Spiegel Online's story about a Chinese town devoted almost entirely to making copies of classic Western paintings is at once fascinating and run-of-the-mill. Fascinating, because who won't be enraptured by the image of thousands of Chinese artists pumping out Van Goghs and Klimts by the container-load? Martin Paetsch's account of how some 10,000 artists in a town of just four square kilometers is producing 60 percent of the world's cheap oil paintings is yet another snapshot from the freakish economy of China. But then again, that's all it is, just another snapshot. Stories about towns in China devoted to one particular industry, like socks, or ceramic plates, or costume jewelry, or semiconductors, are themselves being rolled out by the truckload by starstruck journalists. There's a monotony to these reports of hyper-capitalism -- and, often, an unspoken question that reeks of nervous Orientalism: How can we, the individualistic, happy-go-lucky West, compete with that.
But what struck me most about the article was how it missed an opportunity to put the entire enterprise into an intriguing cultural context. Despite several references to the lack of "originality" inherent in a business model that pumps out Mona Lisas as if they were Model T's, nowhere is there a mention that in classical Chinese painting, copying the works of the masters was a time-honored tradition.
There's a specific term, "linmo," to describe the practice, common in both painting and calligraphy, of handcopying the classics with fanatic faithfulness. Indeed, some of the greatest works of Chinese painting are only known through the copies of them that were made by artists who lived centuries after the original. To copy and imitate was to flatter and compliment -- a sign of respect, not of unoriginality.
Some modern commentators have gone so far as to attribute China's current disregard for Western standards of intellectual property to its cultural copying traditions. That has usually struck me as a little bit of a stretch. Developing economies always give short shrift to the intellectual property of other nations; the United States was rife with counterfeiters and IP pirates in the 19th century, and as China's economy matures, it's likely that China will play less fast and loose. But there is still a compelling truth to the idea that in China, the act of copying does not carry with it the same stigma that it does for Western artists. As an old Chinese saying that Harvard professor William Alford borrowed for the title of his wonderful book on China and intellectual property, puts it: "To steal a book is an elegant offense."