A Fascination With Copying

For decades China has been renowned for it’s ability to copy and mass-produce foreign designs on a massive scale. It is this mass manufacturing that has been the driving force behind the country’s massive economic boom in recent years. However, as a new generation of young creatives begin to embrace today’s changing China and the new freedom that comes with it, will the phrase ‘made in China’ soon be evolving into ‘designed in China’?

China’s primary industry today is taking sample designs of gadgets, clothes, toys, etc. provided by western companies, reproducing them on a large scale in one of hundreds of thousands of factories, to then export back to the west to be sold. To be able to do this and do it well, meticulous attention to detail is key, and this is something the Chinese have certainly mastered. Team this with an abundance of workers willing to work long hours for little pay, and it’s no surprise so many companies, big and small, both high end and low end, choose to manufacture their products in China. No wonder it’s been labelled ‘the world’s factory’ seeing as only a tiny percentage of goods produced in China’s factories actually stay in China, the rest end up in shops all over the world.

However this Chinese fascination with copying foreign designs is no longer simply a means of successful mass production for foreign companies, it has become a part of everyday life in modern China. Whether it be American style homes and suburbs, British style villages or imitation and counterfeit goods, this obsession with copying has spread through all parts of Chinese consumer culture.

Counterfeit Capital of the World…

Chapter six of Karl Gerth’s As China Goes, So Goes the World, explains how consumers live in uncertainty due to the huge number of low quality counterfeit products on the Chinese market.

Brand owners in China estimate that 15 to 20 percent of all prominent branded goods in China are actually counterfeit…’

Sometimes there’s no way of telling what is real or what is fake until it’s too late, as victims of countless counterfeit scandals, such as the ‘big-head-baby’ formula scandal of 2004, have found out.

Shanzhai Culture…

Gerth also explains the concept of Shanzhai culture, when copies of popular western designs, most commonly mobile phones, are passed off not as fakes but as imitations, usually with similar sounding names, far lower prices and sometimes with more features to suit the Chinese market. These shanzhai products are not viewed as negatively as counterfeit products, they are sold openly and have ‘gained a level of social acceptance’. These ‘imitations’ are interesting, because although the appearance of the product has been copied, shanzhai manufacturers often add features, alter programs and change certain aspects of the design, therefore, in Gerth’s words, ‘blurring the line between imitating and originating.’

Thames Town…

30 km from central Shanghai, you will find Thames Town, a town made up of English style houses, streets, parks, shops and churches. Everyday soon to be married Chinese couples flock here to have their wedding photos taken against this bizarre backdrop of a perfect English market town.

Copy Artists…

I recently watched a documentary called Copy Artists, that explored the town of Dafen in Shenzen, a town famous for its oil painters. However the majority of the painters that live and work here are not creating works of their own, they are working in assembly lines, producing imitations of famous paintings to sell. Most of the people who work in these assembly lines are art students, working to pay their way through their studies, but others are struggling artists who have never been able to make a living selling their own work. Despite the high quality and amount of effort that goes in to each and every painting, workers earn very little, probably about as much as factory workers do in the city. People have argued that this process of copying classic pieces to sell is wrong, but the studio owners behind them argue that because they are not trying to sell their pieces as the original and are always open with the fact that it is merely an imitation, that it is perfectly ethical and not counterfeit.

A New Generation…

It is exciting to know that to counteract this copycat culture, an aspirational new generation of creative people with big ideas now have the freedom to express themselves and open the door to make way for a new way of design thinking in China. This generation are not content with copying foreign designs and are striving to push China in the direction of not only making, but also designing their own products. The documentary China Rises: City of Dreams, features Shanghai based fashion designer Jenny Ji. In an interview, Jenny sums up the attitude of this creative generation and their new found freedom…

‘I’m a designer from the new generation and I feel great. I don’t have the old restrictions and boring attitudes…

The old pessimism has gone, and I can embrace the new changes. I’m always dreaming of the choices available to me…’

Fuelled by a society that is bursting with confidence and originality, the future of China has the potential to be one of design and innovation rather than simple replicating and manufacturing, an exciting thought for any young designer like myself.

