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Europe Made in China: Exploring the Phenomenon of Chinese Architectural Replicas

When you think of copies labelled “made in China”, usually what comes to mind are low-quality knockoffs and outrageously hilarious “Galvin Klein” underwear. In the 21st century, the Chinese art of mimicry has extended beyond consumer goods and seeped into projects more ambitious in size: cities. The absurdity of walking through the Chinese countryside and ending up in a faux Alpine town is a curious phenomenon intertwined with the country’s complicated past and political views. Enter duplitectures, what they are, how they came to be, and why I personally find them problematic.

A Copy of the Austrian Town Hallstatt in Louyang. Source: Thomas Kramesberger.

Duplitectures: The Comprehensive Definition

"Duplitecture" is the term coined by author Bianca Bosker to describe copycats of foreign buildings in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Unlike scaled-down replicas typically found in amusement parks, duplitectures serve a functional everyday purpose, as they stem from residential development plans idealised between the years 2001 and 2020. Bosker pointed out that China has a tradition of imitation which dates to the third century BC, when Emperor Qin Shi Huang would celebrate defeating enemies by building copies of their palaces. However, the pioneer project which sparked the new millennium's duplitecture trend is undoubtedly the One City Nine Towns plan. In 2001, Shanghai's population had doubled since the '80s, reaching past 13 million inhabitants. To relieve overcrowding, and in concordance with the Communist Party of China's (CPC) directive for small towns' urbanisation emanated a year prior, Shanghai City Government planned the construction of nine very bizarre satellite towns, out of which seven were themed after Western countries. For example, Gaoqiao Holland Village was designed by architecture studios based in Almere and Rotterdam. If you ever felt the need to see Qing Dynasty houses and the Dutch National Maritime Museum on the same day – now you know where to go.

Gaoqiao Holland Village. Source: Euronews Travel.

While architectural mimicries exist to an extent worldwide, the peculiarities of Chinese ones are that they can be extensive in size, and some of them engulf entire districts. Furthermore, they are not constructed in areas with an already established ethnic community's presence, such as, for example, the He Hua Temple in Amsterdam’s Chinatown. Rather, developers hoped to attract residents and businesses, both local and foreign, through duplitectures. Their expectations were let down when cities such as Tianducheng Sky City – the (infamous) replica of Paris sporting its own Eiffel Tower and boulevards – remained underpopulated through the first decade after their construction. Tianducheng has since recovered and is nowadays housing three times the citizens it was originally designed for. Yet, many other projects are still in their "ghost town" era; commenters attribute disinterest towards them to the relatively high prices for apartments and their isolated locations in the countryside.

A View of Tianducheng. Source: Imaginechina/REX/Shutterstock.

Besides providing living and commercial spaces, duplitectures were supposed to further incentivise domestic tourism, targeting those Chinese citizens who are not able to travel internationally for economic and practical reasons. As of 2023, holders of PRC passports can travel visa-free to 46 destinations, in comparison holders of Dutch passports to 158. After an initial influx generated by novelty, cultural tourism has reportedly declined, while wedding and decay tourism (travelling to places with a reputation of being occult or abandoned) remain popular.

Newlyweds Taking Pictures in English-Inspired Thames Town, Shanghai. Source: Daniel Berehulak.

Their failures, however, were not the main reason for stopping developers from continuing to build duplitectures. On the 27th of April 2020, the CPC outlawed plagiarism of existing buildings as part of a broader directive against "weird" architectures. The ban was imposed after an estimated 1,600, mostly European-looking, duplitectures since One City Nine Towns were constructed. President Xi Jinping, who had already criticised the "xenocentrism" of these projects back in 2014, has encouraged a return towards Chinese traditional values and the embodiment of them in all forms of art, including architecture. As the country is entering a new phase of isolationism, experts consider this direction as an implicit message: China has surpassed the West and shall not look up to it anymore


Architectural Journey to the West: The Historical Insight

The question that remains is: why specifically copy Western and European architecture in the first place? To answer this, we must delve into Chinese history and international relationships. We start in 1842 when China's defeat in the First Opium War marked the beginning of the Century of Humiliation. Once a prosperous empire, China's isolation policies under the Qing Dynasty in the 1800s had halted its industrial development and had allowed what was later named the Eight-Nation Alliance (composed of Germany, Russia, UK, France, USA, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Japan) to perpetually declare wars and invade the country. The conflicts resulted in extremely penalising treaties for China in the form of large monetary compensations and territory losses, as well as sovereignty concessions to foreign powers. Concessions were rich foreign settlements in politically Chinese cities where Chinese people were treated as "second-class" citizens: many of them, such as the French Concession in Shanghai, had European architectures that locals had limited to no access to. The last concession was dismantled only in 1945, and, four years later, China became a communist country.

