Innovation, the Chinese Way


London Bridge in Suzhou -- Duplitecture

London Bridge in Suzhou — Duplitecture (Cityweekend magazine)

I recently learned a new word — “duplitecture.”  Departures magazine, one of my favorites, did an article on what they call the Chinese development strategy of “mimic-then-master,” where China builds structures, neighborhoods, and even whole towns that resemble their Western counterparts.  Duplitecture is the mimic part of the strategy.  Mastering comes later when China strives to improve and exceed that which they mimic.  After reading the article, so much of what we have encountered here in China made more sense.

It all started for us when we made our pre-trip to Shanghai to find a house.  Over the last six to eight years, the Chinese have been building a series of Western-style neighborhood developments in the area where we now live, which is called Jinqiao, in the Pudong district of Shanghai.  Pudong basically means east bank (of the Huangpu river that dissects Shanghai), while the other side is called Puxi or west bank.  Up until the early 1990s, Pudong was basically nothing but farmland, while Puxi was the center of Shanghai.  Then the government decided to build Pudong into what it is today, Shanghai’s main financial hub.  Pudong was built up so fast that many Chinese in Puxi still regard it as a backwater.  My friend Anne Wang says to me when we part ways in Puxi, “off to the countryside, are you?”

My good friend Anne Wang and I at the Shanghai Beer Festival -- in Puxi

My good friend Anne Wang and I at the Shanghai Beer Festival — in Puxi

Once Pudong was built up, lots of Western companies began moving in, and with them came many expats.  To house them, the Chinese decided that they would copy what they believed to be Western-style housing developments, trying to give expats neighborhoods like the ones they had at home.  So when we got here to find a place to live, we were shown houses in a variety of different “Western” neighborhood developments.  Many are a hilarious mix of what the Chinese think a Western neighborhood should look like and what it really looks like.  There are neighborhoods where every house looks the exact same, and is placed about 10 feet from its neighbor’s, with a postage stamp-sized back yard.  There is a development called Green Villas that is divided into sections by country.  There are French, British, Italian, and German sections.  The houses in each section are supposed to look like what the Chinese think houses would look like in those countries.  I’m not convinced they were successful.

It appeared to us, as we moved from older developments to newer ones (obviously a strategic move on our realtor’s part), that the Chinese “mimic-then-master” strategy was clearly in play.  The houses in each development got more Western as we went.  In the older ones, the homes had basements with nasty smells emanating from them.   (We drove by one development that had been completely abandoned after the people living there got sick from gasses coming up from the basements.)  They also had dramatic decorative touches such as 30-foot living room ceilings, and sweeping staircases, straight out of Gone With The Wind, which led to giant landings that existed solely for drama.  There were also developments with houses that had decks in the backyard, placed directly adjacent to large, unmoving water functions that appeared to exist solely as breeding grounds for mosquitos.  By the time we got to the newest development (ours now), the Chinese had stopped adding basements to the houses, having learned the hard way, and moved backyards to the sides of each house, making space between lots.  We now live in a house that looks like it was built by the U.S. home-building giant Pulte Corporation, and which would be perfectly in place in Canton, Michigan.

Rachel, Scott, and I looking to our map apps to figure out if we really are lost in Shanghai, or Palo Alto….

Rachel, Scott, and I looking to our map apps to figure out if we really are lost in Shanghai, or Palo Alto….

Western houses and neighborhoods are not the only things the Chinese copy.  In some cases, they will recreate whole city blocks.  Friends and I recently took Line 10 of Shanghai’s fantastic Metro subway system ( out to the Jiangwan Stadium stop to find Fudan University and an adjacent two-block stretch called Daxue Lu.  The area is part of an 800,000 square meter development know as the Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC).  KIC includes 10 colleges and universities, along with several high-tech parks and upscale neighborhoods.  KIC’s purpose is to “create an environment that fosters technological innovation and entrepreneurship.”  Sound familiar?  Yep.  It’s China’s version of Silicon Valley.

With James and Len on Daxue Lu, enjoying a beer in Palo Alto

Enjoying a beer in a college town with buddies James and Len.

The Chinese built Daxue Lu in the middle of KIC.  They modeled it after University Avenue in Palo Alto, home to Stanford University, where tech companies such as Google and Paypal were conceived.  (Daxue Lu literally means University Street in Chinese.)  I have to tell you, as we rounded the corner onto Daxue Lu, I felt like I had walked into another country.  University Avenue is an apt moniker, but not just reminiscent of Palo Alto.  As we sat on the tree-lined streets at one of the many outdoor cafes on the street, I felt like I could have been in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or Madison, Wisconsin.  The Chinese have perfectly recreated an American college town main street.  There were no honking horns and crazed drivers like in the rest of Shanghai.  No taxi drivers peeing in the street, or vendors slopping food and oil from their carts.  College kids walked the clean, leafy streets with backpacks, alongside obvious techie types and fashionable groups of women, laughing and going out to lunch.  It was literally America in the middle of Shanghai.

One of the many red phone booths that dot Thames Town, in China

One of the many red “Telephone Boxes” that dot Thames Town, in China.

