An Exploration Of Chinese Imitation Towns And Architecture

Imitation Towns: Gimmick or Natural Part of Urban Development?

Thames Town near Shanghai
Thames Town near Shanghai

When we think of Chinese urban development, many things come to mind: urban sprawl, mega cities, innovative design, record breaking feats of engineering. Increasingly, there is another word synonymous with China’s urban development: fakery.

Since taking an interest in Chinese building trends I’ve increasingly come across articles reporting on entire towns created and copied directly from European originals springing up on the outskirts of Chinese cities. Be it a copy of  part of Paris complete with their own Eiffel Tower, a mockup of a British village or an amalgamation of Florentine-style buildings and canals, architectural copies seem to be the new done thing.

When first learning about these imitation towns I shrugged them off as gimmicky and poorly thought out ways for the local governments to attract more tourists whilst at the same time trying to provide alternative living options for overpopulated cities. In the past few years of working in the building industry here I’ve also experienced an increased demand for Western architectural designs amongst the nouveau rich. The belief that leading a “Western” lifestyle embodies the height of sophistication is becoming increasingly popular. In terms of media reactions to these imitation towns, there seem to be an array of opinions out there, mostly ranging from ‘imitation is the height of flattery’ to bemusement to down right outrage.

Eiffel Tower in Shenzhen

As I began to ponder this trend more, it occurred to me that even if at first creating these imitation towns might have been partly due to the above reasons, it seems unlikely this phenomenon would continue if there were no visible gains. So what does China gain from these towns? Whilst I still don’t fully understand the concept, I do find the actual towns intriguing. Therefore, in order to better understand why these bizarre towns exist, and for whom, I’ve forced myself to take another look at this phenomenon.

Chinese View on Imitation

In my search for answers I recently came across  an interesting interview on the subject. The interviewee, who published a book called Original Copies, has a very rational explanation for imitation towns: fakery and copies in China, unlike in the West, do not bear the negative connotations of lacking imagination, originality or authority. Instead, the author suggests that being able to copy something precisely is seen as a skill to be admired, a way of stating that the people doing the copying have created the right technology and developed the right skills to be able to do so. It is a testament to achieving equal or superior skills and technology, proof of how far a nation has come that they can even create a Roman pantheon, or a French chateau as well as the original makers. It’s not a form of flattery or ‘tipping of the hat’ in recognition to the country of origin, it is a display of ability.

I find this explanation very plausible. After all, when you think of doing business in China, whether you are trying to export a product from a factory or simply buying clothes, you often come across copy right infringements. Anyone who has had some form of dealings with China will know that the Chinese don’t view intellectual property the same way we do in the West. Socially speaking, the act of imitation is not sneered upon as it is in the West. You just need to think of the Chinese school system of learning by rote to see that it is accepted and part of Chinese culture. Whether right or wrong, copying and wishing to obtain copied products is a fact of life here, and a rather practical one at that. Anything you can think of copying here will have been copied; electronics, luxury labels, antiques, even cars. So why not homes, or for that matter, entire towns?

Follies and Fakery in the West

Portmeirion central plaza
Portmeirion central plaza

After all, it’s not like the West doesn’t have a history of imitation architecture, we just don’t celebrate it… anymore. Georgian and Victorian England had a fondness for fake towers and castles, whilst in 18th Century Austria they were constructing fake Roman ruins in Vienna. However in keeping with the modest attitude of recognising these copied structures for what they are they were named follies. Portmeirion in Wales is an entire village designed in Italian style architecture, complete with a central piazza. Admittedly, most of these projects are pet projects of wealthy and, in most cases, rather eccentric private investors. However this is no different than a wealthy Chinese individual wanting to create a replica Jackson Hole ranch in Hebei.

Lining up for Western wedding shots
Lining up for Western wedding shots

The current interest in all things Western – from shopping for luxury goods to the must-have set of Western wedding pictures against ‘traditional’ backgrounds -  surely add to the developer’s cause for creating these imitation towns.  Additionally, Chinese society as a whole has never had more leisure time than they do now. If you had an affordable opportunity to visit a European town and experience their aspirational lifestyle in your own back yard, these imitation villages would be the next best thing to flying out to see the real deal.

