You Must Create? Boredom, Shanzhai and Digitization in the Time of ‘Creative China’

Hong Kong & Shenzhen, 7-9 April 2016, Hong Kong Baptist University

With its emergence as a global power, China aspires to move from a “made in China” towards a “created in China” country (Keane 2011). Creativity and culture have become a crucial source for innovation and financial growth, but are also mobilised to promote a new and open China to both the citizenry as well as the outside world. They are part of what is termed China’s “soft power.” In doing so, China is part of a global trend; there is a worldwide resurgence of the term “creativity” under the banner of creative industries. What are the implications of this imperative of creativity?

In this three-day conference, we will engage with the proliferation of the discourse on creativity by aligning it to three interrelated phenomena: boredom, shanzhai, and digitization. First, boredom, our lives are continuously haunted by the spectre of boredom, of monotony, of doing the same thing time and again. The daily routine of a nine-to-five (or, more likely, later than five) job, the writing of yet another academic article, the household chores, the perfunctory performance of bouquets and chocolates at anniversaries – all seem to be entrenched in quotidian fixities that make us feel helpless and uncreative. Creativity may hold the promise here of an escape out of boredom, of doing things differently, of living lives differently, thrusting open an aspirational window towards the future. But boredom may also be an important constitutive condition for creativity…

Second, shanzhai, a concept that allows us to go deeper into, and question, the association of creativity with notions like new, innovation, unique, talented, and the like. The emergence of shanzhai culture in China, in which cities, building, phones, people, books, etcetera, are being mimicked, is often read as an infringement on copyright law – the juridical underpinning of the reading of creativity as something unique, individual (or better, locatable) and innovative. But shanzhai practices attest to something quite different: the ‘fake’ iPhone has more rather than less functions, while new items are added to the ‘real’ Paul Smith winter collection. In general, it has helped to engender a vernacular culture of copy and paste that is embraced by many Chinese youth. Or think of the mimetic practice in calligraphy, where an ideal is to write like your master, to become a perfect imitator. And craftsmanship? …

Third, digitization, a force that currently transforms the global cultural and creative landscape at rapid speed. Like elsewhere in the world, China aspires to become a leading nation in new technology, and has initiated its Internet Plus policy as a driver for economic growth. At the same time, the penetration of new technologies in everyday life seems to surpass that in the West: Weixin, in addition to its Whatsapp-ish functions, is fast morphing into a financial tool, while the new generation’s current career dream is to develop an APP. New technologies also pose a challenge to traditional forms of creative education and legitimization: nowadays one can pick up a digital recorder, or say an iPhone, to shoot a movie, regardless of whether or where one is trained. Concomitantly, it also generates possibilities of “citizen journalism” particularly relevant to a heavily controlled media landscape as that in China…

These brief accounts concerning the intersections between boredom, shanzhai, digitization and creativity as played out in contemporary China await elaborations, examinations and problematizations. How do boredom, shanzhai and digitization impact on creative practices in China, and vice versa? What is actually going on in the interface of creative and everyday lives? How (far) do creative practices as understood from the three interrelated phenomena necessitate different ways of theorizing “Chinese” creativity? In short, the proposed conference aims to explore what is going on in China and tease out its implications to our understanding of “creativity”. Scholars working on creative cultures in and outside China will join PhD students whose dissertations engage with emerging creativities in China. In addition, we connect with creative practitioners in the field, not only by including artists to the conference, but also by organising a fieldtrip to the controversial West Kowloon project in Hong Kong – where we will present a programme with lectures and a public debate – as well as fieldtrip to Dafen Art village in Shenzhen, the global leader in the production of shanzhai art.

A partially bi-lingual open source volume of papers, and audio-visual materials, will come out from this conference. It targets not only academics but also practitioners and policy makers in the creative sector.

This workshop is part of the project “From Made in China to Created in China – A Comparative Study of Creative Practice and Production in Contemporary China” (ChinaCreative), a project funded with a consolidator grant from the European Research Council (ERC).

Jeroen de Kloet (University of Amsterdam) Yiu Fai Chow (Hong Kong Baptist University) Laura Vermeeren (University of Amsterdam) Connie Cheng (Hong Kong Baptist University)