Made In China

Recently, my eyes have been opened to the working conditions in Chinese factories and the lives of their migrant workers, through books and documentaries such as Factory Girls and China Blue. Every year millions of young men and women travel from their homes in poor farming villages to the cities, in an attempt to work their way out of poverty. They are looking for jobs in one of China’s many sprawling factory complexes, in order to earn money to send home to their families and build a new life. They see this migration from the countryside as a great opportunity, a chance to better themselves and make their families proud. However, for many of these migrants, the reality is harsh working conditions, long hours and very little pay…

As a textile design student, I think it’s important that I look into the working conditions many migrant workers face in Chinese textile and garment factories. I did a bit of research, and what I found was unsettling. It seems that once someone gets a job in a factory, they are somewhat trapped. Young and in a lot of cases naïve, new employees are rushed into signing contracts, without being given a chance to read them, and most likely never given a copy. They are often rushed into the workplace on the same day as applying, and sent to work, with minimal to no safety training, just a brief run through of their responsibilities. Once employees have started working, it is immediately very difficult to leave the factory. It is likely that if an employee works less than a certain time before leaving, for example a week or even a month, they will receive no wages at all. In a lot of cases if you attempt to resign before you have done a couple of years work at the factory, you will be fined a substantial amount of money. Workers tend to work for twelve hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes even more during peak season. Payment is below minimum wage and sometimes does not cover the cost of living. In fact, garment factories in particular are apparently amongst the lowest paying in China. Also, more often than not, workers are not provided with paid sick or maternity leave.

The harsh conditions at some garment factories also pose a major health risk to workers. For example, factories are often very hot, with little or no ventilation, this can be a huge health hazard when employees are forced to work in these spaces using various dyes and chemicals, with no gloves, masks, etc, to protect them from fumes and hazardous materials. Workers using concentrated dyes in these conditions on a regular basis can end up with breathing problems and other serious health issues.

I wonder how many people here in the UK take this into account when buying their clothes? Clothes that may have been produced in factories just like this…

I did a bit of asking around, and the general response I received was that people don’t tend to check out where a garment has been made before purchasing it, where and how clothes are made isn’t something that most people usually think about unless it’s brought to their attention. I asked if people would prefer to buy clothing that had been made in the UK rather than in China, and the majority said yes for various different reasons, whether that be supporting the British economy/clothing industry, better quality garments or so they’re not supporting factories that mistreat workers. However, I then asked them if they would still do so if the British made piece were more expensive, and the response changed. People said they would pay more ‘within reason’ or ‘to an extent’.

I’m embarrassed to admit, that until now, I can’t say I paid a great deal of attention to where my clothes were made either. I had a quick look through my wardrobe the other night, and found that quite a few things in there had been made in China. I asked myself the same questions I asked others, and firstly I thought to myself, yes, I’d do my best to buy the good quality, ethically produced British product, but on reflection I suppose I’m rather conflicted. On the one hand I don’t feel comfortable supporting factories in China that take advantage of vulnerable, young workers, but then again, if I don’t, will I be putting an already poor person out of a job and forcing them back into a way of life they tried so hard to leave behind? Also, with almost every big high street clothing retailer opting to produce their stock in China and elsewhere in Asia, I wonder how easy it is to buy clothes that you can be assured have been made in the UK? As a textile student and general consumer, I find this entire topic fairly worrying and can’t help but feel guilty. It is certainly something that I wish to research further and perhaps consider when thinking about my own work.

Chinese Knots

Chinese knotting is an ancient folk art that involves the tying and weaving of a single length of cord or rope into a variety of shapes, varying in complexity, that each hold their own symbolic meaning. Most knots are double layered and symmetrical and have two cords entering the knot from the top and two leaving from the bottom. Each kind of knot is named after its shape or the symbolic meaning that it carries. Knots can vary in colour, but are most commonly made with red cord, as the colour red is a symbol of good luck and fortune in China. Today they are mainly used as decorations, given as gifts on special occasions or used as buttons or adornments on clothes. However these knots have a long history, and originated as a way of recording information and events, before the creation of Chinese characters.

Although, due to the delicate nature of the art, few ancient examples of knotting exist today, there is evidence that the history of knotting goes as far back as 100 000 years. For example, the recent discovery of tools that would have been used for the tying and untying of knots, and reference to knots in ancient literature. They were first used as a form of communication, a method of recording historical events and a symbol of a contract or formal agreement. For example, when archiving an event, the nature of the event would be recorded in the shape of the knot and the importance or significance was emulated in the size of the knot. An event of great historical importance would be recorded with a large and complex knot, whereas less significant events would merit only small, far simpler designs. It was also widely used in traditional Chinese clothing, as a means of fastening or decorating garments, as knots proved to be far stronger than bone buttons.

Even today, Chinese knots are rich in symbolic meaning, and therefore hold a great deal of sentimental value when given as gifts or passed down through families. The Chinese word for ‘rope’ is ‘shèng’, which has similar properties to the words for ‘spirit’ and ‘divine’; therefore knots also carry great spiritual meaning and have been used as objects of worship. The word for ‘knot’ itself is ‘jié’ and is related to many other terms that reinforce the symbolic meaning of the knots. For example, ‘tuán jié’ which means ‘to unite’, ‘jié hūn’ meaning ‘to marry’ and ‘jié guŏ’ meaning ‘result’ or ‘outcome’ are just a few.

