Pen Stuart writes:

“‘Are Chinese people creative?’ – it depends if you mean in the Western Christian sense of creating something from nothing”. This was the best line in a fascinating recent talk by Lorraine Justice on the rise of Chinese design. Justice, who was talking about her book, suggested that this familiar accusation, that Chinese people aren’t as creative as Westerners, is in practice a reflection of a narrow Western view of what creativity means.

In recent years, many Chinese designers have become proud of the ‘shanzhai’ culture – once dismissed as fakes, or at best copies, but increasingly seen as adapting and improving on the original – creating better products, not just imitating. This raises another question: might the creative future be less about global homogenisation and more about specialisation and inter-dependence? Instead of becoming another identical design market, China could become the place where ideas and products are perfected, working with Western designers who may be culturally more suited to starting the innovation cycle. Obviously the future is unlikely to divide as simply as this, but national specialities and cross-national innovation teams could become important.

But Justice’s talk was also useful for looking at what creativity means for consumers. For many Chinese consumers, creativity is less about Western-style self-expression than self-understanding and self-development. To take the example of Chinese painting, this has traditionally been genre-focused, using a comparatively narrow set of themes such as ‘bird and flower’, landscape, and ‘person at leisure’. The aim was not to express your identity to other people by being innovative and trying out new styles, as in many Western understandings of art.

This art wasn’t designed for a mass audience, but rather intended as a route to personal introspection, understanding, and meditation. Therefore in China, creativity can be as much about personal progress – moral, intellectual and philosophical – as about unveiling something new and revolutionary. With the current enthusiasm for co-creation and mass customisation, it is not just companies in ‘creative’ categories that need to take notice of this. There are real opportunities for all.

The photograph at the top of the post shows the cover of Lorraine Justice’s book, and is used here courtesy of MIT Press.

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