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Shanzhai: I know a genuine Panaphonics when I see one.
February 3, 2009 6:03 AM   Subscribe

In Chinese, Shanzhai (山寨) literally means "mountain stronghold" and connotes a place with limited accessibility -- i.e. beyond the reach of authorities. In the past couple of years, it has come to refer to the manufacture of illicit tech gadgets by unauthorized factories: show us your shan zhai ji! But shanzhai can be used more broadly to describe knockoff culture, cheeky brand subversion, grassroots industrial creativity, and a certain DIY ethos. The latter may be best exemplified in these videos of a "Shanzhai Glider" in action. Apologies if the Chinese sites are slow-loading or unreachable for Western audiences. Mouse over links for descriptions, if so inclined.
posted by milquetoast (32 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
China's rise as the world's factory has been accompanied by a marked rise in copying and counterfeiting of products, not to mention software piracy. Counterfeiting has even extended down to the component level, where inferior integrated circuits (or nonworking lookalikes) are silkscreened with premium logos and part numbers, packaged up in lookalike packaging, and sold into the parts supply stream.

There have also been some quality issues with made-in-China products, though those have mostly been addressed, as the Chinese factories gain experience.

Finally, we've all heard about how melamine has gotten into pet food and milk, and lead paint has reappeared on some baby toys sold in North America.

So I'm sad to see a penchant for illegal cloning or knockoffs celebrated as some sort of cheeky counterculture movement. The factories supplying the knockoffs or making counterfeits or spiking the milk aren't "rebels", they're businessmen making money from stolen intellectual property or by cutting corners.

I recall that Japanese manufacturing went through a similar phase in the '60s, when "Made in Japan" was a put-down, but I don't recall the same level of counterfeiting. I also recall that Japan's expertise in electronics, optics, etc took off and Japan became world leaders in design, engineering, manufacturing and quality control, so I hope that China will also move past this current "knockoff" phase quickly.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:14 AM on February 3, 2009


(..... aaaaand we're back)

To clarify a bit, I have no problem with DIY or grassroots creativity, just with illegal or shoddy manufactured products being celebrated as some sort of cultural movement.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:11 AM on February 3, 2009


I think it's because branding itself has become so pervasive and insidious that you kind of want to cheer when they "stick it to the Man." But you're right. There's a difference between free IP and stolen IP. Generic drugs are good, but without patent protection, we'd never get ANY drugs.
posted by rikschell at 9:30 AM on February 3, 2009


That "Glider" isn't doing much gliding.
posted by smoothvirus at 9:43 AM on February 3, 2009


I don't understand brand knockoffs. The way I see it, the appeal of a branded product is that it offers some sense of reliability, that you'll be assured a product that you know is high quality (ie Sony) or that there's some status or cultural cachet advertised by the brand (i.e. Adidas, Louis Vuitton). Don't both of those things go out the window as soon as you see "SQNY" or "IVIKE" on a product?

Do people buy knockoff-brand products because they think it's a funny gag, or because they honestly don't notice that it's not the brand they're expecting? Or does the "Adidos" logo offer just that much subconscious edge over the neighboring sports bag with "High Quality Products Manufacturing Co." on the side that it's just barely worth it?

I can see copying designs of good-looking or well-engineered products. I definitely see the point of outright counterfeiting logos. But wherefore knockoff brands?
posted by lostburner at 9:43 AM on February 3, 2009


they're businessmen making money from stolen intellectual property or by cutting corners.

Or, sometimes, by adding features that customers want..
posted by Chuckles at 9:50 AM on February 3, 2009


lostburner: I agree with you but it's an old practice hardly limited to the Chinese. Back when Sony's claim to fame was making a pretty functional AM transistor radio (in the 1960's) there were a flurry of lookalike knockoffs named things like Sunny, Soni, etc. Word on the street was to hold out for the genuine s-o-n-y, "the one that works."
posted by localroger at 9:52 AM on February 3, 2009


Generic drugs are good, but without patent protection, we'd never get ANY drugs

well, fewer penis pills and male pattern balding formulae and more cancer drugs perhaps.

For a mere $200B/yr we could staff a million pharmaceutical positions @ $200K/yr.

But that's commie-pinko socialist claptrap.
posted by troy at 9:54 AM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


> Or, sometimes, by adding features that customers want...

...example?

I have no doubt that China will soon become an engineering and design powerhouse, but I haven't yet seen many examples of this.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:56 AM on February 3, 2009


I don't understand brand knockoffs. The way I see it, the appeal of a branded product is that it offers some sense of reliability

Brand knockoffs themselves have their own form of branding, though. In Thailand, if you knew what to look for or where to go, you could find higher quality fakes that were better made, lasted longer etc than some of the cheaper stuff found more commonly on the street.

Eventually, the manufacturers of the high quality knockoffs develop enough internal expertise to create their own brands. The same process has happened with generic drug manufacturers - a lot of them have now invested in R&D and have their own drug pipelines.

