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Copying, culture and calligraphy: how modern China is forging a new creative identity

China's design heritage is explored at Cannes

At Spikes Asia today (22 September) two separate talks tackled the new aesthetic of China and how it relates to traditions as old as 1,000 years, plus stereotypes unduly given by the west.

Sapient executive creative director Raymond Chin invited artist and designer Zhenhan Hao to discuss the common view that China is a nation of copycats. While design agency Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR) took and East meets West approach to understand how modern China was developing a new aesthetic for itself, with views from René Chen, partner and managing director, Shanghai at Jones Knowles Ritchie and Katie Ewer, strategy director of the agency’s Singapore office.

One theme that both talks picked up on was the juxtaposition between China having the oldest history in the world for arts and culture and yet is going through a seismic change in a new phase of its identity after opening up again to the world.

One of the most obvious tensions to come from this is the reputation China has gained around copying.

Chin introduced the idea of copying 1.0 and copying 2.0: “Copying 1.0 is very crude and very blatant, shameless and super lazy and yet copying is also necessary, it is an integral part of getting to next level.”

The copying 2.0, he said, was a new phase whereby China was becoming good at a more positive version of it, such as the mashup, the remix and the transformation. He gave WeChat as an example, citing that it was a mashup of many Western tech services such as Whatsapp, Tinder and Facebook. Yet, it’s become the platform that’s surpassed them all, integrating payments three years before Apple did.

Hao, who has carried out a project turning famous copy artists in China into original artists by adding personal remixes or touches to their craft, argued that copying was in Chinese history and that it was also done elsewhere.

He said that tea was the perfect example as it was created by the Chinese, taken by the British who added milk and then when it returned to the East again was turned into bubble tea.

JKR’s Chen agreed that copying was part of the development of a new aesthetic but that traditional elements, like Calligraphy, were core to forging a new path.

“Modern chinese design is only beginning to surface in the past 15 years or so. Modern Chinese design is modern and fresh. For any young people, like a baby, you have to copy and learn, so we still see [copying]. It is the best time for china and us to look into searching our past to create a new identity for Chinese design,” she said.

JKR’s Ewer related this to people working on global briefs: “Globalisation doesn’t mean a copy and paste approach to aesthetics, design and creativity. We need to work harder to understand not just what other cultures look like but in our own heads, what baggage are we carrying around that we need to unpack? That’s both unconscious but at a deep subconscious level and we don’t know until we challenge ourselves. When you write or get a brief, challenge yourself in how you read and respond to it. We take a lot for granted, like the word premium, what does that mean?” she asked.