Shanzhai — Against the Fetish of Originality

Back in January I read Byung-Chul Han’s Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese (MIT Press, 2017), a deceptively-thin book which I finished in a couple sittings, but which has captivated my attention ever since I finished it. An essay on “decreation,” Shanzhai explores the history of Chinese thought viz. originality and reproduction, while also critiquing Western notions of originality.

Han begins by explaining the more fundamental philosophical divergences between the Far East (specifically China) and the West. To illustrate: Greek temples were made with an adyton at the center, a hermetically sealed-off, holy heart wherein no one could enter (Egyptian temples were also similar); in contrast, Buddhist and Sikh temples were known for their open designs, virtually all doors and windows. Contra the former, the latter sees nothing as neatly separable from the rest of the world, transcendent, untouchable, wholly uninfluenced. This also has to do with Western-versus-Eastern views of transience and essence: Western philosophy generally sees an eternal, impassable, immutable structure underlying the changing world; Eastern thought has no unchanging essence holding up the world, as in Buddhism's Nothing or even Taoism's Way, reality being flux and transformation “all the way down,” as it were.

Han illustrates this odd divide in the modern world through the case of Harry Potter and the Porcelain Doll, a novel obviously not written by J.K. Rowling. Porcelain Doll depicts the titular Harry as a young Chinese boy who struggles to use chopsticks, and who must fight the evil Yandomort, an homage of sorts to “you know who.” The curiosity here is that, far from a pirated copy of one Rowling’s original novels, Porcelain Doll is a mostly original idea using beloved copyright material; setting aside obvious legal issues, the best way to describe it in Western terms may be as fan fiction. But therein lies the oddity: rather than, say, simply selling or pirating copies of the original material, or even attempting to plagiarize and sell to consumers who may be ignorant to the Harry Potter series, Porcelain Doll instead seems to adapt the materials into something altogether different. Far from a rehash or mere plagiarism, the author of Porcelain Doll may be said to be up to something 359-degrees other than what we may first expect.

Zhen ji, or "authentic trace," as Han describes, is the Chinese rejoinder to Western originality; rather than an untouchably holy Other, zhen ji denotes the processional line that passes through the first iteration of a work, on through every alteration or adaptation thereof. For instance, art through Chinese history could change substantially yet remain attributed to its first artist; a piece's themes or major oeuvres could change from one dynasty to another while remaining firmly rooted to their first namesake. None of this was seen as forgery or theft, but the natural procession of a beginningless, endless flow, which is in turn a sub-process of the cosmic flow that has no unchanging originality itself.

This practice isn't unheard of in the West, being in fact how artists from the Renaissance onward acquired and refined their skills, but the West has obviously looked upon this practice with more contempt than China. Hegel went so far as to even describe the Chinese as inherently "deceptive" at every turn, willing to trick and lie their way to a profit. An obviously unfavorable review.

The reality may be more like a misunderstanding and thus misrepresentation of a fundamental difference in worldview. For instance, in Chinese, quan or "law" represents weights on a sliding scale rather than unchanging patterns; power is not relegated to subjects but situations, requiring adaptability and change. Even in law, there's no unaltered subterranean foundation to be decoded, only a constant flow. It's also not necessarily wrong to critique another culture (without resorting to Hegel's absolutes); for instance, one might criticize China's ostensibly lax copyright laws. Yet this evaluation doesn't account for why such a "culture of knock-offs" arose in China in the first place. If the West's extreme is a cult of originality, it's obvious to see what China's own extreme is, but that doesn't negate the value found in either worldview.

The idea that no product is untouchable, let alone complete, or even only to be built upon by its first creators, seems fairly alien to much of historical Chinese thought. The present markets may simply be a subset of a larger philosophical difference between Eastern and Western philosophical histories, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You can even see it in religion: in the East, Buddhism has changed substantially over the centuries, yet the logic isn't that this is what the Buddha "really" taught, but the flow of how his teachings have evolved and adapted to new eras and circumstances. There's no shame in this adaptation and evolution. Contrast this with much Western religious intensity, the desire to return to an unalterable original state (eg, Jesus' original teachings, before intellectual goons mucked everything up).

To be absolutely clear: in law especially I recognize the need for protections against copyright infringement; as a writer especially, I hold strongly to my rights over my intellectual property. (Also, I hate to break it to you, but Porcelain Doll is not that good!) But as a lover of art and philosophy, I'm impressed by what comes as a result of the dissolution of these admittedly artificial legal boundaries--what Byung-Chul Han calls "decreation" or "deconstruction"—where individual barriers dissolve and art itself becomes a holistic system of borrowing, adaptation, spiritual process. In a manner of speaking, it would seem this constant shifting, all things bleeding into and being changed by one another, is the most natural state in the world; all that keeps our artifacts from slipping into that natural fluctuation is our own insistence otherwise.

Perhaps it makes for poor copyright laws, but it is an oddly sobering thought.

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Photo by Adrien Ledoux on Unsplash