Kung Fu Panda And A New Theory On China Counterfeiting.

China IP

“When you cease to strive to understand then you will know without understanding.” – Caine

I have yet to see the movie Kung Fu Panda, but the always excellent How The World Works, in a post entitled, “Kung Fu Panda’s Inside Joke,” [link no  longer exists] has just given me another reason why I should. According to How The World Works, the film references both Chinese art and kung fu:

The animators of this very good-looking film have a lot of fun with classical Chinese landscapes and other familiar tropes of traditional Chinese art. But one scene jumps out. Po, the panda with unlikely martial arts aspirations, has made it inside a temple storing a variety of legendary weapons and other hallowed items suffused with kung fu lore. Po, the kind of geek who memorizes every possible piece of minutiae about his chosen obsession, shudders with delight as he rushes from one object to another.

Beyond that, it may help explain why counterfeiting is not viewed so unfavorably in China:

Finally, he comes to a painting depicting an ancient exploit by kung fu heroes. He exclaims: “I’ve only seen paintings of this painting!”

My kids laughed, as did most of the theater, just because the line sounds funny all by itself, without any context other than that delivered by Jack Black’s voice. But taken in the context of classical Chinese painting, it’s an even better inside joke. For many centuries of Chinese industry, the great paintings of the past were faithfully copied by the great painters of each successive age. The earliest versions of many of these classics have been lost to the ravages of time — we know them only through their reproductions.

Yet those reproductions are not regarded as mere copies, but as masterworks in their own right. Indeed, there is even a theory that the supposed Chinese lack of respect for copyright can be connected to the classical Chinese reverence for copying. “I’ve only seen paintings of these paintings” is a joke written by someone who knows what they’re joking about, and it is not the only such gem in “Kung Fu Panda.”

I can hardly wait to take my ten year old to this movie.

8 responses to “Kung Fu Panda And A New Theory On China Counterfeiting.”

  1. Oh, this is totally true (about the process of creating art in China) even today. A couple of years ago, I tutored a girl studying art at Wuhan University. When she told me that she was an artist, I was really excited and asked her to bring in her work. Everything she brought in looked like a classical Chinese painting, and not realizing, I said, “Oh! You like to paint in a classical style?” She said, “Of course!” and then explained who the original artists were. After pressing her a bit, she explained that during her art training– a full four years of college, she will never be asked to create anything original. Her progression through school is marked by increasingly complex paintings by old masters. When I asked if she’d bring in some of HER art, she was very confused– “this IS my art!” she responded.
    I was in a very sour state about the state of art in China (I didn’t live in a big city at the time, so I never really had access to contemporary, original artists) for a while. Later, though, I discovered an amazing book called “China’s New Art” that features some really incredible contemporary art. A lot of it is socially and politically critical, yet many of the artists maintain posts in the art departments of the large (and thus “good”) universities of China.
    I feel a bit better about it now, but I think it’s a shame that the overwhelming majority of people studying art in China are actually studying replication.

  2. Funny about paintings lost to the ravages of time, but funny about a Titanium hollow head driver that retails for $479 stateside? Not so much.

  3. “When you cease understanding, then you don’t understand.” – Platek

  4. @ Chris
    Copying old masters is one of the better ways of mastering proven techniques.
    Young budding “artists” have learned the craft before he/she become a real artist.
    That is why there aren’t many likes of Jeff Koon (ie BS artist) in traditional Chinese art .
    If you can’t paint what you see, how could you paint how you feel?

  5. There is a book known among Chinese IP law enthusists titled
    To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law and Chinese Civilization
    It makes reference to the supposedly Chinese view of recreation as a form of creation.
    Personally, I don’t think it is as much cultural as a socio-economic phenomenon (not that culture and socio-economic forces are divorced).
    As for the state of the Chinese art, one need not feel sorry since the Chinese probably appreciates a different mix of craftsmanship and creativity, just as one need not feel sorry that certain Western art may have traded in technical virtuosity for emotional outpour or intellectual exercise.

  6. Hm, yeah…to suggest that Chinese IP theft as we most commonly know it has anything to do with some intrinsic appreciation for the “art of replication” is reaching a bit. Emulating that which we admire or that which would benefit us is neither unique to the Chinese nor is it sufficiently related to some historical socio-cultural background of copying “the masters.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
    The movie was great, though.

  7. We have a great deal of trouble with plagiarism by Chinese students at UNC. Even when their English is impecable, they seem to think that saying something original is foolish when a PhD has already written on the matter; and if not, then they assume that their thesis must be unworthy of attention or just plain wrong. You can sort of see their point after grading a stack of papers wherein undergraduates come to outlandish conclusions by patchung together citations from books they haven’t read by scholars who are, as oten as not, arguing against the students’ theses, i.e., Jane Austen was a feminist, Nixon was a conservative, Freud hated women, etc. We have talked about the ancient Confucian civil-servant exam system wherein the test was simply volumes of memorization. Maybe copying is in their culture. Maybe we should meet them half way.

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