Guide to the Gadgets Republic: Shanzhai!

Posted by Greg | September 8, 2010  |  19 Comments

Geeks like us you, and intelligent people such as yourself ourselves know that the future of technology lies within the borders of the People’s Republic of China.

To have a clear idea of what the technology industry in China is all about (young padawan), you should develop an understanding of the local Tech Culture. In future posts we’ll guide you through the different aspects of Chinese Tech Culture (ie: the Jedi Order), breaking down each aspects history, culture and future.


The topic for your first lesson is one of the most important aspects of Tech Culture in China: Shanzhai. This commonly adopted term is used to describe everything from simple products to an entire industry.


Shanzhai (written as 山寨) literally translated means mountain village or mountain stronghold. This translation, unlike many direct Chinese translations, is of great importance.

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away in the rural regions of China, many warlords and bandits decided to set up shop in small mountain villages or “strongholds”. These bandits were known to pirate goods from surrounding areas, but were in many cases hailed as almost Robin Hood type thieves. These bandits were famous for opposing and evading the corrupted authorities and in many cases considered their deeds justified.

Fast forward a few centuries…

Today’s common use of the word Shanzhai is believed to have 2 different origins. The first coming from Cantonese speakers who began to use the term as a slang word to refer to low-end, family based factories which were known for turning out low quality products. Over time these factories developed through profit and investment and were able to produce much higher quality products.

The problem that these factories had then, (and still have today), is that the products they produced were not branded and therefore considered “fake”. This meant that high end retailers weren’t willing to place these Shanzhai products on their shelves, and thus Shanzhai products became the heart of the much cheaper grey markets.

Shenzhen “The Shanzhai Capital” at Night

Another origin of the common usage of the word Shanzhai is the location of where these products are manufactured. Shenzhen (深圳), which is located near the Southernmost tip of mainland China, is China’s southern financial center and is considered to be one of the world’s fastest growing cities. It’s is also home to most of the Technology manufacturers in the country and is hence where most Shanzhai products are made. When pronounced in Cantonese, Shenzhen sounds very similar to the Canton pronunciation of Shanzhai this instantly caught on amongst people everywhere. Even though factories in Shenzhen are responsible for producing most of the worlds genuine branded tech products, the two are now almost synonymous with each other.


The monopolization of the Chinese cell phone market by international companies like Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, and Sony Ericson in the early 2000’s meant that Chinese customers had no choice but to pay premium prices for their phones.

The Chinese had had enough and Shanzhai factories decided to begin manufacturing near identical copies of brand-name products that sold for a fraction of the price. Almost overnight in 2007, Shanzhai cell phones overtook their “genuine” counterparts in sales as they began to supply to Chinese masses with cell phones.

Just like Robin Hood, Shanzhai manufacturers swept in, stole (intellectual property) from the rich and gave (cheap copies) to the poor just like the bandits of old from the terms literal translation.

Shanzhai “represents non-mainstream ideas and innovations, and it’s also a new way for common people to express what they want,” says Li Zonggui, a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in south China’s Guangdong Province.

As the word became more and more popular for describing “fake” products in China, it began to stand for more than just a representation of fake products, but as a challenge to authority and a culture was born.

Shanzhai is …?

…it’s what we’ve been explaining to you for the last few paragraphs, pay attention! But for those of you who weren’t, here’s a summary. Shanzhai is Chinese geek’s equivalent of “Ghetto”. Although the recent popularity of the term can be attributed to the introduction of knock-off cell phones here, it’s spread to just about any fake product you can find, and in China that’s almost anything you could possibly want to buy. In China these days you can find everything from fake iPads to fake fast food chains, but if you take the time to try it all you may be surprised to find yourself appreciating everything Shanzhai.

Just about anything these days has a Shanzhai copy in China. Here are some more great pictures of Shanzhai stuff:

Sources:, Time

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