Baudrillard in China

Jiǎ zuò zhēn shí zhēn yì jiǎ
“When the unreal is taken for real, the real becomes unreal.”
Cao Xueqin, The Dream of the Red Chamber, 18th century

Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher who became famous in the 1980s because of his concept of Simulacra and Simulation. That is also the title of his 1981 book, which served as an inspiration for The Matrix and can be seen in the film when Neo sells pirate software to a group of club kids who come to his apartment.

Simulacrum is Latin for “copy” or “imitation.” (In philosophy, people sometimes use Latin and Greek words to make their ideas sound more profound. A friend of mine who got his PhD. at Princeton said that if you put the word “prolegomena” in the title of your academic paper, it will get published.) Baudrillard’s theory is a bit complex and I won’t pretend to adequately explain it here, but it seems to be that a process of simulation, of imitation and copying, has been happening in the world for such a long time that what we think of as reality no longer has any connection to reality at all. (Hence the inspiration for the film.) The world is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, and the original is nowhere to be found. We can’t even say that there is or ever was an original.

Imagine that you make a copy of a picture in a copy machine. The first image will be a strong likeness to the original. If you in turn copy that first copy, it will still look like the original, but the more you copy the copy, the grainier the image will become. The copying process will start to create new effects and images.  Eventually, your nth generation copy will bear little if any resemblance to the original. But a process of change, of one copy morphing into the next, will continue nonetheless. So there will be novelty, but no underlying reality.

Baudrillard’s theory has been interpreted in various ways, from everything to a cynical take on the derivative nature of pop culture to a reconceptualization of ancient Gnostic ideas about the nature of reality. Baudrillard himself spent more time writing about the former. He wrote books and articles about America and Disneyland as artificial environments that proved his theories. Like many Europeans, Baudrillard thought that America is – to use Holden Caulfield’s favorite word – “phony.”

Indeed, we started out as a mere simulacrum of Europe, specifically England and France. Our high culture was just an aping of Euro high culture, and when we finally started making cultural stuff of our own, it turned out to be not-so-high. (Twain and Hemingway are great, but Shakespeare they ain’t.) Baudrillard seemed to be both attracted to and repulsed by our “phoniness.”

I wonder what he would have thought of China? I first read Baudrillard when I was in college and studying philosophy. At the time I found him boring and largely meaningless. In fact, I was far more interested at the time in ancient Chinese philosophy, and I can recall my dismay when an intellectual compatriot of mine who had previously been into Confucius turned his interest to Baudrillard and the postmodernists. I still think Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu and Confucius (aka Laozi, Zhuangzi and Kongzi in modern pinyin) are far more important than Baudrillard and his ilk, if for no other reason than that they aren’t French and don’t take four hundred pages to say what could be said in four paragraphs. But I must say, living in 21st century Shenzhen has rekindled my interest in Baudrillard’s ideas about copies of copies.

Last night I had coffee with a couple Euro friends who somehow tolerate this American phony. One of them was telling me about the fish business here in China.

“Mate” – my friend speaks English like a Brit even though he’s from the Balkans – “the whole thing is fake. There are no wild caught fish here, they’re all farmed. All those 20,000RMB sea cucumbers that they sell – all fake.” I have no way of knowing whether or not this is true. I wouldn’t know the difference between a real sea cucumber and a fake one. (For those who don’t know, a sea cucumber is a sea creature which is prized as a health tonic in Asian culture.) As for the fish, I know that farm-raised salmon are fed artificial dye to make their flesh red, so that it looks healthy and delicious to consumers even though the fish has been deprived of its natural diet and hence lacks the same nutrient content as its wild brethren. In America, most of the salmon is farm-raised and dyed. In China, I’m wondering whether it’s actually salmon at all, or whether it’s even fish.

On the walk home from the coffee shop, I passed one of the myriad antique dealers who sells old coins, statuettes and jewelry from a table on the street. I found myself wondering, “How old are these things really? And that bracelet, surely it’s not really made of jade?” Back home, I know a woman who runs an Asian import business. She sells expensive furniture, modeled after various classical Chinese styles. In her store, the pieces are sold as authentic. “Qing dynasty wardrobe. $5000.” In actuality, it was made in a Chinese factory only a few years ago. They use heavy chains to beat dents into the wood, and various other methods to make it appear aged and worn. Overall, the quality isn’t bad. But it’s not a real antique.

