YZhang

A Shanzhai Manifesto


Introduction

  • Background

“Shanzhai”, which literally means “mountain village” or “mountain fortress” in Chinese, has become one of the top buzzwords in recent years, not only in mainland China, but also in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Chinese-speaking areas. Originally used to refer to bandit strongholds far away from government control, the term has another meaning different from its dictionary definition - in Cantonese, “shanzhai” is a metaphor of small-scale, low-end, family-based factories or workshops without official licenses. The widespread popularity of this term should be traced back to the early 2000s, when some electronic factories in Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and Guangdong Province began to produce low-cost cell phones without manufacture license, imitating the functions and designs of many famous brands such as Nokia and Motorola. Although most of the “shanzhai” phones were poor-quality, their low prices, integrated functions and trendy appearances successfully caught the attention of low-end consumers and gained competitive advantages. Such a business model rapidly expanded into other manufacturing industries besides electronics, from daily necessities to luxury goods. Moreover, “shanzhai” has no longer been limited to describe counterfeit products, fake brands and related economic activities - it has become a social and cultural phenomenon, and even the subject of a heated debate in mainstream media including CCTV and political space such as National People’s Congress.





(The clips of the In-Depth Video Tour of Shanzhai Industry - a feature television program explaining the Chinese shanzhai industry and market in detail, produced by TVB English Channel.)

  • Definition

Generally speaking, shanzhai culture refers to any cultural practice developed from imitation, appropriation, parody, remix and other means, which is always anti-mainstream, anti-authority, and even anti-intellectual with a carnival nature, based on deconstruction or reproduction of high-end or popular cultural products and activities. It is worth noting that shanzhai culture should be distinguished from shanzhai products, although the consumption of shanzhai products is sometimes also considered as one aspect of shanzhai culture.

Of course, such a cultural phenomenon is not exclusive in China - one can find fan-made video clips titled as film trailers or music videos as well as cover versions of hit songs on Youtube. Also, commercial parody films, as a sub-genre which is often ignored by the mainstream film industry, sometimes are extraordinarily successful in terms of box office performance, such as the Scary Movie series. However, shanzhai culture in China is far beyond the forms and contents mentioned above, showing complex characteristics based on different contexts, which requires specific analysis combined with specific political, economic, and cultural environments in contemporary Chinese society.

  • Categories & Examples

Incompletely classified, the categories of shanzhai culture include shanzhai films (e.g., Big Movie, 2006; Crazy Stone, 2006; Crazy Racer, 2009; Just Another Pandora’s Box, 2010), shanzhai TV programs (e.g., shanzhai Chinese New Year’s Gala, shanzhai Lecture Room, shanzhai News Broadcast), shanzhai TV series (e.g., With the View of Meteor Shower as shanzhai Meteor Garden, Ugly Wudi as shanzhai Ugly Betty), shanzhai artists (e.g., shanzhai Jay Chou, shanzhai Andy Lau, shanzhai Jacky Cheung), fan-made productions such as video clips, film trailers, music videos, dubbing versions, etc.

Hu Ge, a freelance audio/video producer and amateur director, is well known as “the Father of Online Parody” among Chinese netizens and can be regarded as the first practicer of shanzhai culture in China. Hu became famous after his first short film, A Murder Case Caused by a Bun (a parody of Chen Kaige’s The Promise compressed in a CCTV program called China Legal Report) in 2005, in which he independently completed the script, editing, and dubbing. Hu’s outrageous humor and the subversion of the original film gained overnight popularity and strongly worshiped by the audiences who were extremely disappointed with The Promise. Besides A Murder Case Caused by a Bun, Hu’s other works have also been well-received, as he combines many political, social and cultural problems with footages from well-known films and TV programs, popular songs and movie soundtracks. All of his works are freely distributed through the Internet.




( Hu's Parody film A Murder Case Caused by a Bun with English subtitles.)

