximate the appearance of legitimate DVD boxes, with a summary of the film and quotations from film critics appearing on the box, except that usually the quotations are taken from the internet by non-professional critics- the text is simply copied from the IMDB forums, for example. Therefore, the quotations are often more honest than the film critic quotations one would normally see on a DVD, since they are not specifically chosen in order to endorse the film; for example, a copy of the action film The Marine had the quotation, "This movie is so dumb it could cause brain damage!"

Pirate goods represent a nullification or circumvention of government authority, particularly in regards to censorship. When the government banned Mission: Impossible III, Brokeback Mountain and Memoirs of a Geisha, all of these titles immediately appeared in enormous quantities at every DVD seller. This is true of nearly all of the films which are banned in China; they are very easy to obtain, and often deal with politically sensitive or taboo topics, such as homosexuality (e.g. Cui Zi’en’s ultra low-budget Feeding Boys, Ayaya about gay male prostitutes in Beijing) or the Tiananmen Massacre (e.g. Lou Ye’s Summer Palace). Feeding Boys, Ayaya also provides an example of piracy’s democratization of film; how else could an illegal film with almost no budget otherwise be distributed so widely? Taiwan and Hong Kong both have significant gay rights movements, and films from these countries featuring gay Chinese characters (e.g. Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together, starring pop star actor Tony Leung) are readily available. This presents mainland Chinese with a social viewpoint on Chinese culture which the government strongly wishes to suppress. Pornography as well is highly illegal but easily obtainable. As the government has taken further steps in recent years to limit the foreign influence of media via internet, books, magazines, film and television, piracy ensures that Chinese access to foreign media remains for the most part unrestricted.

The desire for Western things extends not only to luxury goods and movies, but to the housing market as well. The housing complexes and gated communities which have sprung up for the nouveau riche are almost always given names which reference wealthy locations in the United States, Western Europe or Australia. For example, Central Park, MOMA, Orange County and Sydney Coast, all in Beijing. Edinburgh Chateau strangely evokes both Scotland and France simultaneously. The names never connote any place in Asia, let alone China. The wealthy can pretend they are living "the Western life" in China.


Another example of rampant plagiarism which is often overlooked by Western spectators, mainly because it is an internal matter, is the trade in forged official documents. In any city in China, you will see numbers in graffiti written or sometimes printed on small stickers which are pasted on streets. Sometimes the characters "make documents" or simply "make" appear next to them. These are telephone numbers, the graffiti an advertisement for the service of getting forged documents made. China is an enormously bureaucratic country, and often the simplest way to deal with the red tape is simply to forge the required documents. This is an example of plagiarism being used to circumvent government authority and bureaucracy. The fake extends not only to cultural products but governmental and authoritative products as well.

Jean Baudrillard wrote in 1981 that the United States was a "perfect simulacrum," the spiritual center of hyperreality. China now rivals this ontological status, embracing the concept of simulacrum as it "modernizes." Perhaps no one in China has better illustrated its position as world capitol of falsity and simulacrum than Jia Zhangke. After making some films which were popularly received overseas, his films were banned in China and he was banned from creating any more films. A few years later, this ban was lifted and Jia Zhangke was given a great deal of money by the government to create his first big budget film. He created The World which follows the lives of people who work in The World Park in Beijing, an actual park which features miniature versions of sites and attractions of the real world, such as a 1:3 scale Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, the Vatican, a miniature Manhattan, and the Sphinx and Pyramids of Egypt. One character in the film oversees an operation creating fake designer handbags and dresses. Another character deals in forged documents and passports. There is a love affair which occurs purely via text message (a virtual relationship). With this film’s recurring theme, Jia suggests that the concept of "the fake" may be the key to understanding contemporary China.


Jia Zhangke is also a keen observer of China’s new relationship to the West, and how piracy acts as a lens through which Chinese view the West. In Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures, Xiao Wu asks a peddler of pirate DVDs for Jia Zhangke’s own films (Xiao Wu and Platform); the peddler shakes his head and instead hands him a copy of Pulp Fiction. The main protagonists in the film are also inspired to rob a bank from watching the diner robbery scene in Pulp Fiction.

