The value of fakery

The value of fakery

Detail of a copy of Wang Xizhi's famous 'Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Manuscript'

China is often (fairly) criticised for being rife with piracy and fakes. What is seldom discussed is why China is so ‘successful’ at faking it and why Chinese people have seemed less concerned about whether or not something is ‘genuine.’ Is there a virtue of which this vice is a corruption?

The early use of paper meant that Chinese calligraphic works of art were much more perishable than similar works elsewhere. The way to preserve a creation of outstanding beauty was not to try to stop the dead artefact from rotting but rather to learn how to reproduce it so faithfully that it lived on in different locations and through successive generations.

Don’t just look at it;
learn it, feel it, live it.

The same principle has been applied across the disciplines. This of course has led to an emphasis in education on rote learning: memorising the works of others and so drilling their recall that you can reproduce them faithfully and instinctively.

So the key question is “why?” Is the purpose of your rote learning to pass an exam or to experience the beauty? Is it to tick a box that puts you above others or to develop skills that enable you to make your own contribution for the benefit of others? It is no secret or accident that the greatest athletes are able to shine because of disciplined repetition.

To pass the work of someone else off as your own is fraud; to claim that something was produced by a particular company when it wasn’t is a breach of trust. But to engage with Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece to the point that your copy of the Mono Lisa is effectively indistinguishable from the original is to bring a part of his spirit back to life in an age that desperately needs it.