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Shi Mengqi, the founder of CCSTV

Shi Mengqi, a Beijing-based cameraman, was the organizer of the CCSTV New Year’s Gala - the grassroots shanzhai version of the official CCTV New Year’s Gala - one of China’s most-watched TV shows annually. Obviously, the online television channel CCSTV (China Countryside Television) is a parody shanzhai version of CCTV (China Central Television). Shi, together with several volunteers, set up a studio and did all the preparation and organization works including program planning, auditing, and shooting. By imitating and parodying the popular and authoritative CCTV New Year’s Gala in which ordinary people usually have no power of discourse, the shanzhai New Year’s Gala provided grassroots the right to choose and an alternative to the stereotyped official version.

Ning Hao, a Chinese film director well known for his black comedies Crazy Stone and Crazy Racer, has achieved commercial success and received praise from critics and audiences by parodying, making fun and borrowing elements from Hollywood blockbusters such as Mission Impossible and Hong Kong films such as Infernal Affairs with relatively low budget. Some Chinese cult film fans even regard Ning as “Chinese Guy Ritchie” or “Chinese Quentin Tarantino”. Different from Hu Ge and Shi Mengqi, Ning Hao as a shanzhai culture practicer, has not only gained fame and fortune, but also entered the mainstream market through commercialization of non-mainstream elements.







(Film trailers of Crazy Stone and Crazy Racer with English subtitles.)

Theoretical Frameworks

  • Dialogism, Intertextuality & Intermediality

Mikhail Bakhtin introduced the notion of dialogue from the perspective of language, by explaining the generation of meaning through the relation between words/utterances, the network of discourses, and the hybrid nature of the linguistic system. “There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context” (Bakhtin, 1986), therefore any expression is incomplete for further development and any meaning is opened to further interpretation.

Julia Kristeva then developed the concept of intertextuality based on Bakhtin’s idea, and enhanced the notion of dialogism from the word/utterance level to the text/discourse level. Every text is a node in a network of relationships to other texts, genres, and discourses, therefore the meaning making process of any single text requires the understanding of former or related texts as precondition.
In cultural studies, a “text” can be any cultural object - image, film, music, TV show, web content, etc. In today’s cross-media environment, intertextuality can be further expanded into intermediality - the interconnectedness of different media as means of expression and exchange of symbolic meanings. It’s not only about the multimedia representation and reproduction, but also a convergence of the reception and interpretation of different media formats.

Shanzhai culture, just as the Western popular culture, “can be studied only intertextually, for it exists only in this intertextual circulation” (Fiske, 1989). In terms of cultural texts, shanzhai culture is always the secondary texts (copy, parody, remix, etc.) of the primary texts (original film, TV show, music, etc.), since the primary texts of popular culture are “full of gaps, contradictions, and inadequacies” (Fiske, 1989). Given the multimedia environment offered by the digital network and technologies, shanzhai culture produces new meanings from old texts by connecting them with other texts in different contexts, thus creating a tension “between forces of closure and openness, between the readerly and the producerly, between the homogeneity of the preferred meaning and heterogeneity of its readings” (Fiske, 1989).
The concepts of dialogism and intertextuality are not only reflected in the creation and production of shanzhai culture, but also in the reception and meaning-making process. Interpreting any text of shanzhai culture requires knowledge and understanding of all the original or primary texts involved, which is highly contextualized as well. For instance, to get the sense of humor behind Hu Ge’s A Murder Case Caused by a Bun, one has to be familiar with the popular social events and popular terms during that period of time, the plot and characters of the film The Promise, as well as the form of the CCTV program China Legal Report.

  • Deconstruction, Subversion & Anti-Authority

Jacques Derrida introduced the term deconstruction as a poststructural approach of textual analysis, which emphasizes that a text can not just be understood as a single message conveyed by the author, but should be interpreted with other textual references through its relationships to different contexts. Deconstructive reading of a text will show suppressed and ignored points of views which might be opposite to the perspectives gained from traditional reading, since deconstruction pays attention to differences, changes, instability and openness, examines the relativity and movement of meanings and symbols, and denies absolute center or fixed structure. Although Derrida avoided using this term in affiliation with any “-ism”, deconstruction has been routinely associated with postmodernism.

