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.