The two models manufacturers in emerging economies typically use to progress to developing their own IP and brands are either making something under license or copying. Unsurprisingly, both are the foundations of the Chinese manufacturing industry.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:59 AM on February 3, 2009


Uh, in the articles they talk about how the buyers understand that the knockoffs are lower quality than the originals. Some people understand that there isn't any point in buying a product that can last 10 years if we can buy it for a tenth the price and replace it every year. This isn't grandfathers pocket watch. This is a stupid cell phone.
posted by Megafly at 10:05 AM on February 3, 2009


I don't understand brand knockoffs. The way I see it, the appeal of a branded product is that it offers some sense of reliability, that you'll be assured a product that you know is high quality (ie Sony) or that there's some status or cultural cachet advertised by the brand (i.e. Adidas, Louis Vuitton). Don't both of those things go out the window as soon as you see "SQNY" or "IVIKE" on a product?

Why pay $300 for a genuine designer pair of sunglasses when they are as prone to breakage, and moreso to theft, than a $15 knockoff?

Invoice price on designer clothing is cheaper than dirt; it's no wonder illicit manufacturers are cranking out knockoffs-- it's easy money to sell something you already mass-produce that gains 50x the value just by blessing it with the name of some European guy.
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 10:13 AM on February 3, 2009


MuffinMan: "Brand knockoffs themselves have their own form of branding, though. In Thailand, if you knew what to look for or where to go, you could find higher quality fakes that were better made, lasted longer etc than some of the cheaper stuff found more commonly on the street.

Eventually, the manufacturers of the high quality knockoffs develop enough internal expertise to create their own brands. The same process has happened with generic drug manufacturers - a lot of them have now invested in R&D and have their own drug pipelines.

The two models manufacturers in emerging economies typically use to progress to developing their own IP and brands are either making something under license or copying. Unsurprisingly, both are the foundations of the Chinese manufacturing industry."


Wow! I guess it figures, but I had no idea. That's cool.
posted by lostburner at 10:17 AM on February 3, 2009


a quote from inside the these videos of a "Shanzhai Glider" link:
...Date back to 2007, due to an open(maybe leak?) source of MTK platfrom (a wireless communication development platform), there are millions of cell phone factories burst out in south China. These factories made lots of famous-brand cell-phone-copies in a short period of time. They just copied the outline and software design from Nokia, Apple iPhone etc. The manufacturing cost is very low so many people are involved.
So, these cheap cellphones are apparently built on stolen IP, even if they're not clones. Also, I too remember the many Japanese lookalikes. What's new today is the number of outright counterfeits. I have a "SONY ECM DS-70P" stereo mic that I got for the absurd price of $6.00 from ebay, when the real article normally goes for around $60. Turns out it's a good physical copy, but with somewhat inferior performance.

This sort of counterfeiting is alot more involved than just sticking a D&G emblem on some sunglasses.
posted by Artful Codger at 10:17 AM on February 3, 2009


Nevertheless, both the autogyro and helicopter videos are way cool. Plus there's no patent on cojones!
posted by sneebler at 10:56 AM on February 3, 2009


Artful Codger -- regarding features consumers want: a number of iPhone knockoffs offer the ability to have two SIM cards in at once, or to run the QQ chat client, or to use a stylus for handwriting input. These are all definitely high-demand features that the iPhone doesn't offer (though Tencent has apparently since come out with a QQ client for the iPhone).
posted by bokane at 11:00 AM on February 3, 2009


bokane - all good points. So then, is it OK that these "improved" clone versions probably violate interface IP that belongs to Apple, and may even be built using IP or even specific parts (or clones of parts) without licencing?
posted by Artful Codger at 11:59 AM on February 3, 2009


Plus there's no patent on cojones!

Don't speak too soon.
posted by exogenous at 12:14 PM on February 3, 2009


Also, some of the knock-off gadgets use some brand of linux as the operating system, when you wouldn't get the option on other gadgets. Not a big deal to some, but it is to others.
What's new today is the number of outright counterfeits...Turns out it's a good physical copy, but with somewhat inferior performance.
Whereas I got rebadged SM-57's that are utterly indistinguishable from the real deal that I have for a fraction of the price. There are cheap knock-offs, and then there are clones.

My point is that, yes, counterfeit and copying have a corrosive effect on things like quality control, but this is a totally separate issue from infringing copyright and IP law, and the two should not be conflated.
posted by eclectist at 12:19 PM on February 3, 2009


My point is that, yes, counterfeit and copying have a corrosive effect on things like quality control, but this is a totally separate issue from infringing copyright and IP law, and the two should not be conflated.