Before the boom of shanzhai culture in mainland China, in the 1990s, a number of Hong Kong comedy directors, represented by Stephen Chow, developed the so-called “nonsense style” together with related sub-cultures, which later became the icon of postmodern deconstruction. In Chow’s comedy films, subversion of traditional values and rewriting of orthodox histories are completed through rejection of reason and logic, creating a very postmodern sense of fragmentation from the dialogues, the plots to the images. Everything in Chow’s comedy world seems deviated from the expectation under traditional value system - the established reality is questioned and challenged through such a deviation or negation of the traditional. Therefore, to some extent, Chow is the originator, exemplar, and inspirer of the practicers of shanzhai culture afterwards. From this point of view, Chow’s famous film A Chinese Odyssey can be seen as the shanzhai Journey to the West, which led a trend of parodying the Four Great Classical Novels (Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin) for the first time.

The core of shanzhai culture, from the perspective of postmodernism, is the deconstruction of any texts of classical culture, high culture, or elite culture. Through separation, collage or re-encoding of the original cultural symbols, both the signifier and signified are changed subversively, while the classical, elegant or elite nature is diminished or removed. Some scholars thus regard shanzhai culture as a social deconstructive movement, as grassroots get the power of discourse and aim to subvert the central position of cultural authority. Shanzhai New Year’s Gala is a typical example in this regard, since it challenges the official CCTV and its monopoly of the Chinese New Year carnival, creates a more diverse pattern of cultural expression, and offers ordinary people the pleasure of rebellion and resistance of the authority.

  • Simulacra, Simulations & Hyperreality

Jean Baudrillard introduced the concept of simulacra/simulation and developed the idea of hyperreality from the perspective of semiotics: simulacra, as a copy or image without reference to an original, has replaced the reality and meaning with symbols and signs; simulation, as the current stage of simulacra, is composed of references with no referents, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality and signs merely reflect other signs; hyperreality, as the terminal stage of simulation, is the result of the technological mediation and symbolic reproduction, thus what is represented is representation itself (Baudrillard, 1988).

Today’s consumer society is built on and surrounded by numerous symbols - products and brands are indeed highly symbolized signs instead of substantive objects, replacing use value with exchange value. Shanzhai culture, as an extremely symbolic culture, is originated from consumer culture, but goes far beyond consumer culture. The most prominent characteristic of shanzhai culture is copy/imitation - through copying and imitating, the boundary between the original and the fake is blurred, while the implosion of symbols and signs cause the loss of subjectivity and the disappearance of meaning.

There has always been the criticism of shanzhai culture that it will lead to the vulgarization of the social and cultural environment. However, both in the West and the East, either in the developed or developing world, the popular culture driven by mass media and consumerism has shown empty and vulgar natures, and shanzhai culture is just the reproduction and reinterpretation of such emptiness and vulgarity. Shanzhai culture itself can be totally meaningless - its meaning is generated through the continuous accumulation and circulation of symbols/signs, and reproduced by its audience based on specific contexts. Although symbols are often merely copy or imitation, the significance behind the symbol is not necessarily a replica - it can be completely the opposite.


Two Major Arguments

  • Copycat Culture or Grassroots Creativity?

The first argument on shanzhai culture is based on its content: is it merely a copycat culture or a reflection of grassroots creativity? Given one specific aspect or category of shanzhai culture, such as shanzhai artists, it’s definitely a copycat culture without any creativity or innovation (even poor and absurd to some degree). However, in a broader sense, shanzhai culture which is developed from adaptation, parody, satire or re-creation of original contents instead of purely copy/imitation, fully reflects the wisdom of the masses and grassroots creativity.

Shanzhai culture is a “Read/Write” culture instead of a “Read Only” culture (Lessig, 2008). In modern culture which is controlled by the elite, only a small group of professional people can produce cultural products for the masses. On the contrary, in postmodern culture such as popular culture, the audience is no longer passive consumers but active producers of culture. It’s not anything new about shanzhai culture, but a common characteristic of all kinds of postmodern culture. In terms of pop art, everything is always already remixed through reproduction or appropriation of commercial, popular, entertaining symbols and images by copy (Warhol), amplification (Oldenburg), collage (Rauschenberg), etc., changing the original contexts and offering new visual expressions which embrace high/low, elite/popular cultures. In contemporary popular culture, there is nothing absolutely original since all the symbolic experiences contained in any cultural product are built upon pre-existing ones.

