The opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing lasted several hours, showcased thousands of performers, and featured an elaborate fireworks ceremony, wowing the many spectators who viewed it in person and on high-definition television. But what the viewers saw was not entirely real.
The song that accompanied the entrance of the Chinese national flag was lip-synced. The impressive fireworks display was pre-recorded. But for one emerging cultural and media studies scholar watching on television, the event sparked provocative research questions. Fan Yang saw the opening ceremony incidents as emblematic of a larger struggle taking place within China’s economy.
Yang, an assistant professor of media and communication studies, wrestles with this in her new book Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization (Indiana University Press 2015). The thought-provoking work closely examines China’s cultural dilemma as it deals with competing visions for the nation’s economy since it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.
The book traces interactions between Chinese government policies to enforce its nation branding—the idea that China should make its own products to comply with the intellectual property rights regime, and the “counterfeit culture” of making, buying, and selling unauthorized products.
After living in several regions of the country and experiencing its vastly diverse landscape, Yang first became interested in this analysis when she began to think critically about the idea of national culture as a unified notion and started to push back against dominant Western perceptions that Chinese culture has an inherent propensity for faking.
“That kind of discussion of culture to me is not the most helpful,” explains Yang. “Not only because it understands culture as a fixed idea that never changes, but also that it doesn’t take into account the fact that many other places in the world have had this reputation of faking.”
Throughout the book, Yang weaves in examples like Beijing’s Silk Street Market (a popular tourist destination), the cultural formation of the term shanzhai (imitation and counterfeit brands and goods), and the concept of the Chinese Dream to illustrate the complex cultural dilemma that China is experiencing.
“There is a need to think about what China really means not just for China, but for the world. Looking at the interactions between culture and economy in China is a way for us to broaden the scope of cultural studies in the West,” Yang says.
In an increasingly globalized world, Yang is hopeful her book will make an important contribution to generating discussions about how a “rising” China is viewed by people in the West.
“The imagined contention between superpowers of China and America is overly simplistic and doesn’t account for a lot of complexities,” she says. “The kind of analysis that I performed I hope will reorient our thinking of China as at once aspiring to join the First World while still encountering ‘faking’ as a ‘Third-World problem.’”
For news media interviews related to Yang’s book, see below:
Fan Yang on fakes, pirates, and shanzhai culture (Sinica Podcast)