The Chinese imitation and piracy phenomenon has expanded and diversified into all aspects of contemporary culture. Shanzhai, the Chinese term for ‘mountain village,’ is now used to refer to imitation and pirated brands and goods, particularly electronics, but also expanding to include everything from handbags to medicines, wines to computers, cigarettes to military products.
Andrew “bunnie” Huang, a PhD student at MIT, documents this phenomenon further through the emergence of a $12 (USD) mobile phone. With quad-band GSM, Bluetooth, MP3 playback and OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display capabilities, the phone copies many things but is also packed with innovations—although those have to do almost exclusively with reducing the price. It uses off-the-shelf components, so much so that Huang even states that, “if you know a bit of Chinese, and know the right websites to go to, you can download schematics, board layouts and software utilities for something rather similar to this phone ‘for free.’ It feels like open-source, but it’s not: it’s a different kind of open ecosystem.” Huang baptised this dynamic gongkai, the transliteration of ‘open’ as applied to ‘open source’. It’s the “Galapagos of Chinese ‘open’ source.”
What Huang points to is a self-sufficient island of knowledge isolated from Western influence “...thanks to political, language and cultural isolation” where, by hyper-optimizing assemblages, manufacturing processes and technical capacities, a network of peers (who also share information) can create an extremely cheap and efficient consumer product. Although nowhere near the capabilities of a smartphone, the gongkai phone reveals important insights into a unique Chinese ecosystem of creation.