Former Garde Municipale Headquarters, Shanghai French Concession. Source: Fayhoo, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Fast forward to 1978, where for the past decade, Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution had brought a new wave of national isolationism (similar to the situation in nowadays North Korea) and had attempted to destroy pre-communism culture. When Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao Zedong, the unsustainability of the Cultural Revolution came to light, and he introduced the Economic Reform and Opening-Up policies. The policies, among other things, started "reintroducing" Chinese citizens to the world. Lacking better sources to deeply report on the experiences at that time, I am recounting the first-hand experiences of my mother: "Once China opened up, we [Chinese people], who have always been told that China was the best, strongest, and most advanced country in the world, saw the truth. Many young people from the city at that point wanted to travel abroad, but could not afford it. Because, at the time, Western countries were richer and more developed than China, what was Western must have been better to some. There are still people who think that, when my Chinese friends buy bags, they want European ones, not Chinese ones".

Reminiscences of both the Century of Humiliation and the immediate post-Maoism period might explain the Chinese taste for European architecture, albeit in different stances. On one hand, duplitectures stem from a sense of revenge on the countries that mistreated China in the past through appropriating their cultural heritages and owning them on its own terms (as concessions were forced upon China), as Bosker theorised. On the other hand, duplitectures emphasise appreciation for what is considered on par or even superior to the Chinese architectural style. While cultural appreciation towards others is generally a positive trait, particularly in a country subjugated to nationalistic propaganda such as the PRC, when it comes to replicas, I suggest it might underline self-demeaning sentiments. Sense of shame inherited by Confucianism philosophy is deeply rooted in Chinese society, and the realisation of the PRC’s real development condition in the 1980s may have caused internalised shame towards the country that some individuals still carry, leading them to put Europe on a type of pedestal. Architecture-wise, communist block buildings had at that point substituted traditional dynastic houses –many of which were purposely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution– as the most common type of building in China. Considering those buildings’ aesthetic, it is not difficult to imagine why these people might not find them as appealing as what they imagine all buildings in European cities look like.       

Example of Communist Buildings in Beijing, circa 1974. Source: BIAD.

Closing the Duplitecture Chapter: The Author's Opinion

I aim to conclude this article with personal reflections, given I am ethnically mixed with cultural ties to both China and Italy (the latter conveniently representing Europe at large in this context). As a child, I remember visiting my mother’s hometown Dalian and staring perplexed at a replica of Venice, completed with gondolas and canals. I asked myself why they had St Mark’s Bell Tower but no Chinese-looking buildings in the city. Dalian’s "Venice” does not, in my opinion, do justice to the Italian heritage. The replica city is merely a copy which lacks any of the charm of the original, and is quite ill-fitted to its surroundings. My concern is with how it was devised as a representation of Italy itself and thus marketed as a substitute for travelling and living abroad. This is frustrating, especially considering the poorly crafted representation. Duplitectures, by appearing cheap, directly feed into the prevailing narrative that dismisses everything from China as unoriginal and of little value, even if designed by European architects. This is particularly concerning, given how the substantial disparity between European perception of China and Chinese perception of Europe already places China at a disadvantage. The only aspect for which I am willing to credit Xi Jinping is his correct assertion that China does not need to adopt foreign cultures, considering its rich millennia-old history. I would particularly – and much– appreciate witnessing the restoration or modern reinterpretation of traditional Chinese architecture, especially in Dalian, where Japanese colonisation has already sought to erase its Chinese identity. Overall, I appreciate the ceasing of the duplitectures-phenomenon. Still, the appreciation is bittersweet, as the PRC spiralling, once again, into conservatism and isolationism is something I cannot be at peace with. Ultimately, China does not have to pretend other cultures do not exist to validate its own.

Oriental Venice Water City in Dalian. Source: Graeme Noble.
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