Provocative Objects / Spaces

17 June 2024 -

Provocative Objects: Shanzhai Smartphone
Figure 1: Xiaomi phone

The phone in Figure 1 is the first-generation smartphone released by the Chinese brand Xiaomi in 2011. You might notice a hint of Apple's influence in its interface design. In fact, Xiaomi is a brand that emerged from the Shanzhai (meaning counterfeit in Chinese) electronics industry in Guangdong Province, China. Before its emergence, China was known for a variety of Shanzhai phones that often evoked both amusement and bewilderment (as shown in Figure 2).

Figure 2: Shanzhai phones

In China, the term Shanzhai (山寨) originally meant “mountain stronghold,” but today it’s more commonly associated with counterfeit goods. Think of mobile phones branded as ‘Blockberry’, ‘Nckia’, or ‘iPhoue’—these products mimic the look and feel of international high-end phones at a fraction of the cost. The essence of Shanzhai harks back to the classic Chinese novel "Water Margin" (水浒传)(see Figure 3), where a group of outcasts, forced by a corrupt government, band together in a mountain fortress to resist tyranny. This ancient tale embodies a spirit of defiance against monopoly and dictatorship. In contemporary China, Shanzhai captures this anarchic essence more than any other term, representing a subversive play on authenticity and power (1). As cultural theorist Homi Bhabha suggests, being “almost but not quite” identical to the original challenges the dominant discourse and deconstructs notions of power and authenticity (2). Kerry Sizheng Fan argues that a nation's quest for cultural identity often parallels its economic rise, and for China, Shanzhai has been a quick route to cultural and technological assertion(3). These counterfeit products reveal a gap between China’s rapid economic growth and its lagging business regulations. They cater to a burgeoning consumer market eager for modernity and sophistication, albeit through shortcuts that fulfil immediate cultural desires.

Figure 3: Water Margin

Historically, imitation has often been a precursor to innovation. In 18th-century England, the lines between imitation and invention were blurred, with imitation seen as enhancing product quality and variety (4). Today, for many companies, imitation is a safer strategy compared to the high risks associated with constant innovation. This iterative process of small-scale experimentation has significantly shortened design cycles. In Shenzhen, in 2015, for instance, a new mobile phone can go from concept to market readiness in just 29 days (5). China’s Shanzhai phenomenon has evolved, blending imitation with innovation. The once-grassroots Shanzhai mobile phone market, initially catering to low-income consumers, has matured into a sophisticated ecosystem producing brands like Xiaomi, Xiaomi has created a new wave of smartphones with good quality and design in addition to its low price, long since moving beyond the shadow of its initial Shanzhai origins (5). Recently, Xiaomi has even begun venturing into the automobile industry (see Figure 4), highlighting how Shanzhai has spurred technological innovation within Chinese industries.

Figure 4: Xiaomi su 7

This article argues that Shanzhai products can serve as a representative of a provocative object because the story of Shanzhai is not just about counterfeit goods; it’s a narrative of cultural defiance, economic strategy, and technological evolution. It challenges traditional notions of originality and authenticity, highlighting how imitation can drive innovation and disrupt established power dynamics.


(1) Yu, H. (2011) China in Ten Words. New York: Anchor Books.
(2) Bhabha, H. (1984) Of mimicry and man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse. October, 28, pp.125-133.
(3) Fan, K.S., 2016. Shanzhai. Architecture and Culture, 4(2), pp.323-329.
(4) Godin, B. (2008) Innovation: the History of a Category.
(5) Lindtner, S., Greenspan, A. and Li, D. (2015) Designed in Shenzhen: Shanzhai manufacturing and maker entrepreneurs. In Proceedings of The Fifth Decennial Aarhus Conference on Critical Alternatives (pp. 85-96).

Figure 1: Image from
Figure 2: Image from Chinese social media RED, with authorisation from the blogger.
Figure 3: Image from Amazon.
Figure 4: Image from

Started by the DHS Ambassadors in 2022, the Design History Society’s Provocative Objects and Places blog series looks at spaces and objects that challenge and confront us as design historians.

Past topics have ranged from the ancient Colosseum in Rome to the ultramodern Antilia in Mumbai; pink razors and Barbies to Lalique’s Bacchantes vase and nineteenth-century asylum photography. The full collection of previous posts can be found here.

We invite submissions for guest blog posts from students, early career researchers, and established academics to those with a general interest in design history. Posts can be on any object or place from any era, anywhere in the world, which in some way incites discussion and debate.Posts should be 500-800 words in length, accompanied by at least one image with associated credits and clearances, and a short bio.

Please send to the DHS Senior Administrator, Dr Jenna Allsopp


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