Counterfeit Culture: Q&A with Fan Yang

Faked in China is a critical account of the cultural challenge faced by China following its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001. It traces the interactions between nation branding and counterfeit culture, two manifestations of the globalizing Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime that give rise to competing visions for the nation. Nation branding is a state-sanctioned policy, captured by the slogan “From Made in China to Created in China,” which aims to transform China from a manufacturer of foreign goods into a nation that creates its own IPR-eligible brands. Counterfeit culture is the transnational making, selling, and buying of unauthorized products. This cultural dilemma of the postsocialist state demonstrates the unequal relations of power that persist in contemporary globalization.

Fan Yang is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her research and teaching interests include cultural studies and globalization, media and communication in modern and contemporary China, urbanism and urban communication, and visual culture. She is also a faculty affiliate in the Asian Studies program, and serves on the Global Studies Coordinating Committee.

Zach Vaughn: One of the central concerns underlying the book is the representation of China’s national image. In particular, you discuss how there is a disjuncture between ideas of the Chinese nation and the Chinese state. What is the importance in separating these terms? What sorts of tensions do they produce or exacerbate concerning what “China” is and can be in the future?

Fan Yang: This is ultimately a question of culture, particularly national culture. While early scholars of “culture imperialism” have claimed that national culture is erased by globalization, more and more scholars have come to argue that globalization actually produces or reinforces national culture. After joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, China’s encounter with the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime came to generate numerous branding and counterfeiting practices on the part of the Chinese state and Chinese people alike. The relations between nation and culture, state and power, therefore, became increasingly fractured. Brands and counterfeits are full of nuances, which provide a good lens to investigate the contradictory cultural impacts of globalization in the Chinese context.

ZV: What role does this counterfeiting culture play in the identity construction and recreation of “Chineseness”?

FY: The notion of taking something from the global arena and adapting it to local settings is a longstanding thread in globalization studies. But, I think sometimes this emphasis on the contestation between the local and the global neglects the role of the state and the continuing presence of the state in negotiating the local and the global. Counterfeit is interesting to me because the root of the term is actually “counter-made.” In counterfeit cultural practices, I discerned a countering of the global and a countering of the national, especially when that “national” comes from the state. The tension here is that different publics of counterfeit culture simultaneously make use of the opportunities the state has allowed by joining the global economy while also appropriating some of the elements of IPR to contest the state’s projections of “Chineseness.”

Ownership of intellectual property rights art (Photo by Rodd Lucier. Flickr Creative Commons.)

Ownership of intellectual property rights art (Photo by Rodd Lucier. Flickr Creative Commons.)

ZV: How do you conceptualize and investigate the different ideas of “Chineseness” in order to complicate our understanding of culture?

FY: From a cultural studies perspective, we tend to broaden the idea of culture as encompassing a wide range of meaning-making practices.  I feel that an interdisciplinary approach, by engaging in a variety of cultural analyses, can help to illuminate power struggles in ways that extend beyond the national framework of culture.

ZV: In what ways does China’s adoption of IPR potentially marginalize those who take part in counterfeit culture?

FY: For me, the Silk Street market’s transformation offers a glimpse into competing visions of culture. In the Olympics era, the state felt a certain pressure to perform for global media, hence the decision of the Beijing municipality to re-build the informal bazaar of Silk Street into an eight-story plaza. But if you look at the kinds of narratives the old Silk Street vendors used to protest this decision, some in fact adopted the language of IPR to defend their market, because they see themselves as creators of a particular “landmark” that has also become a trademark of sort. They also offer something else, a sense of ownership. Many see the “Silk Street” trademark as not personally owned, in contrast to the new plaza, which is owned by a developer. Herein lies the tension between ideas of individual ownership versus ideas of collective ownership, as well as different ways of thinking about what is public about that urban space.

ZV: What sort of value, economic or cultural, can we find in how these ideas of brands and identities become rearticulated as they flow globally?

FY: My conceptualization of brands and counterfeits as cultures of circulation potentially illuminates this because the IPR regime relies on a value-making understanding of culture, which tries to turn culture into a resource. What I’ve observed in the various counterfeit practices are the different ways culture can be understood, as more about meaning making. I don’t intend to romanticize counterfeit culture as a subversive act. Rather, I’m interested in what it sets in motion. Counterfeit practices push us to think about culture in novel ways.

ZV: You touch on issues of soft power in the book and how it brands the Chinese image globally. In particular, Chinese cinema became a brand roughly around the time that China entered the global economic system. How do films play into the branding of the Chinese image of belonging?

FY: The film Crazy Stone is a useful example here. It was a cinematic event within a film culture permeated by piracy. It has a low budget, not too many stars, and yet people loved it. While I don’t necessarily go into issues of authenticity in the book, the film provides an interesting way to think about claims to the “real” in China. For many Chinese fans, Crazy Stone is a well-told story about marginalized people; it offers a representation of “Chineseness” that is often underexplored in cinematic constructions of a Chinese identity.


“Faked in China” is currently available for purchase from IU Press.

ZV: Yet, many of the films produced are solely for export rather than being released in China. Why aren’t many of the crafted representations of China as a nation distributed/screened in China? What do you think the purpose of this is?

FY: One of the things that makes Crazy Stone fascinating is how it challenges dominant understandings of Chinese cinema. The way “Chinese cinema” came into being in English-based academia was primarily through art-house productions. Those are the films that tend to be discussed globally, whereas in China many domestic films aren’t that welcomed—at least not by middle-class audiences. The art-house films are often produced with a global audience in mind, in part because of the idea that you almost have to be “banned in China” to be a legitimate filmmaker. The landscape of this is changing dramatically, however. Now we see huge commercial films coming out of China that are globally distributed, which fits with the vision of nation branding. In contrast to this commodification of the national “image,” Crazy Stone begs the question of what can be popular nationally. This is a case in which a projected national future of “created in China” forecloses some of the alternative political possibilities that could be opened up by a cinematic event like Crazy Stone.

ZV: I was struck by questions of counterfeiting, localization, and acts of homage in the case studies of films. For instance, George Lucas references many of Akira Kurosawa’s works but this is largely seen as tribute to a great and influential filmmaker. In what ways do these contestations in films like Crazy Stone complicate narratives of China as a counterfeiting nation?

FY: This, of course, is an issue of unequal or uneven power relations. Nowadays we have no shortage of narratives on China’s “rise,” especially economically, as a “superpower.” But when it comes to culture, China does not have the upper hand. We can see this quite distinctly when we look at these arguments being brought to Western appropriation of non-Western cultural products in comparison to how this plays out in China. At the same time, the interesting thing about counterfeit culture is that some of the counterfeit cultural artifacts constitute a “globalization from below.” A case in point is the popularity of “Shanzhaiji” or “bandit” cell phones in various parts of the Global South. Their success in part stems from a countering of the IPR regime, which also defies the IPR-conforming vision of nation branding. This is why by looking into the contestations between counterfeit culture and nation branding, we can complicate the story of China’s economic “rise” and more carefully examine its cultural dilemma.

More from Fan Yang:

Fan Yang on fakes, pirates, and shanzhai culture

UMBC In the Loop: Faked in China

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