Just as the Chinese are now obsessed with Western architectural styles, so did Europeans dedicate movements to Asian and Oriental art forms and architectural styles. Neoclassicism by definition means the revival of ancient Roman and Greek movement in the arts and architecture, and is a widespread and enduring movement, especially popular in the US during the 18th to 20th Century. It would seem to me that any country undergoing rapid industrial development naturally looks to other previous cultures they perceive to have been “successful” (Roman, Greek, Chinese) to emulate their arts, architecture and life styles as a way of stating their own successes.

The Chinese “Ghost Town” Phenomenon

Royal Pavilion built in the Indo-Saracenic style
Royal Pavilion built in the Indo-Saracenic style

There is no denying that China is able to take such imitation to a whole new level; in Europe you might have created one folly in a town, the Chinese are creating entire “folly” towns. However all this is simply to suggest that architectural fakery might not be as unique to China as we think it is. It’s just that Europe did it during their industrial revolution, whereas China is doing it now. Furthermore, if this suggests that a country under rapid economic development is inclined to copy architectural styles from other aspiring nations, then, in line with my experience of certain wealthy Chinese seeking Western architectural services, this would fit with the notion that there is enough demand for these imitation towns to attract Chinese investors and buyers.

This thought is in direct conflict with what you read in the Western media, where often these imitation towns are called ghost towns, perceived as being completely void of any normal human activity, all buildings being empty shells with decorated facades. Whilst this is not an entirely accurate portrayal – in a recent Sinica podcast (around 34 minutes in) an argument against this view is quite convincingly made – it would seem that the huge rush of prospective inhabitants eager to leave the city and settle down in a nice Western home in imitation satellite towns (as anticipated by the local governments spearheading these projects) did not materialise.

This is not to say that these projects are financial failures. The homes are being bought. Unfortunately, the only people doing the buying are wealthy Chinese who wish to have a holiday home with a “twist”. So, although tourist numbers to these areas are on the up, the atmosphere is no doubt very different to that of a town allowed to develop over decades or centuries, adding to the often complained about feeling of everything being slightly too contrived and fake.

The Future of Fakery in China

Pingyao Old Town survives on tourism
Pingyao Old Town survives on tourism

It will be interesting to see what happens to these imitation towns ten or twenty years down the line. Seeing as they currently attract a large number of tourists, with one of the most popular activities being newly weds snapping Western wedding pictures in front of all major attractions, perhaps these towns will be able to survive on tourism alone. After all, there are many ancient ‘Old Town’ city centres in China that are currently kept alive solely through tourism. Conversely, perhaps as Chinese people look more to their own 5,000 year long history and take more interest in preserving their own architectural styles, these imitation towns will fade into obscurity, truly becoming desolate oddities dotted around China’s landscapes.

Either way I hope these imitation towns do survive. In a strange way they are a testament to China’s unstoppable will to achieve a “developed” status through continued trial and error. They are fast becoming just as much a part of China’s history as the iconic architecture in Beijing or ancient minority villages dotted around Yunnan; another nouveau rich movement in a country in the midst of their industrial revolution.

Image credits: Thames Town image by Huai-Chun Hsu, Eiffel Tower image by Arman Aziz, and Portmeirion image by Michael Maggs - Wikimedia Commons.

Article written by

Passionate about all things related to traditional architecture and cultures Amy has a keen interest in building restoration and sustainable architecture. Living in, and traveling around China has given Amy the opportunity to become increasingly exposed to many different forms of traditional Chinese architecture and local Chinese cultures.

4 Responses

  1. China Strategy
    China Strategy at | | Reply

    So funny. You haven’t talked about the imitation of Lafite in Northern Beijing. It worths seeing it.

  2. Adam
    Adam at | | Reply

    Thanks for linking to the interview with Bianca Bosker on my blog. I agree with your assessment that these fake European towns are a manifestation of rising prosperity in China. Unfortunately, while their physical appearance may look European, the urban planning strategies behind them certainly are not.

    Usually these kinds of developments are detached, removed from city centers and transit, and are for only those who can afford the luxury of a “European lifestyle”. I’m surprised, given your interest in historic preservation, that you hope these communities can survive into the future as another symbol of Chinese building type, when in fact much of the real Chinese historic vernacular architecture is transformed into piles of rubble.

    Yes, it may not be appropriate at this moment in time to cast a value judgement on the tastes and preferences of Chinese consumers who are new to the concept of purchasing residential real estate. Yet I feel perhaps it is the responsibility of foreign design professionals doing work in China (of which I am one) to do their best in putting forward proposals that don’t repeat the planning mistakes of developed cities, no matter how futile this may be.

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

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