Then is shanzhai culture the Chinese pop culture? According to Richard Hamilton, pop culture should be “popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business” (Hamilton, 1957). Generally speaking, shanzhai culture meets most of the characteristics above, but there has always been a question about popular culture: is it produced by the masses or is it produced for the masses? Shanzhai culture, due to its variety of categories, is a complex collection of the both. Therefore it sometimes serves as derivative of popular culture, while sometimes plays as the opponent to popular culture.

Therefore it might be more appropriate to look at shanzhai culture as remix culture in Lessig’s term, or convergence culture, “where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways” (Jenkins, 2006). Shanzhai culture comprehensively covers all the three aspects of convergence culture: media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence. Fan culture and virtual communities, as an important component of shanzhai culture, is a perfect example of convergence culture, in which media convergence builds upon their adaptation of multimedia platforms and digital technologies; participatory culture emerges from their “active, enthusiastic, partisan, participatory engagement” (Fiske, 1989); collective intelligence generates through their interactions and cooperations.




(The Chinese dubbing version of The End of the Journey to the West by CUCN201.)
CUCN201, one of the most popular online dubbing groups in China now, was made up of four boys who were college students of CUCN (Communication University of China, Nanjing) and roommates of Dorm 201. They became famous since their dubbing version of a Japanese funny anime Gag Manga Biyori was posted on Youku.com, one of China’s biggest online video sharing websites. Although the anime had been relatively popular among Chinese netizens at that time, there was no official Chinese version or Chinese dubbing of it. CUCN201’s dubbing, however, was not entirely in accordance with the original lines of the anime, but was adapted with their creativity, by adding a lot of interesting terms and phrases popular among college students and their own dialects. Many of the terms and phrases, being extremely contagious and humorous, have become national buzzwords that are used commonly both in reality and online, and adopted by mainstream media. In episode The End of the Journey to the West, the word “bu gei li” (literally not forceful) even generated a derivative English word “ungelivable”, to express the feeling of unsatisfactory, lousy, unpleasant, unfavorable, terrible, etc. The success of CUCN201 and their dubbing works marks the victory of grassroots creativity and non-mainstream sub-culture.

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CUCN201, online dubbing group

  • Fair Use or Copyright Infringement?

The second argument on shanzhai culture is based on its form: does the reproduction or appropriation of original works belong to fair use or involve copyright infringement? Again, it’s not only the conflict between shanzhai culture and Chinese legal system, but a universal problem - even in the US where intellectual property right system is relatively well developed, the debates on fair use have never stopped, while the extent of fair use has also been questioned by the constant innovation of new technologies and tools.

Introduced by Walter Benjamin, mechanical reproduction, which at his time was photography or film but now is digital copying or editing technology, opened up a new era of art and culture by eliminating the “aura” of authentic artworks, blurring the boundaries between high and low arts, setting free art creations from the monopoly of experts and elites, and breaking through the barriers between art and the public. In the context of contemporary China, the rapid development of the Internet and the growing computer literacy provide both the access to cultural products and the operability of mechanical reproduction for the public. First, the materials (films, TV programs, music, anime, etc.) as well as the tools (softwares, applications, instructions, etc.) of mechanical reproduction of cultural products are available through online sharing and downloading. Second, the growing online communities offer rich network resources to individual netizens and help more and more ordinary people learn the technologies and gain the capabilities of mechanical reproduction of cultural products. The Internet thus becomes the base camp and the breeding ground of shanzhai culture due to its low threshold, openness, autonomy, and participatory nature.

However, the legal system, especially the intellectual property law in China today, is still far behind the pace of development of the Internet. In addition with the complex nature and multiple purposes of shanzhai culture itself, debates and controversies on copyright infringement issues are in some cases quite contradictory, among which the most well-known case was the legal dispute between Hu Ge and Chen Kaige around the parody film A Murder Case Caused by a Bun.

