In 1996 Apple Founder Steve Jobs quoted Picasso saying, “‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’”— and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” He’s not the only one. By that estimation there are both ‘good’ and ‘great’ artists across the world, but nowhere is that more true than China; the laboring dragon that supplies the world with cheap necessities, luxuries and famously product copies.
It’s widely recognized that the ‘Made in China’ label has many negative associations with patent and trademark violations, but is it always bad to copy? Chinese artist Zhenhan Hao and Executive Creative Director of Sapient Nitro, Raymond Chin don’t necessarily think so. They tackle the debate on ‘Imitation versus Innovation’ and whether the Chinese people can really be creative at the Spikes Asia festival 2016.
When Zhenhan Hao reached the United Kingdom to start studying at the Royal College of Art he was greeted by curious fellow classmates who were fascinated and daunted by the Chinese culture of copying. “Is it true that in China there are copycat versions of things, that even the staff working in the shop know that they are selling fakes?”… “I really want to promote my project in China but I’m afraid people will copy me”.
Zhenhan was embarrassed by the impression these people had of his home country. He then made it his mission to turn these negative impressions on their heads. So he created relationships with craftspeople in areas of China infamous for imitation. Taking on the persona of a wealthy client, he commissioned shoes, a series of porcelain vases and oil paintings. He asked them to maintain the style of imitation but inject their story into their ‘copied’ piece. The results were eye opening. He received a pair of multi-coloured shoes in the traditional style of ‘Church’s’ shoes, a professionally painted ceramic vase with a scene of the potter’s local marketplace depicted and a painter’s own bedroom painted in the style of Van Gogh among others. It was a triumph of exposing the creativity behind the copy by Zhenhan becoming a curator and creator himself.
This is an idea that Raymond Chin agrees with. He says that through imitation and evolution we can invert the idea of ‘copying’ as unimaginative and unintelligent and create what he calls, ‘copying 2.0’. This he says falls into three categories; a mash-up, a remix and a transformation.
Wechat, he says, is a perfect example of a mash-up. “It’s greedy, it’s about pulling everything that’s great about something into just one thing”. There are 700 million people on Wechat, so it’s no wonder then that the New York Times have called it a ‘super app’. Imagine Whatsapp, Twitter, Tinder and Facebook all rolled into one place where you can arrange a shampoo for your dog, a meal for yourself, chat to your friends and pay for all these products and services. Despite the idea being born out of a need for China to create their own social digital tools thanks to the country’s great firewall, China’s tech savvy have pulled together the best of what’s available in the West, mashed it together and created a mega app.
It is similar to Raymond’s second idea of a remix, where one takes a product, adds or takes away an element and creates something new. In much the same vein as YouTube or Periscope, China has adopted a homegrown form of livestreaming with gusto creating their own more publicly accessible mini internet celebrities. They in turn encourage fans to buy products and now corporate heavyweights like KFC and China’s online mega mall Tmall for example are getting on the bandwagon.
Then there’s transformation: taking an idea and making it better. Take the Chinese tech giant Xiaomi for example. Despite the controversy involving the company walking the fine line between inspiration and imitation of Apple technology, they have moved on to now use their technology in the internet of things (iOT) business. They’ve created smart air purifiers and rice cookers that you control with your phone. They also acquired the company that sold segways and created the Ninebot Mini, a self-balancing scooter. “What can we learn from this?” asks Raymond, “copying done right is the best form of innovation”. He’s confident we can get to a place where copying is something we can be proud of. Build from other’s ideas and “stand on the shoulders of giants” but give credit where credit’s due. In an echo of Steve Jobs sentiment, Raymond says, “start copying!”