As it flexes its muscles, the world's wonders come to China

The Middle Kingdom's copy-cat syndrome has been going on for centuries, Jack Carlson writes

Chinese tourists may be flocking to Europe in record numbers, but now they can see some of the continent's top historical attractions without ever leaving the People's Republic.

The alpine village of Hallstatt, Austria, (a UNESCO World Heritage site on the picturesque shore of the Hallstatter See) has been re-created in a full-scale in Boluo, in southern China.

Complete with European-style wooden houses and the town's signature Roman-numeral clock tower, the made-in-China version of Hallstatt opened this year for visitors and new residents. The Chinese developers, Minmetals Land Ltd, even got the real mayor of Hallstatt to fly in from Austria for the opening.

Strange as it sounds, the Hallstatt replica is hardly unique in China. The Middle Kingdom is cloning Western monuments, palaces and entire towns, often at a frenetic pace and with uncanny accuracy. But why?

US and European commentators - not to mention residents of the original cities - are variously amused, indignant and, above all, puzzled. But now, as in China's past, imitation isn't intended as flattery. The ancient parallels for these copycat projects suggest that they are not mere follies, but monumental assertions of China's global primacy.

Replica British towns near Shanghai and Chengdu, for example, feature Tudor, Georgian and Victorian architecture complete with quaint market squares and signature red telephone booths. Likewise, a Bauhaus ''German Town'' near Shanghai designed by the son of the Third Reich's chief architect, Albert Speer, boasts bronze statues of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller.


China is also home to several charming Dutch villages, at least two of the world's largest Eiffel Tower replicas, and an opulent copy of the 17th-century Chateau de Maisons-Laffitte (using the original blueprints).

More eerily, perhaps, a full-scale, no-expense-spared replica of the White House stands outside Hangzhou, while less exact copies of the US Capitol, the Arc de Triomphe and the Sydney Opera House can be found in the village of Huaxi in Jiangsu province and elsewhere.

And a long-term project is under way to create a vast financial centre at Yujiapu in the municipality of Tianjin based explicitly on Manhattan. The plans include a Rockefeller Centre and twin towers to be built by the Chinese arm of Tishman, the contractor for the original World Trade Center towers.

China's fondness for replicating has not gone unnoticed in the West, but as of yet no one has offered a convincing explanation.

Some have discussed these imitation cities within the larger theme of China's copycat syndrome. The country is full of fake brand-name clothing, electronic products and even medicine. Chinese TV shows are notorious for stealing plotlines and even jokes from US programs, and China's academic journals are rife with plagiarism.

But a general disrespect for intellectual property does not fully account for life-size copies of the White House, European chateaux and entire villages.

And China's relationship with the West has changed immeasurably since the mid-19th century, when the country was known as the ''sick man of Asia''. Within the context of China's economic rise, the present-day importation of styles and architecture feels more like muscle-flexing than a symptom of sickness.

There are apt parallels in Chinese history for this replication. Then, as now, the projects were intended to showcase China's own worldliness, wealth and global supremacy.

At the height of the Qing dynasty's power (circa 1750), for example, the Qianlong Emperor commissioned French and Italian Jesuits in his court to help design and build a European palace complex. The result was the Xiyang Lou, or the Western Palaces, a sprawling collection of baroque stone palaces and gardens based on the Trianon at Versailles.They were seen as symbols of China's wealth, far-reaching influence and central position in the cosmos: they were exotica on the grandest of scales, but were destroyed by French and British forces in 1860.

Today, 21st-century industrialist Zhang Yue entertains at his own version of Versailles near Changsha in the province of Hunan (where his company compound, Broad Town, also features an Egyptian pyramid). A state-owned company in the north-eastern city of Harbin has another imitation Versailles.

Like their ancient counterparts, these imitations are beacons - directed at both Chinese nationals and outsiders - of China's worldly scientific and cultural knowledge.

More striking precedents for the copycat cities and palaces are found even earlier in Chinese history. Ancient China's premier historian, Sima Qian, recorded a remarkable building program pursued by China's first ruling dynasty, the Qin:

''Whenever Qin conquered one of its rivals, it would commission replicas of its palaces and halls and reconstruct them on the slope north of the capital, facing south over the river. From Yongmen all the way to the Jing and Wei rivers, there were replica palaces, passages, and walled pavilions, all filled with women, bells, and drums that Qin had taken from them.''

The imitation palaces were the most outlandish spoils of war. They were expressions, in concrete terms, of the Qin's invincibility and inevitable ascendancy.

Not only has China outstripped Europe's top economies, it is now importing its most cherished architectural achievements - the literal halls of power.

This is the new world order made visually and physically manifest. Washington Post-Bloomberg

Jack Carlson is an archaeologist and Clarendon scholar at Oxford University.