Reviews / July 2011 (Issue 14)

Lena Henningsen's Copyright Matters

by Ruth Y.Y. Hung


Lena Henningsen, Copyright Matters: Imitation, Creativity and Authenticity in Contemporary Chinese Literature, Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2010. 279 pgs.

Since China's economic rise began, popular media throughout the world has produced a narrative in which the country appears as the largest producer, consumer and exporter of fake goods—from software and luxury products to pirated DVDs and bestselling works of fiction. According to this view, China is the world's worst infringer of intellectual property rights, and it costs the world billions of dollars in lost revenue each year. But this idea of China as a country of fakers goes beyond simply the economic dimensions of copyright infringement to encompass a more general sense that much of what is produced in the Middle Kingdom cannot be trusted. There was, for example, a memorable moment for a billion TV viewers when Western media reported that the picture-perfect girl who "sang" the patriotic "Hymn to the Motherland" at the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics had in fact lip-synched to another girl's voice. Soon after that, the media revealed that the fifty-five-second fireworks display broadcast to the world was amplified by computer-generated effects. Though we could dismiss these as just Hollywood effects, the world media has interpreted such incidents as examples of a thorough and unabashed counterfeiting culture. Indeed despite the agreements announced last December in which China promised to aggressively combat piracy (see for example "China Agrees to Intellectual Property Protections," New York Times, December 15, 2010), the U.S. government kept the country on its latest list (May 2011) of copyright thieves; this is the seventh year it was on the list.

Lena Henningsen in Copyright Matters: Imitation, Creativity and Authenticity in Contemporary Chinese Literature argues, however, that the problem of copyright in China is more complex than the popular story allows. Focusing her study on books and Chinese contemporary popular culture, Henningsen attempts to blur the boundaries that divide creation from re-creation, "creative imitation" from plagiarism. She argues that copyright laws present contemporary Chinese artists, writers and academics not just with problems of legal rights and property infringement but also an opportunity for developing new ways of creation and criticism. Depending on the media (digital or literary) and the kinds of text (fictional or academic), copyright laws sometimes serve as a welcome weapon for academics to gain standing in their field, as well as cultural capital that might have financial implications. Other times, they function as an impetus for authors to fulfill their creative potential underlying popular cultural symbols. In many cases, especially those involving fictional works, however, the laws impose challenges to established Chinese literary and artistic practices. She argues it is inadequate, therefore, to discuss the problem of copyright infringement simply as a critique of dominant Chinese cultural practices, which allow authors to ignore the global perception of China as a kingdom of cheats.

Copyright Matters consists of a detailed case-by-case study of the cultural implications of the state of China's copyright laws. The book also seeks to emend the media's popular and over-generalized account of intellectual property infringement in contemporary China, and it urges readers to consider the problem in cultural terms, not just through the social, political, legal and economic lenses in which we normally interpret the issue. Noting that copyright is a Western concept, Henningsen insists that studies of copyright laws in China need to address the uniqueness of China's cultural scene and consider their applicability separately in different fields: literary, historical and academic.

The book presents the complexity of copyright matters in five case studies which make up the book's five component chapters. It discusses alleged and proven cases of "plagiarism"—four literary and one academic—and considers each case within a spectrum between "plagiarism" and what Henningsen calls "imitative creativity."

The first case study involves the bestselling author and convicted plagiarist, Guo Jingming. Henningsen, sympathetic with Guo, defends the author's "creative strength" by demonstrating how he uses imitation and adaptation as creative techniques to invent new elements in his novels. Chapter 2 studies the case of Han Han, a contemporary of Guo Jingming, who takes copyright matters so seriously that he becomes "obsessed" with issues of authenticity and artistic purpose and writes about them in his own literary works. Writing mostly fictive autobiographies, Han Han constantly retells the story of himself as "the author" with minor variations. Is this just another case of plagiarism, albeit with the victim being Han Han himself? Henningsen here introduces the concept of authenticity and argues that Han Han's is more a case of self-referencing than of self-plagiarizing.

The third chapter offers a case study of another bestseller, the novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, who was the recipient of the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize. As Henningsen admits the chapter is more about bestsellers than about plagiarism. It addresses how intertextuality serves as a breeding agent and grounds works in popular culture. Interestingly, Henningsen changes the title of the translated novel from Wolf Totem to Wolf's Totem. This move opens up an array of possible meanings and suggests that the book supports not only one reading but many, specifically those connected with themes or ideas generated by the "wolf" as a cultural symbol.

A study of what Henningsen calls "Harry Potter fakes" makes up the fourth chapter. Here, she makes a distinction between "fake" and "fan" fiction and argues that many of the "illegal" Harry Potter novels circulating in the Chinese black market are creative parodies produced by "readers-turned-authors." Some of these novels contain author disclaimers or use other similar techniques to address concerns about copyright, a development which Henningsen sees as evidence of Chinese authors' growing awareness of intellectual property issues.

