Do you know what the Chinese word “shanzai” means?

You’ll be hearing a lot about it in the coming years. Take a look at the Chinese iphone knockoff pictured at right. Some of these copies are starting to show innovations of their own. A recent article in the Financial Review gives some details:

“Bought any cheap knock-offs from China lately? Did you notice they were superior to the original designs? For instance, the mobile phone that has holes for two sim cards enabling calls on two numbers, or the Adivon brand, which not only looks very much like Adidas but also advertised at the NBA. That’s shanzhai.”

“New manufacturing techniques, a growing consumer culture and a disregard for local regulations and international intellectual property laws have meant that Chinese shanzhai manufacturers have become experts in not only copying fashionable Western goods but also improving on them.”

Here’s how Wikipedia defines the term:

Shanzhai (Chinese: 山寨; pinyin: shānzhài; alternatively spelt shanzai or shan zhai) refers to Chinese imitation and pirated brands and goods, particularly electronics. Literally “mountain village” or “mountain stronghold”, the term refers to the mountain stockades of regional warlords or bandits, far away from official control. “Shanzhai” can also be stretched to refer to people who are lookalikes, low-quality or improved goods, as well as things done in parody.

And the shanzai phenom is not going to be limited to China.  Here’s a video from the giant annual U.S. Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where a shanzai manufacturer shows off a “dual-boot” tablet that runs both Windows and Android. For under $350.

Shanzai is a complex phenomenon, and not susceptible to explanation in a single blog post.  But we’re very interested, and plan to keep an eye on it. Stay tuned.

4 thoughts on “Do you know what the Chinese word “shanzai” means?

  1. Forgive the pedantry but: If it s spelled “shanzai” the z is pronounced like you might expect, so the word sounds roughly like shan z eye (I broke up the z and eye for illustrative purposes only, the word is just two syllables long). But in Chinese the zh combination is prounounced like the English letter j, making the work shan j eye (hard j plus eye sound again equal one syllable when pronounced). My explanation is clunky but there is no way that shanzai and shanzhai are interchangeable or even similar.

  2. The first character (hanzi) in the wikipedia definition you use is indeed “shan” which means mountain. The second is “zhai” (pronunced “jie” which would rhyme with “pie” with a hard j sound) and given the use of the fourth tone symbol in the pinyin, it means “stockade” or “camp.”

    The word “zai” is pronounced with a z sound (zie), and can mean a lot of things, to narrow it down I’d need to see the pinyin to see which tone, to know exactly I’d need to see the character. Bottom line is wikipedia is wrong to suggest it could be either spelling.

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