Saturday, 24 September 2022

Interesting Concept

Quite by accident I came across this brief review and thought that it was an interesting key to a way of thinking about fake antiquities, and I post it here for future reference:
Byung-Chul Han, Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese,trans. Philippa Hurd (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 91 pp.
The expression shanzhai, literally “mountain stronghold,” is a modern Chinese neologism meaning “fake.” But this fake is different, genuine, “a genuinely Chinese phenomenon.” Originally the expression applied to forged cell phones sold under names like Nokir and Samsing. These were not crude, indeed hardly inferior; nor do such products set out to deceive. Their ingenuity lies in their drawing attention to how they play with an original. The power of the original is measured by the playful imitation that it instigates. This stance is not a new one in China. A Chinese painting does not come to a standstill, like a finished masterpiece in the West, immortalized by a signature. The more the work is admired, the more its appearance changes, its ample unpainted surface becoming festooned with seals and poetry. Its power to exist is a power to instigate and absorb change. This mode of creativity will elude us until we can perceive shanzhai and not think, fake, phony, counterfeit, plagiarized. Intellectual property is a sticking point in negotiations between East and West. To understand our partner, we could start with shanzhai. Learn to feel the fun of it. Maoism is shanzhai Marxism. Learn to appreciate its optimism: Han dares hope that shanzhai communism may mutate into shanzhai democracy, “especially since the shenzhai movement releases anti-authoritarian, subversive energies.”
—Barry Allen
doi 10.1215/0961754X-789
The book blurb adds some additional information.
Tracing the thread of “decreation” in Chinese thought, from constantly changing classical masterpieces to fake cell phones that are better than the original.

Shanzhai is a Chinese neologism that means “fake,” originally coined to describe knock-off cell phones marketed under such names as Nokir and Samsing. These cell phones were not crude forgeries but multifunctional, stylish, and as good as or better than the originals. Shanzhai has since spread into other parts of Chinese life, with shanzhai books, shanzhai politicians, shanzhai stars. There is a shanzhai Harry Potter: Harry Potter and the Porcelain Doll, in which Harry takes on his nemesis Yandomort. In the West, this would be seen as piracy, or even desecration, but in Chinese culture, originals are continually transformed—deconstructed. In this volume in the Untimely Meditations series, Byung-Chul Han traces the thread of deconstruction, or “decreation,” in Chinese thought, from ancient masterpieces that invite inscription and transcription to Maoism—“a kind a shanzhai Marxism,” Han writes.

Han discusses the Chinese concepts of quan, or law, which literally means the weight that slides back and forth on a scale, radically different from Western notions of absoluteness; zhen ji, or original, determined not by an act of creation but by unending process; xian zhan, or seals of leisure, affixed by collectors and part of the picture's composition; fuzhi, or copy, a replica of equal value to the original; and shanzhai. The Far East, Han writes, is not familiar with such “pre-deconstructive” factors as original or identity. Far Eastern thought begins with deconstruction.

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