It is no wonder then that knots have been so closely related to love and marriage in Chinese culture. In ancient times and even now, lovers may give a knot as a token of their love, for example the ‘truelove knot’ or ‘double happiness knot’, which are often associated with weddings and symbolize mutual love and growing old together…


True Love Knot

Double Happiness Knot

The following knot is a traditional Chinese button knot, used for thousands of years before the invention of zips as a way of fastening clothes. It was also not only functional but a beautiful way of decorating garments and is still used today…

Button Knot

In China fish are associated with wealth and good fortune, as the word for fish is similar to the word for ‘plentiful’. So a knot in the shape of a fish would perhaps be given as a gift to wish a friend good luck in a new endeavor…

Gold Fish Knot

Another common knot is the butterfly knot. The butterfly is also a symbol of love and longevity, particularly the strong bond between lovers, therefore a butterfly knot is the perfect gift for a new couple…

Butterfly Knot

In todays China, a land that is evolving at such a rapid rate in order to keep up with the demands of modern society, it is comforting to know that ancient traditions such as knotting, passed down through so many generations, are still alive and continue to intrigue and delight people the world over.

China’s Image Abroad

21st Century China is a land of great contrast. Traditional farming villages now find themselves in the shadow of bustling, rapidly expanding cities, where both rich and poor are forced to adapt to life in this ever-changing landscape.

Attracting more tourists now than ever before, I decided it would be useful to interview people who haven’t been to China, in order to find out whether or not China is succeeding in their efforts to ‘sell’ themselves as both a modern country and exciting tourist destination.

When I asked people ‘what first comes to mind when you think of China?’ I received a variety of answers ranging from pandas to porcelain, however when I asked what they thought of the country as a tourist destination I got something slightly different…

The majority of people I spoke to believe that a trip to China would be a sightseeing holiday more than anything else, with references to the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, Tiananmen Square and of course the Great Wall. It would be a trip involving lots of travelling from one landmark to the next, each one packed with tourists, so certainly not a relaxing beach holiday. However, a small number of people I spoke to explained that they find it difficult to imagine China as a tourist destination at all; it is something that has never crossed their minds. They see it as intimidating and inaccessible. Interestingly, this group were all of an age that when growing up, China would still have been a fairly closed country, therefore, grew up somewhat unfamiliar with their culture.

I was surprised to find that the number of people I interviewed that would be interested in visiting China equalled the number of people that would not. By far the most popular reason given for wanting to travel to China is simply ‘to experience the culture.’ Other aspects that seem to attract people are, the traditional architecture, the fantastic sights and of course the food.  However, probably more important are the things that seem to be putting people off…

It would appear that a number of the people I spoke to seem intimidated by the Chinese Communist government, some so much so that this is the sole reason that they would be unlikely to visit the country. An interesting response I received is that China is currently a land of massive social and economic inequality, an inequality that, in taking part in tourism there, you could potentially be contributing to. Meaning that money generated by tourism would be going straight into rapidly growing metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing, rather than supporting the large population of people living in poor farming communities outside the cities.

Other issues that put people off the idea of visiting China include;

  • The obvious pollution in cities such as Beijing.
  • How busy the cities are with people and traffic.
  • The language barrier.
  • The noise
  • The amount of travel involved, long flights and transfers.
  • The food, the Chinese are renowned for eating things that we would see as strange.
  • Too much of a culture shock, overwhelming.

Although perfectly understandable reasons to be apprehensive, personally I believe that to truly ‘experience the culture’ you must experience it ALL, the good, the slightly odd and the completely unfamiliar.

Finally I asked people how they imagine China to look in their mind, the answers I received seem to be one of two extremes, either the traditional rural vision of China, or the ultramodern opposite, bustling cities packed with people and skyscrapers. So I suppose you could say that yes, they are in fact succeeding in depicting themselves as a modern, exciting country, as most of the people I spoke to mentioned busy metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai. However, people also spoke about how the traditional, more historic areas appeal to them more, which makes me think, in their efforts to build China into this modern superpower, are they destroying too much of the very thing that makes them unique? By constructing more and more skyscrapers and highways at such an alarming rate, historical parts of towns and cities, for example, traditional hutongs and courtyard houses, are disappearing just as fast. I can’t help but think that in China’s desperate bid to catch up with western cities such as New York or London, they may be losing sight of the very thing that inspires people to experience China, the unique culture and history.