Tech Trend: Shanzhai
The shanzhai of China are a tech trend to keep an eye on. Typically dismissed by popular press as simply the “copycat barons from China”, I think they may have something in common with Hewlett and Packard or Jobs and Wozniak back when they were working out of garages. I’ve heard quite a few stories about the shanzhai while on my most recent trip to China, some of which I will share here.
First, let’s try to understand the cultural context of the word shanzhai. Shanzhai (山寨) comes from the Chinese words “mountain fortress”. The literal translation is a bit misleading. The English term “fortress” connotes a fortified structure or stronghold that is large, perhaps conjuring imagery of castle turrets and moats. On the other hand, the denotation simply states that it is simply a fortified place. This latter denotation is closer to the original meaning from Chinese; in fact, the fortress they are referring to is closer to a cave or guerrilla-style hideout. In its contemporary context, shanzhai is a historical allusion to the legends that dwelled within. One such legend is the 12th-century story of the 108 bandits of Song Jiang. It is still a popular tale today; my father recognized it instantly when I asked him about it. A friend of mine described Song Jiang as a sort of Robin Hood meets Che Guevara; Song Jiang was a rebel and a soldier of fortune, yet selfless and kind to those in need.