The Wa State of Myanmar is often called “shanzhai China,” that is, a lesser imitation of China. This essay unpacks the material and symbolic implications of creative imitation at the Chinese periphery, embodied in shanzhai 山寨 practices. Literally “mountain fortress,” shanzhai refers to the provenience of cheap brand imitations, made by mountain dwellers who cannot afford the original. The term is commonly used to describe creative and ironic brand imitation in the People's Republic of China today. Until the 1950s, the inhabitants of the Wa hills did indeed live in mountain fortresses—both a pragmatic necessity as well as a miniature repetition of Chinese imperial rule. The pragmatic limitations and creative potential of imitating China are shown for the cases of Maoism, authoritarian capitalism, and contemporary nationhood. Rather than an essentialized feature of Chinese cultural practice, the practices of shanzhai reveal that material and symbolic recombination are essential to creative imitation.

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