In 2012, the southern Chinese province of Guangdong spent $940 million constructing a complete replica of Austria’s most picturesque town, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hallstatt. Did the rest of the world think it was strange? Absolutely. Did China? Not at all. Gish Jen has grown up with one foot in the East and one in the West, so she’s in a unique position to understand why something so taboo in America—being a copycat—is so openly practiced in China. Gish chalks it up to different ideas of the self in these two places. The US zealously practices individualism, and people’s lives are spent in the pursuit of unique self-expression. Meanwhile, Asia has a more interconnected concept of identity, and of recognizing a network of ideas rather than a singular vision. In art in particular, there is the notion of education through imitation; before you can carve your own path in a tradition you should master the great ideas within it. Which explains why something that is considered an homage in China, would be an instant lawsuit in America.

Transcript: Well of course you know China and the U.S. have very different ideas about intellectual property rights. About copying and things like that—imitation—very foundationally things that in the U.S. are completely taboo.

Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In China it might be wrong or maybe even not legal, but they’re not taboo, right? And we can ask ourselves, “Well why is that? Why is building a building that looks just like a chateau in France, you know, why do we not do that here in the West?” Why would we – we might do it, but it would be in an amusement park. It would be something, you know, if you did it, it’s tacky, right?

It’s things in the West that are tacky, in the East are considered fine. So, you know, you can have a very elaborate copy of a French chateau. You can pour $50 million into it. You can use the exact stone that they used in the original and have this copied every way perfect. And in China that’s seen as a great thing, right? Like no one would say, “You’re kidding. You spent $50 million on this copy?!” In the U.S. we would never do that. And why is that? It’s because we have two different models of self.