Western modes of expression are highly visible influences in the music and fashions embraced by Chinese youth culture. Punk has an enormously popular underground following, with bands like Nirvana and Joy Division having a major influence. In Beijing there is a small skinhead scene which, like punk, has strong anti-authoritarian themes. Stores catering to Chinese skinheads sell gear and clothing brands (red braces, Doc Marten boots, Fred Perry) classically associated with the skinhead subculture of the UK. Beijing has a death metal scene which takes its cues from Scandinavia, with band members wearing gruesome monster costumes. The skateboarder style is very popular, and stores sell knock-offs of skateboarder clothes and sneaker brands.


The use of stylistic imitation and appropriation features heavily in much of the Chinese art scene. A dominant genre of the past decade or so has been Pop Cynicism, or Cynical Realism, which builds upon both Western Pop Art and Chinese Socialist Realist traditions to satirize consumer capitalism and government propaganda. Art in this genre appropriate Cultural Revolution slogans, images of Mao, Marx, Lenin or other government figures, as well as Western brand names and logos. The use of Mao’s and Cultural Revolution images allows artists to demystify and trivialize revolutionary mythology, as well as equate it to China’s contemporary culture of consumer capitalism. One artist, Zhang Hongtu describes "working on Mao [as] a form of exorcism" (Schell, 291).

There are some obvious reasons why a culture of piracy prevails in China: it is highly profitable; Western luxury brands, DVDs and software are unaffordable to the fast majority of Chinese; as the manufacturing base of the world, the technology is available to create these goods; it is a natural result of globalization. The pervasive sense of artificiality could be attributed to the enormous material changes which have occurred in China, post-1978. China is a country which has become wealthy in a very short period of time after decades of chaos; the greatest improvement in living standards of the largest number of people in human history. The Critical Art Ensemble propose that the internet medium itself encourages plagiarism. It may not be a coincidence that the rise of piracy has been concurrent in China with increased internet use. The logic of the internet (constantly creating free digital copies) as CAE argue make plagiarism not just "acceptable" but "inevitable." This may be especially true in China where few own computers, and hence software, and instead access the internet primarily though "internet bars." CAE complain that "the cost of technology for productive plagiarism is still too high" (100) and cite this as one reason for the failed video revolution (99). Now that China has access to computers and the internet, the means are available have for creation and distribution of productive plagiarist cultural products.

Piracy provides interesting examples of the reversal of power. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the C.I.A. funneled Chinese-manufactured Kalashnikov rifles and other munitions to the Taliban, enabling them to defeat the Russians. The Russian-designed Kalashnikov has become so popular and widely copied that the Russian government is desperately trying to halt the production of illegal knockoffs (Chivers). Plagiarism can be used to win wars, circumvent censorship and bureaucracy, or simply profit from cultural products.

The situation in China poses interesting questions; what happens when market logic creates unrestrained piracy? How do brand names retain value and power? How is copying a creative act? Is originality a myth, and should it be valued? In a highly authoritarian environment, piracy undermines authority. The value of currency relies on the unique power to print money and the ability to prevent counterfeiting. In a paradoxical sense, in regards to piracy, China is freer than the West. Perhaps the problem lies with us, with our "social schizophrenia" and "cultural superstructure [which] tends toward exclusion" (CAE, 100). As originators of a global entertainment empire, it is understandable that we should want to enforce a mythology to make "copying" illegal, even when it is inevitable. China is a culture which is dealing with issues of simulacrum and intellectual property in ways very different from the West, but is also inextricably connected to our own society.

text by Andrew Doro



"Disneyland in China?" Japan Probe. 2 May 2007. <http://www.japanprobe.com/?p=1678>.

Chivers, C. J. "Russia’s Trademark Gun, but Others Grab Profits." New York Times, 15 July 2007. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/15/weekinreview/15chivers.html>.

Critical Art Ensemble. "Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production." Critical Issues in Electronic Media. Simon Penny, ed. New York: SUNY Press, 1994. 83-109. <http://www.critical-art.net/books/ted/ted5.pdf>.

Lee, Kevin. "Jia Zhangke." Sense of Cinema. February 2003. <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/jia.html>.

Schell, Orville. Mandate of Heaven. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Tanizaki, Jun’ichiro. In Praise of Shadows. Trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker. Stony Creek, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1977.


Examples of Pop Cynicism

Wang Qingsong. "Can I Cooperate With You?" (2000) http://www.wangqingsong.com/


Zhang Hongtu, "Last Banquet" (1989) http://momao.com/


Wang Wangwang. "Freedom" (2006)


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