Well, counterfeiting is a trademark issue, and thus under the umbrella of IP. Indeed, a trademark licensor is required to exercise quality control over a licensee's goods and services "because a trademark represents the trademark owner’s reputation for goods and services of a certain level of quality, and consumers tend to rely on this reputation in making purchasing decisions."
posted by exogenous at 12:35 PM on February 3, 2009


is it really that big a deal if a bunch of huge corporations get their IP stolen by a group of small timers? these cats will never be raking in the billions and getting all the great press and free stuff thrown at them. who cares if they steal the 'intellectual' (cough.cough) property rights?

if the big guys decide that they won't play in the developing world's backyard anymore with their crazy gadgets fine. it's their loss.

i find this stuff fascinating and exciting. and it doesn't really matter what you think of it as because it is a formative strike against branding culture. it is one of the hottest shots across the prow. if you don't get how mutilating a concept out of existence and then bringing it back again helps all of the folks who are sick of being bombarded with all the 'you must have this!' nonsense then you are missing out.

no matter how you clone it this act is political.
posted by artof.mulata at 12:42 PM on February 3, 2009


So, these cheap cellphones are apparently built on stolen IP,

And, if you'd just kept reading from the same paragraph you quote:
They are even totally redesigned and added a lot of features. A brand called "NCIKA" even went very popular in China.
You know well that big name manufacturers control the formats their devices support for purely business reasons.
posted by Chuckles at 12:49 PM on February 3, 2009


...example?

Take DVD players. Do you want a no-name generic Chinese model for $30 that plays DVDs from any region, as well as XviD/DivX/MPEG4 .avi DVDRips, or do you want a $200 Sony piece of shit that is region locked and only plays DVDs. At least, this was the case not too long ago (~5 years), it may have changed now but there is no doubt in my mind that the record breaking speed at which DVD player adoption occurred was due in no little part to the availability of such cheap knockoff models.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:52 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


> is it really that big a deal if a bunch of huge corporations get their IP stolen by a group of small timers? these cats will never be raking in the billions and getting all the great press and free stuff thrown at them. who cares if they steal the 'intellectual' (cough.cough) property rights?

The factories that are building the knock-offs are not raking in billions... just millions. This isn't a backroom thing with Gramma stuffing PC boards while Grand-dad casts the cases; the knock-offs come from real factories with financial backing and the works.

I'm a DIY/circuit-bender kind of guy myself, so I'm 110% behind DIY and open-source and collaboration. A factory building unlicenced or counterfeit product doesn't fall into those categories.

>no matter how you clone it this act is political capitalist.
FTFY

>[chuckles]They are even totally redesigned and added a lot of features. A brand called "NCIKA" even went very popular in China.

But still built on IP or parts they aren't licenced to use... they are not (yet) making their own product from scratch, with their own engineering. "NCIKA" ... Clearly they're thumbing their noses at the west, who are so addicted to cheap labour that they are powerless to enforce their IP rights.
posted by Artful Codger at 1:31 PM on February 3, 2009


In the video game world there is a who subculture of collecting "Famiclones" and pirate carts. My favorites: the 50,000,000-in-1 NES cart and the Magic Box with free DBZ action figure. For some reason I find it quite amusing to think about Chinese kids in a backwater town running into the single general store after school and gawking over a shanzai console they want to save up for someday. Of course these consoles are likely manufactured for the export market.
posted by shii at 1:38 PM on February 3, 2009




">no matter how you clone it this act is political capitalist.
FTFY" FT-FTFY

calling it out as purely capitalist is kind of dodging the ball, dude, 'artful codger' indeed!
some things are going to strike as political no matter how the game is played and we all know that.

millions isn't billions.
the DIY scene of regeneration, repurposing and/or backwards engineering is just an economy of scale from the folks who have an angle on mass production. (see the monome...)

i think it's just strange to want to call out folks on their productivity. and i honestly don't see the negative value incurred by this sort of behavior. dude, china is the moon; that shit is not slapping too much of the valley around, you know. i mean, i must be missing something here, because i honestly cannot buy into those concepts on copyright theft when it comes to markets on distant, unattainable soil.
posted by artof.mulata at 2:56 PM on February 3, 2009


What planet are you from?

Buncha factory owners are cranking out product based on stolen (not reverse-engineered or copied) IP, and you think these are righteous dudes? Really?
posted by Artful Codger at 3:49 PM on February 3, 2009


I can't even fathom how cool it would be to fly in your own handmade helicopter. Just up and away, leave the whole world behind you. Incredible. To me, that's DIY. That's the idea that everybody can do anything.
posted by seagull.apollo at 4:19 PM on February 3, 2009


i don't think they're righteous, cranky! i find the act to be worthy of note and analysis. worthy of consideration in its implications for the larger sociological models of capitalism in its deployment in the living sphere. and all that means is i won't write it off based on prejudices i might have about 'ownership.'

because i can't always say what it means to 'own' something and neither can anyone else. but you are welcome to try to define a universal on that one. but i think it'll be a hard sell...

is that better?
posted by artof.mulata at 4:22 PM on February 3, 2009


very late posting, but here's some new info to add...

a great post from one bunniestudios.com on the shanzhai phenomenon. bunniestudios.com approaches the subject from a positive angle and i have to say i agree with their ideas on design and innovation in a capitalist environment. or something.
posted by artof.mulata at 5:27 PM on February 28, 2009


That is a pretty great link artof.mulata. Thanks!
posted by Chuckles at 10:23 AM on March 1, 2009


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