An expert's point of view on a current event.

China’s Copycat Cities

The People's Republic is building life-size European villages, but not for the reasons you think.


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 Hallstätter See) has been re-created in full-scale replica in Boluo, in southern China. Complete with European-style wood houses and the town’s signature Roman-numeral clock tower, the made-in-China version of Hallstatt opened this summer for visitors and new residents. The Chinese developers, Minmetals Land Ltd., even got the real mayor of Hallstatt to fly in from Austria to mark the occasion.

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?

American and European commentators — not to mention residents of the original cities — are variously amused, indignant, and, above all, puzzled. This is not, however, the first time China has imported Western architecture on a grand scale. 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.

In addition to the wholesale replication of Hallstatt, countless other facsimile cities and monuments have popped up across China — and more are in the works. 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 Albert Speer, son of the Third Reich’s chief architect, 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 Château de Maisons-Laffitte (constructed using the original blueprints and imported French Chantilly stone). More eerily, perhaps, a full-scale, no-expense-spared replica of the White House stands outside Hangzhou, while less exacting copies of the U.S. 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 center at Yujiapu in the municipality of Tianjin based explicitly on Manhattan. The plans even include a Rockefeller Center and twin towers to be built by the Chinese arm of Tishman, the contractor for the original World Trade Center towers in New York.

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 television shows are notorious for stealing plotlines and even jokes from American 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.

The phenomenon has also been taken to reflect a Chinese obsession with Western tastes. Urban-design critic Harry den Hartog has referred to the projects as "self-colonization," comparing the re-creation of Dutch, German, British, and Italian towns around Shanghai to the concession territories that the imperial powers developed there and in Tianjin after the Opium Wars. But 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 recent round of 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 the French and Italian Jesuits in his court to help design and build a European palace complex. The result was the Xiyang Lou, often translated as the "Western Mansions" or "Western Palaces," a sprawling collection of Baroque stone palaces and gardens based on the Trianon at Versailles. Eventually destroyed by French and British forces in 1860, the structures had been symbols of China’s wealth, far-reaching influence, and central position in the cosmos: exotica on the grandest of scales.

The "Western Palaces" provide some cultural context for the current surfeit of replicas in the People’s Republic. 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), and a state-owned firm in the northeastern city of Harbin occupies another imitation Versailles. Like their quarter-millennium-old counterparts, these imitations are beacons — directed at both Chinese nationals and outsiders — of China’s worldly scientific and cultural knowledge. By appropriating the monumental trappings of power from distant places and times, the Chinese do not merely place their own country on a symbolic par with historical Western superpowers, but suggest that China has mastered and transcended their levels of achievement.

More striking precedents for the copycat cities and palaces are found even earlier in Chinese history. The First Emperor (Qin Shi Huang) is perhaps most famous for the spectacular terra-cotta warriors he commissioned after he unified China in 221 B.C. But the terracotta army that made him famous was not the only grand building project the emperor and his court undertook. Sima Qian, ancient China’s premier historian, 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 construction of each facsimile palace corresponded directly to the conquest of a specific territory, and exotic new towns in the Qin heartland soon followed, where conquered families from the empire’s far reaches were required to resettle. The imitation palaces were the most outlandish spoils of war, reconstructed and presented by proxy to the home audience. They were expressions, in concrete terms, of the Qin’s invincibility and inevitable ascendancy.

Modern China’s replica palaces and monuments are not built to correspond to military victories, of course. And while the Chinese Hallstatt features a few blond European entertainers, the People’s Republic is not filling its imitation towns with real people and historical artifacts from the West. But like the ancient replicas, their modern counterparts are also conspicuous demonstrations of authority and influence on an inconceivably far-reaching scale. Not only has China outstripped Europe’s leading economies, but it is now importing, by proxy, its most cherished architectural achievements — the literal halls of power. This is the new world order made visually and physically manifest.

The First Emperor also commissioned a corollary project to his palaces and pavilions: 12 colossal bronze statues wrought from the melted weapons of his enemies and erected in the capital to represent the vanquished states. Today, China is once again putting bronze statues of foreigners on display to correspond with its imitation cities. Aside from the Schiller and Goethe statues in "German Town," one can find the likenesses of Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, Harry Potter, and James Bond in "Thames Town," and Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and business magnate Jack Welch in Broad Town. Needless to say, there is no violent conquest behind the creation of these modern Chinese monuments and the cities they inhabit. But they and their ancient equivalents represent a dizzyingly grand amalgamation of worldwide political, cultural, and industrial achievement to which China is, by its own understanding and aspiration, heir.

The First Emperor built the greatest superpower in the known world, and he created a monumental vocabulary to articulate this supremacy. Now modern China, consciously or not, is marshaling his symbolic language to convey its burgeoning global primacy. The First Emperor no doubt would have approved wholeheartedly of China’s new replica cities and sights, taking special delight, perhaps, in the White House facsimile. And in spite of the legendary scale and precision of his own building ventures, even he might have been impressed by the Chinese Hallstatt.

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