Visual arts: imagining a shanzhai city in twenty-first century China

Federica Mirra (Corresponding / Lead Author)

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Since 1978, China has experienced an unprecedented urban and economic growth under the central government's imperative to become a global power. Whereas the central government aimed to showcase its success through ambitious infrastructure projects, distinctive skylines, and spectacular waterfronts, local officials pursued this national goal through the construction of copycats, gated communities, and theme parks and towns. From miniature Eiffel Towers and extravagant residential units to entire themed villages, local authorities and real estate developers have integrated local and global milieus as a quick-fix to upgrade the urban experience and satisfy the taste of the Chinese middle class. Despite the extensive literature in the fields of architecture, urban and social studies, the role of visual arts in the analysis of this unique urban practice has not been explored yet. Hence, this article fulfils the gap by investigating what I refer to as shanzhai (copycats) places in Mainland China through their second-hand representations in the contemporary artworks by Xiang Liqing, Zhang Peili, Hu Jieming, and Yang Yuanyuan. Through qualitative, empirical visual analysis, fieldwork and semi-structured interviews with selected artists, I explore the overlaps between visual arts and these urban phenomena to identify the dynamics and urban actors involved in space-making and suggest that private estates, copycats, and theme parks and towns do not oppose the official narrative; rather, they are localised interpretations of the national dream. Against the dominant practice of building spectacular cities, this article explores how the city could be envisioned and reproduced in the future through the selected artistic practices.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)60
    Number of pages72
    JournalVisual Studies
    Issue number1-2
    Publication statusPublished (VoR) - 5 Sept 2023


    • contemporary Chinese art
    • shanzhai
    • urban
    • Chinese society
    • Visual Culture


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