From the fake to the fabulous

Updated: 2013-11-01 23:24

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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The Chinese obsession with reproducing elements of the existing world can lead to a flight of imagination or to a self-imposed cocoon of shoddy cloning.


From the fake to the fabulous

 Pang Li / China Daily

The Chinese have a weakness for imitation, which is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but also, in the deepest recesses of our collective unconscious, a display of subjugation to nature or the outside world. A recent photo of what turns out to be a greenhouse in a county of Jiangsu province has turned heads for its eerie similarity to the Sydney Opera House. Why that landmark by Sydney harbor, out of all the famous buildings in the world? I ask myself. Well, most Chinese love it because it is said to resemble a cluster of open seashells.

You may say we Chinese tend to be literal-minded. We simply love to associate man-made structures with objects that already exist in the physical world. In Beijing alone, the Olympic Stadium is called "the Bird's Nest", which inevitably spawned scaled-down look-alikes across the country. The National Center for the Performing Arts was nicknamed "the Giant Egg", a moniker that has lost much of its appeal ever since the center opened.

The new CCTV building has been widely known as "the Big Pants", which its future occupants are uncomfortable with since the lower body has much to hide. And the new People's Daily building is so stridently phallic in shape even those who consider themselves open-minded couldn't help dropping their jaws in hushed gasps.

All these examples are associations made in hindsight by the public, which may or may not have been the intention of the designers. We also have buildings that were conceived to be copies of the real thing. For example, a hotel in a Beijing suburb is shaped like the three immortals from a Chinese legend, with patterns on their robes functioning as windows, and there are a couple of structures that are virtual statues of the Wuliangye brand of liquor bottle, with and without the packaging. Many of these buildings have made the list of the tackiest or ugliest both in China and overseas.

I can imagine the argument of the Wuliangye executives who hit upon the idea: "Why do you say the Bird's Nest is a good-looking structure and ours is not? We used the same principle in design." Yes, indeed, if the designers of the stadium had a nest in mind. The difference is, the stadium designers could be inspired by some physical object and were able to rise above it, while the brewery was so slavishly loyal to its liquor bottle it was nothing more than an enlarged carbon copy. I have seen buses wrapped around with advertising that's more tasteful than that.

Before the Chinese landscape became cluttered with high-rises of all configurations, we were busy assigning descriptive names to mountain peaks and rock formations. When you cruise down the picturesque Lijiang River in Guilin, you will encounter the Yellow Cow, the Giant Carp that also reminds one of a puppy, the Eight Immortals, the Nine Horses, the Yellow Cloth, the Drum and the Gong, and so on. A smart tour guide would encourage you into a guessing contest, the result of which can now be easily recorded on your cellphone camera and brought home for verification.

I once met an American guide on a train, who had a group in tow. She was constantly quizzed about mountains and lakes that flashed into view and she would come up with names like Yellow Dragon Peak — complete with origin stories. I asked her how she could memorize all the details about these seemingly no-name places, and she confided to me that she made up everything as she went along. "Why disappoint them with the truth? They won't remember what I said anyway. I just look at the shape and if it doesn't look like anything I know, I'll use a mythical creature instead."

This was one tour expert who had an intuitive knowledge of how Chinese culture works. If she were appointed the US minister of tourism, she could increase the inflow of Chinese tourists many times by doing nothing but giving tantalizingly descriptive Chinese names to American scenic attractions.

While rock formations and landforms are ready objects in the carnival of interpretation in a tourism-driven craze, the tendency to find physical similarities between things, or find inspiration from one to create another, can be traced back to the creation of Chinese words. Many Chinese characters, such as those for turtle and horse, were created by imitating the shape of the animal it represents. Over the years, many were gradually simplified. The character for horse used in Hong Kong and Taiwan still retains the four legs of the horse (馬), whereas the one used in the mainland (马) has replaced them with a long dash. The "it" pictograph in recent years is the word jiong (囧), an existing character so archaic nobody knew its meaning, but its resemblance to a square face with an arched eyebrow suddenly lent it a new meaning, one of slight awkwardness and embarrassment so vividly captured in its form that a tidal wave of enthusiasm generated from the grassroots pushed it to the forefront of usage.

I'm not sure whether it is the same rationale that drives some Chinese to search for medical treatment from animal parts. Traditionally, if you have an ailment with your kidney, you'd be advised to eat as much animal kidney as possible. If you suffer from a brain disease, you should naturally get some kind of nutrients from pig brains, which taste not too differently from tofu. And if you have erectile dysfunction, well, there are all sorts of "whips", a euphemism for animal penises.

I'm no scientist, but I get a feeling this is pushing the anatomical likeness a bit too far. Should a professional runner eat a lot of leopard meat so that he can easily defeat his pork-eating peers? In most cultures, animals and plants are given human qualities in fairy tales and other forms of literature. But association by literary connotation or anatomical function may have nothing more than a placebo effect.

In arts and literature, imitation is usually the first step. Representing the natural world is one of the main objectives for artists. Especially during an era when art is made into a tool for political or moral propaganda, nature or the real world can be a liberating force because it opens a door for an endless array of possibilities.

However, many artists are not content with providing a mirror image of what nature offers. They want to elevate it, or inject personal feelings into it. It is often in this process that artists of true genius distinguish themselves from those who merely select and copy from the real world.

Take dance for instance. There are all kinds of folk dance in China that are inspired by flowers and physical movements in real life, stylized and beautified of course. When Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theater presented Cursive, it was in a league of its own. It starts by reproducing some of the strokes of Chinese calligraphy, but it quickly rises to a more abstract form. In the end, it is no longer the similarity of the calligraphic strokes, but the inner spirit of Chinese calligraphy embodied in the dance, that elicits astonishment. That is what I call imitation of a higher order.

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