Chapter 5, "The Work of Academic Writing in the Age of Digital Reproduction," which deals with academic plagiarism, is the most interesting. Apparently out of step with the four cases that precede it, this chapter uses the examples of literary appropriation discussed in the earlier chapters as measures against which to judge academic plagiarism. In this chapter, Henningsen examines "plagiarism" in three different ways: a specific medium (the Internet), mode (digital reproduction) and field (academic). She concludes that copyright issues relating to Chinese academics do not figure directly in economic terms. This is because as plagiarism is an indicator of an intellectual's moral integrity and professional ethics, the public uses it to measure the legitimacy of the entire field.

As my outline of the book's component chapters shows, in three of her five case studies Henningsen argues that the absorption of extant material into new works is an acceptable and regular practice in Chinese textual production. Her chapters on Guo Jingming, Harry Potter and Wolf Totem essentially argue that "[w]hat copyright law dismisses as illegal may also be regarded as artistic practice." For Henningsen, "plagiarism"— in the form of borrowing from, reworking or imitating fictional works—does not constitute copyright infringement but is instead more an act of what, borrowing from Sheridan Tatsuno via Michael Keane, she calls "adaptive creativity."

Henningsen believes intellectual property rights matter more outside the realm of contemporary popular literature, in cases such as autobiographies (Chapter 2) and academic essays (Chapter 5). Several times in Chapter 5, Henningsen relates significantly, albeit in passing, the problem of academic plagiarism to the problem of academic institutionalization and the global market. She notices how elements characteristic of the market have come to characterize both instruction and research:

The importance placed on factors such as evaluation, competition and commercialization rather than on political status may be viewed as a form of "Westernization," or "Americanization," of Chinese academia. ... Maybe due to the speed of these system changes, Chinese academia is confronted with a wide array of issues of academic corruption. These problems are not unique to China, but seem to appear on a larger scale than in Western academia at the moment.

Henningsen emphasises the relationship between and among the emergent discourse of plagiarism in China, neoliberalism and the increasing international trend towards academic standardization and quantification over qualification. The case of Wang Hui in early 2010 is the most recent and memorable example of the relationship. Henningsen, I believe, finished writing much of the book—then a doctoral thesis—in 2008, and published it in 2010, at exactly the time when the Internet turned an alleged case of plagiarism by the literary critic, cultural historian and professor at Qinghua University Wang Hui into a media event. Former editor of Dushu (Reading) and voted by Foreign Policy in 2008 as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world, Wang Hui is a well-known in China and abroad. Suggestively, his accuser Wang Binbin found no evidence against Wang Hui in his recent and more important works but only in his dissertation on Lu Xun, published twenty-five years ago. The debate primarily centers on Wang Hui's citation method, specifically whether a footnote adequately acknowledges his use of Joseph Levenson's work. Defenders of Wang Hui have argued that while Wang's citation technically falls short of today's academic standard, this might not have been the standard in China at the time.

The case of Wang Hui exemplifies how in contemporary China the debate around "plagiarism" is a productive but potentially "policing" discourse. (One of Henningsen's longest footnotes is a list of books and essays on "professional self-regulation" in academic practices.) Many of the cases of academic plagiarism Henningsen cites in her book suggest that discussions of the issue, especially those taking place on the Internet, often focus on academic form—"why footnote matters," for example—and overlook important concerns about what and how criticism creates. In the book's most arresting section, Henningsen patiently teases out evidence from a "vast amount of material" and a "broad spectrum of participations" in online discussion forums to show that articles that seek to reveal instances of plagiarism and formulate "a theory of plagiarism" are now finding their way into the field of academic criticism. In simpler terms, for example, Wang Binbin's "criticism" of Wang Hui, once dressed in a "scholarly style," some might argue, could itself constitute "academic research."

For me, the global market and its institutional manifestations are in the background of all these case studies. What is popular literature if there are no profits or market? What is academic and literary plagiarism without the institutions of literature, art and criticism? What is copyright if it is not first a matter of economic rights? As Henningsen shows in her Introduction, the intellectual property regime that China has slowly developed over the past decades is the result of the country's increasing participation in the global economy. The first national Chinese copyright law, adopted in 1991, took a decade to be reworked; it came of age as China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001. Therefore, despite Henningsen's worries that her discussion of academic plagiarism might "come as a surprise," it is no accident that after the Reagan and Thatcher regimes, literary and cultural criticism became part of so-called "academic capitalism" and was therefore co-opted into the market. This fact opens certain important questions for knowledge production and reproduction: Is an institutionalized practice of plagiarism a legitimate form of "plagiarism"? How do copyright laws produce and institutionalize "plagiarism"?

Copyright Matters is admirably comprehensive. It contains an enormous number of examples of literary and academic plagiarism, both proven and alleged, that supports its thesis. Yet, if this book is a product of an anxiety arising from an attempt to understand creativity, the very idea of studying creativity in terms of copyright likewise creates anxiety. Our goal is to attempt to "theorize" the problem of criticism without falling into an ever-expanding system of academic capitalism and institutionalization that eventually standardizes, obliterates and makes futile the intellectual's creativity.

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