As awesome as Daxue Lu is, the copycat thing actually gets better.  I have mentioned Thames Town in the blog before, which is about an hour outside of Shanghai.  It is a recreation of an entire English country town, complete with red phone booths, British-style housing, pubs and teahouses, and a central square with a huge, Anglican church at its center.  Even though most Shanghainese use it only as a background for wedding photographs, it is impressive and lacks only one element to make it truly British — a replica of London bridge.  But good news Anglophiles, the Chinese have built an almost exact replica of that iconic bridge in Suzhou, about a one-hour train ride from Shanghai.  I say almost exact because it actually has twice as many towers (four) as the actual London Bridge.  It also has a cafe at the top that promises English-style tea.

Wangling SOHO in Beijing (Zaha Hadid Architects)

Model of Wangjing SOHO in Beijing (Zaha Hadid Architects)

The Chinese are even copying Western architecture from within China itself.  Zaha Hadid, who is based in London, is probably the most famous female architect in the world and was the first women ever to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize.  She was commissioned to design Wangjing SOHO, three massive towers in Beijing that will become landmarks for that city due to their unique curved, glass-covered design.  They are stunning buildings and are scheduled to be completed this year.  In Chongqing, in central China, a pair of buildings called the Meiquan 22nd Century buildings are also going up and they bear a strikingly similar resemblance to the Wangling SOHO project.  They were started after the Beijing development project began, and are currently scheduled to be completed first.  The Chinese are racing the Chinese to build copycat Western developments.  It is enjoyably ironic.

Meiquan 22nd Century (de Zeen magazine)

Meiquan 22nd Century (de Zeen magazine)

There are many more examples of “duplitecture” in China.  There is the full size replica of the Eiffel Tower outside the city of Hangzhou, and the complete reproduction of the alpine village of Hallstatt, Austria in Guangdong province, to mention two.  On a smaller scale, there are Apple stores in China completely unaffiliated with the Cupertino, California tech company, but which look very much like the iconic retail stores.  The Chinese have even built their own version of the best-selling vehicle in America, the Ford F-150.  I’m not convinced the vehicles are truly “Built Ford Tough,” or would pass U.S. safety standards, but there are Chinese customers who are buying them.

You could argue that most countries have done variations on the kind of copying that China does.  Several of the United States’ major universities were modeled after European institutions of higher learning, as were many houses and neighborhoods built there early in the last century.  China’s sheer audaciousness about copying all things Western is the differentiator.  If China wants it, China just makes it.  We watch first-run Hollywood movies within a week of them hitting the theaters because the Chinese quickly copy them, as they do with music.

Chinese and American friends Marty, Anne, Jessie, me, and Scott roll on University Avenue.

Chinese and American friends Marty, Anne, Jessie, Karen, me, and Scott roll on University Avenue.

That’s the mimicking, but “where is the mastering?”, you may ask.  I’ll give just one example, because its a big one and it awes me — high speed rail service, or bullet trains.  Yes, the Chinese most likely copied their first trains from the Japanese or Europeans, but they now have far surpassed the rest of the world with their bullet train system.  You can travel to almost every major, and even minor, city in this country in the quiet comfort of a high-speed train.  The U.S. doesn’t have even one train service that meets the definition of high speed rail!  The Maglev train here in Shanghai turns a normal 45-minute car ride to Pudong airport into an 8-minute trip.  The West, and most particularly the U.S., could take a lesson from China on building a modern bullet train system.

Thirty five years ago, China was a third-world country, closed off to much of the rest of the world.  In the passage of those years, through sheer force of will, China has moved much of the country, and many of its people, into the modern world.  It hasn’t completed that feat through traditional innovation.  It has done it through the strategy of “mimic-then-master.”  China is not going to reinvent the wheel when the West has already built it for them.  They will reverse engineer that wheel, throw as many people at it that are needed to build a new wheel, and pump out as many wheels as they require to keep their economic revolution going.  Copying the West has proven to be a very good, and innovative, development strategy for China.


Cassidy with our favorite DVD seller Annie.  She keeps us in first-run movies on a regular basis.

Cassidy with our favorite DVD seller Annie. She keeps us in first-run movies on a regular basis.


6 thoughts on “Innovation, the Chinese Way

  1. Great post. Things are shaking in the PR world, hello Tony, good bye Monty.


    SG + 65 8298 4244 US +1 313 949 0252


  2. interesting to start with that title …but yes your so right “innovation’ in China is “copy” the others. The rich of China got rich by copying concepts that were successful in the West (QQ came from ICQ, remove the IC so no copyritght, and problem fixed). You found some interesting places i haven’t yet, good job, of too find my little america (or get lost).

  3. Very interesting. In Hangzhou at the end of the subway line there is a copy of Venice and the large tower there. I studied abroad in Europe and went to Venice as a high schooler. It was just like the original. It was nice to visit Venice with my gf in China! haha.

  4. Nice blog and nice layout; going to spend some time reading here. I know this is random but you look so awkwardly careful with your hand around your friend!

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