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Hu Ge, the producer of A Murder Case Caused by a Bun, continued to make parody films after the legal dispute with Chen Kaige

However, the legal system, especially the intellectual property law in China today, is still far behind the pace of development of the Internet. In addition with the complex nature and multiple purposes of shanzhai culture itself, debates and controversies on copyright infringement issues are in some cases quite contradictory, among which the most well-known case was the legal dispute between Hu Ge and Chen Kaige around the parody film A Murder Case Caused by a Bun. Soon after the popularity of Hu’s video online, Chen showed his angry to the media, saying “a person can not be shameless to that degree”, and then announced to take legal action toward Hu. In contrast, the editor of the CCTV program China Legal Report expressed the appreciation of Hu’s creativity and wouldn’t sue him for any infringement issue. At the same time, major online media and most Chinese netizens supported Hu for his right to use digital technologies to convey creative ideas while criticized Chen for his being intolerant to the feedback from audience after directing such a lousy film. Finally, Hu made a statement on the unexpected lawsuit caused by his video and apologized to the parties concerned, but rejected to admit any infringement or tort in the legal sense. In fact, Hu had never used his film for any commercial purpose, nor did he defame or insult Chen in the film, therefore it was unreasonable to charge him for the parody nature of his work. There is no single answer or fixed judgement of the debate between fair use and copyright infringement as for shanzhai culture at current stage - any specific case needs to be given specific considerations based on specific contexts.

Conclusion


Shanzhai culture, similar with but different from popular culture, folk culture, or mass culture, is a bottom-up grassroots culture, remix culture, and convergence culture emerging from the special phase of transition of contemporary China. It’s from the grassroots, by the grassroots, and for the grassroots, playing against the cultural monopoly by authority and mainstream sectors, and advocating a balanced and diverse cultural environment.

Shanzhai culture can be both commercial and non-commercial, and can enter mainstream market from being non-mainstream, by taking full use and advantage of the Internet and mass media, closely linked to entertainment and consumption. But it can also become a peaceful revolution and subversion of the pre-existing political, social and cultural orders, as the silent majority fight for their right and freedom of expression. Shanzhai culture on one hand derives form modernity, and goes far beyond modernity on the other hand. All the postmodern characteristics of shanzhai culture is just the representation of the turning point of not only the culture but also the whole society where multiple bottom-up powers are competing with the singular top-down power.

Shanzhai culture initially relies on spontaneous activities of a relatively small number of individuals, then is widely spread and rapidly accepted by a growing amount of audience, which finally leads everyone engaged to become the producer and consumer of shanzhai culture. Shanzhai culture, as a form of rebellion and resistance to the cultural monopoly, through the DIY meaning-making process, offers pleasures “as opposed to hegemonic ones”, pleasures “associated with power”, and pleasures “of the oppositional, the evasive, the scandalous, the offensive, the vulgar, the resistant” (Fiske, 1989).

By providing alternatives to the mainstream and authority, shanzhai culture fosters the diversity of cultural values and expressions, and promotes competition within creative industries. Once a term used to refer to something cheap or fake, shanzhai now suggests a Chinese creativity and ingenuity, showing the power of free and innovative spirit, which has been missing for a long time among the Chinese nation. Though there are still a lot of problems and controversies, with the huge potential of grassroots creativity, shanzhai culture in general should be encouraged and protected in order to promote the transition of China from a “piracy capital” to a creative country.


References

  1. John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
  2. Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essay. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.
  3. Kristeva, Julia. The Kristeva Reader. Columbia University Press, 1986.
  4. Metapedia, Intertextuality: Key Concepts. http://www.metapedia.com/wiki/index.php?title=Intertextuality
  5. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Postmodernism. 2005. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/
  6. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations. 1988. http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Baudrillard_Simulacra_and_Simulations.html
  7. Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Penguin Press, 2008.
  8. Richard Hamilton, Letter on Pop Art. 1957. http://www.warholstars.org/warhol/warhol1/andy/warhol/articles/popart/hamilton.html
  9. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press, 2006.
  10. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. 1936. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm
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