Although someday, it might be. There’s that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Belloq is discoursing to Indiana Jones about the nature of history and antiquities. He pulls out a cheap pocket watch that he bought in the market. “Worthless,” he says. “But bury it in the sand for a thousand years and it becomes priceless.”

It’s widely rumored that some of the antiquities on display in various Chinese museums (and for that matter, various museums all over the world) are not the real deal. Power has changed hands so many times over the centuries in China that many famous antiques were horded by whoever was holding power at the time, only to magically reappear in the possession of whoever succeeded them. If a lost piece of Tang dynasty art was replicated during the Ming dynasty, at what point does its status as a replica become eclipsed by its status as an historical object in its own right? When the Guomintang fled to Taiwan after the civil war, they took a lot of precious antiquities with them. Now there are rumors of identical objects on the mainland. Each side will claim that theirs are the original. But someday, both will be valuable antiques.

I continued my walk home. Outside of my apartment complex, a couple guys have set up a stall selling New Balance sneakers. At the mall, these shoes go for between 700 and 1200RMB. But here, they’re being sold for three to four hundred. Looking them over, I notice that some of them are even the higher quality, still-made-in-the-U.S.A. or made-in-the-U.K. versions. Or so the tags say. The shoes look to be good quality, and part of my lizard brain is lighting up at the prospect of a bargain, but my frontal cortex is asking, “If these were real New Balance shoes, why would they be selling them so cheap?”

Nonetheless, they are better than the 100RMB New Balance lookalikes with the backwards N on them that you can get at Dongmen and a hundred other small shops around the city. (I actually like these better since the backwards N looks like an old Germanic rune symbol.) Whereas the fakes at the stall outside my apartment are faithful replicas that could actually pass for the real thing – and probably do at more “real” stores than you think – the cheaper models are just imitations. They remind you of New Balance sneakers at first glance, but are quickly distinguished from originals, or from the higher quality copies, upon closer inspection. I wonder, when they made these at a factory in Dongguan or some other place, did they copy the originals, or did they copy the high quality fakes?

Walking in this summer heat has worked up a thirst, and I decide to stop at a convenience store for a drink. A company called Vita makes a lemon iced tea drink that I absolutely adore. In Hong Kong, it’s called VLT, but across the border it’s called Vita and has slightly different packaging. It could be my imagination, but I think they taste different as well. I go back and forth as to which one I like better, the one from Hong Kong or from Shenzhen. A juice box of this refreshing lemony awesomeness costs 3RMB. You can also get the Hong Kong version, illegally smuggled across the border, for 4.5RMB (but I’m not sure if it’s real or fake.) I opt for the Shenzhen version and pay with a 100RMB note cuz I’m rich like that. I also buy a pack of cigarettes, Marlboro reds. I should have checked the change that the guy gave me more closely, but I didn’t. When I got home, I found that he had slipped me a fake 50RMB note. These fake fifties are in wide circulation in Shenzhen so you have to be careful. Everyone knows, or eventually learns, to look for the tell-tale signs like the lack of texture on Chairman Mao’s collar.

So now I’m pissed off about having been cheated, so I pack my cigarettes on my palm and open the pack to have one, because if you’re a smoker then you know that poisoning yourself is a perfectly reasonable way of dealing with your anger. When I opened the cigarettes, I noticed that they smelled a bit different, and there were brown spots on the paper, as if bleeding through from the tobacco. Damn – fakes. China produces approximately 400 billion fake cigarettes a year, and while most of them are bound for the U.S. market, there are still plenty to be had in China. I should have gone to 7-11 where, expat oral tradition holds, you are less likely to get fake cigarettes. Oh well.

I could go on. Unless you are at an expensive mall where they charge approximately 1.5 times the U.S. price, you can reasonably surmise that any name brand clothing you see is fake, and there’s really no guarantee that the mall stuff isn’t fake either. Fake liquor is also big business, as are fake DVDs, fake noodles and fake eggs. Trying to find what’s real here will drive you insane.

Speaking of going insane, Nietzsche said, “We have art lest we perish of the truth.” Art, artifice. So what if it’s artificial? I bought a pair of fake Armani jeans for thirty bucks that are the best pair of jeans I’ve ever owned. My friend Kurt, preeminent music critic over at Gladys mag, tells me that Journey now has a Filipino lead singer who is “even more Steve Perry than Steve Perry.” That’s awesome, especially since Steve Perry was just trying to be more Sam Cooke than Sam Cooke.

Copies of copies of copies.  Welcome to the desert of the real.  Welcome to Shenzhen.


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