- Shanzhai: Dekonstruktion auf Chinesisch by Byung-Chul Han
Shanzhai 山寨 is the Chinese neologism designating fakes. Etymologically, the term refers to the mountain strongholds in which bandits used to hide and thereby evade the official grip of the authorities. In the Chinese imagination, these bandits serve an analogous role to that of Robin Hood in the Western literary tradition. They are heroes committed to the task of (re)establishing justice. These bandits oppose and creatively evade corrupt authority as recounted in the famous Song dynasty novel Outlaws of the Marsh (Shuihu zhuan 水浒传), in which a group of outlaws gathers to creatively resist both arbitrary and corrupt state power and, later on in the novel, invading foreign forces. In its current usage, the term shanzhai refers to commodities including cell phones, clothes, purses, or other counterfeit consumer items that closely resemble international brand products. Shanzhai: Dekonstruktion auf Chinesisch, Byung-Chul Han’s elegantly written essay, manages in less than ninety pages to throw a new light on the pervasive phenomenon of and theory behind creative product piracy and its relevance for current debates about the nature and status of originality.
The author traces the long tradition and valuation of the art of copying in China. In five chapters, dedicated to interpretations of the concepts of legal authority (quan 權 authenticity (zhenji 真跡), the seal of leisure (xianzhang 閑章), imitation (fuzhi 複製) and fake (shanzhai 山寨), Han invites the reader to reconsider practices of shanzhai production. He challenges alleged truisms about the inherent value of originality, understood as radical innovation. What makes an original an original and a [End Page 264] copy a copy? Rather than seeing copies as the antithesis to originality, stifling genuine creativity, they are interpreted in the Chinese tradition as standing in a long heritage of conceiving originality in radically different terms from those common in the Western tradition with its emphasis on revolutionary creativity. Han introduces this tradition as a specifically Chinese version of deconstruction. In contrast to Derridean deconstruction, Chinese thinking, according to Han, proceeds in a deconstructive manner from the outset (pp. 9, 20). It does not react to a tradition with a metaphysics of radically separating an original essence from a derivative copy since it does not postulate radical beginnings or endings. Rather than emphasizing creation, it operates through de-creation (Ent-schöpfung). De-creative acts are depicted as communal and joyful practices of producing variations and combinations of works rather than emanating from the lonely and suffering soul of an artistic genius.
Fakes and their production have been debated controversially for a long time. To critics, fakes present a violation of copyright law and defy the ethical institution of honoring the creativity of authorship. There is a long history of accusing the producers of shangzhai to be engaged in morally problematic forgery. Thus, Hegel already diagnosed a certain tendency to deceive in the Chinese mind, which he attributed to Buddhism and its valuation of nothingness. For others, including Byung-Chul Han, the production of shanzhai presents a way of democratic emancipation. It uses highly creative means to reclaim capital from exploitative transnational firms in order to redistribute it to working middle-class families.
Look-alikes expose the seeming original to be a commodity produced for the mass market. They compete against products that claim originality but that, upon closer observation, reveal themselves as fabricated by multinational corporations with monopoly status. In addition to these practices of creatively undermining the market authority of the empire of Apple and others, shanzhai products are interpreted as politically subversive. They destabilize centralized state power to set free democratic energies from below. Often, these fakes are perfected to the point of being indistinguishable from the originals. In a way, copies are closer to the original, since the original decays and thereby departs from the original over time. Thus, the Ise shrine in Japan, which was originally erected thirteen hundred years ago, is periodically rebuilt from scratch while the previous version is burned and buried in the earth. Sometimes fakes surpass originals by incorporating aesthetic modifications or technological innovations...