There isn’t much Chinese art in my home. A scroll we bought at a museum in Xi’an. Some Concession Era posters and maps. A cane by youngest son bought at the Great Bazaar in the old walled city of Shanghai. Reproductions, every one, albeit made in China.
But isn’t that what it means to be Made in China? The phrase is shorthand for low cost, low quality products. Knockoffs, often. It’s not a great brand image nor is it a sustainable manufacturing strategy as China can no longer compete on low wages alone. Hence, the launch of Made in China 2025, a Chinese government initiative designed to transform China from a country of imitators into a land of innovation.
Though, for the time being, there doesn’t seem to be any lack of demand for copycat products made in China.
In the Mood for Love
The film, In the Mood for Love, stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung as the spurned spouses of a pair engaged in a torrid affair. Thrown together by their shared rejection, these lonely individuals initially derive only bitter solace from each other’s company. They sulk over a cigarette or prowl the streets of Hong Kong. Every time, Maggie Cheung wears a qipao. High-cut collar, body-hugging sheath, slit up one side to flash some leg.
Her qipao set off a fashion rage and helped launch Shanghai Tang into the Western consciousness. Originally a high-end tailor shop for the Hong Kong elite, Sir David Tang opened his first Shanghai Tang in 1994. The chain soon rapidly expanded beyond China to 23 stores globally: New York, London, the usual suspects. But that proved to be a bridge too far. Nowadays, you can only find a Shanghai Tang shop inside Asia.
I have a jacket from Shanghai Tang. It’s black velvet on the outside and orange silk on the inside. The lining is decorated with embroidered butterflies and peonies. The label proclaims my garment to be “Authentics” though it doesn’t say made in China. I suspect that its design is intended to evoke Shanghai’s heyday: the 1930s.
But if you look at fashion designs from that period, you won’t find jackets like mine. Instead, you’ll run into the Yunshang Fashion Company, Shanghai’s premier shop for fashion, fabric and home decoration. Their signature product was a Western-style overcoat adapted for Shanghai ladies.
Yunshang Fashion Company was founded by Zhang Yimou, a woman also affiliated with the Shanghai Women’s Bank. Her grandson, Tony Hsu, recently stumbled upon a life-sized replica of his grandmother’s store as part of an exhibit on the history of the qipao.
As iconic as the qipao may be, porcelain is a far more potent symbol of Chinese craftsmanship. Nouveau riche Chinese like Liu Yiqian, a former taxi driver, battle Western collectors for prized works like a tiny ancient porcelain chicken cup sold for $36.3 million in 2014.
Most Chinese porcelain originated in Jingdezhen. Once a market town on the south bank of the Chang River, Jingdezhen is home to Kaolin clay, the secret ingredient that gave ancient Chinese pottery its signature luster. But Jingdezhen does not rely alone on products made in long-ago China. There is a lively cottage industry for replicas of Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain.
Huan Hsu is the author of The Porcelain Thief, an account of his search for the legendary family porcelain collection. Along the way, Hsu delves into the art of knockoff porcelain made in China.
In one row of workshops not far from his ancestral town, [Hsu] writes, “The narrow alleys echo with the chimes of pumice stone working over porcelain to dull their finishes, after which vendors brush on thin brown paint and refire the pieces at low temperatures to achieve an aged tint.” He describes forgers who “sink new objects into the sea to cover them with barnacles so they can pass them off as recovered shipwreck items.”Eva M. Kahn, “‘The Porcelain Thief’ Chronicles a Trip to Unearth Chinese Heirlooms”, The New York Times, 19 Mar 2015, accessed 23 Jan 2019
But should we really call these people forgers? These workshops pride themselves on using traditional processes and authentic materials, even daring the trip into abandoned mines to collect the kaolin clay. It is no lie to say this porcelain is made in China.
Recreating the past to satisfy the needs of the present is a skill not to be sneezed at. It also happens to be a skill at which the Chinese excel. From lanterns to full-on scale reproductions of the Forbidden City, the Chinese can make it all. Just take a stroll through the world’s largest film lot at Hengdian World Studios.
— Inkstone (@InkstoneNews) January 9, 2019
There’s a huge domestic demand for Chinese period dramas. And, if my family is any measure, the international demand is high as well. My father loves to binge watch these episodic dramas. My oldest son watches as well, in part to keep up his Chinese, though he sometimes gets lost as to which prince has betrayed whom.
Films, porcelain, and qipao are just some of the soft power products made in China that work so well in the West. But they seem to do equally well inside China, whether out of a sense of nostalgia or perhaps pure escapism.
It’s not likely that I’ll be adding to my Chinese art collection anytime soon. In a market flooded with fakes and copies, it would be easy to hoodwink a naive buyer like me. Why not go, then, with the replicas? They, too, are made in China.