34 Mountain Stronghold – 山寨 (Shānzhài)

Robert A. Castano

simplified Chinese: 山寨; pinyin: Shānzhài

Mountain Stronghold

Shanzhai 山寨 is a term, literally meaning “mountain stronghold”, that refers to the do-it-yourself ethic of creating bootleg goods. You may have seen images exhibiting shanzhai without knowing it.

The phenomenon of shanzhai originated with bootleg cellphones, often with additional features engineered by its makers and with names so close to the original it borders on the absurd, such as Adadis or Samsing. The counterfeit nature of the product is precisely what gives shanzhai its unique identity, an identity which is implied in the term’s literal meaning, invoking the idea of rebels or bandits hiding away in mountainous camps.

This is the spirit of independence from entrenched authority (often global corporations) that makes shanzhai what it is, at first seen as negative, but with time becoming a point of tongue-in-cheek pride in Chinese ingenuity. Initially deemed knockoff products of inferior quality, shanzhai products are often a practical alternative for people on a strict budget, and the grassroots quality of shanzhai means that entrepreneurs can cater easily to niche markets. This flexibility and adaptability to a changing market is central to the concept of shanzhai, as these qualities are what differentiates shanzhai manufacturers from the “bloated” corporations whose very products they are counterfeiting.

“Shanzhai” as a term is often used in economic contexts, typically with regards to electronic gadgets, but it has also broadened to refer to an artistic aesthetic or even to have sociopolitical implications, such as a spirit of independence in the face of increasing globalization. To me, the most interesting aspect of shanzhai is its humorous side, and in this sense, I believe it has taken on more relevance than ever. As humor in the digital world has become ever more ironic, self-effacing, and self-referential, shanzhai has, since its earliest days, perfectly embodied the absurdism of the contemporary internet. For example, consider the following picture.

This example is full of counterfeit goods that are so absurdly knock-off that they are hilarious. Naik, Adidos, KLG – all of these bootleg products that blur the line between irony, sincerity, and boldfaced trademark infringement may even strike one as something generated by artificial intelligence. The humor of Instagram and TikTok, especially as propagated by Gen Z, is a perfect complement to the spirit of shanzhai, with its indifference to authority, grassroots sincerity, and DIY ethic to remix, remake, and play with established symbols and cultural norms. This existence of humor where one is not sure whether it is intentional creates an ambiguity of context that almost becomes the point. That idea is more relevant now than it’s ever been and shanzhai is a great example of post-modern contemporary culture.



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Mountain Stronghold - 山寨 (Shānzhài) Copyright © 2024 by Robert A. Castano is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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