Are You Trying to Be Too Original? What I Learned About the Value of Imitation from China

One of the things that fascinates me about China is the culture of copying.

When my book, Learn More, Study Less, was published in China, they wanted to use the illustrations in the book. But these were just hand-drawn by me to go in an ebook I made while in university. I’m not a professional illustrator by any means, so they decided to redo the images.

Interestingly enough, they didn’t create their own images for the concepts. They simply redid the illustrations I had made, but made them better. The same images were smoother, with crisper details and better shapes.

What struck me when I first saw this, was that the illustrator who redid my images probably could have created better concepts for images as well. But instead, he or she simply remade better versions of what I had originally drawn.

This culture of imitation in China is often criticized in the West. In some cases, accusations of plagiarism are launched because the imitation is too close to the original. Consider this back and forth between Conan and Da Peng, over the Chinese comedian’s use of an almost identical opening sequence as the American late-night host.

I don’t condone plagiarism, but I think, in spite of the Western media attention to the contrary, there is something valuable about the Chinese way of thinking. It’s also something that we can probably learn from.

Imitating an Exemplar

From my admittedly insufficient exposure to Chinese culture, I get the sense of a focus on learning by way of copying from an exemplar.

What I remember of learning to write the alphabet in school was that the basic form is drawn. If it legibly matches the letter symbol, you’ll get a passing grade. While there’s certainly instruction on how to produce the letters, there’s also flexibility in terms of the order and direction of the strokes.

Chinese characters are quite different. Strokes must not only match exactly in length, shape and position, but they must also be done in the correct order and direction. Drawing a downstroke up or a right stroke before a left stroke isn’t a stylistic choice, it’s wrong.

Consider also my friend and Chinese resident John Pasden’s account of his daughter’s first Chinese coloring book. Each drawing was given not only a pre-colored example to copy, but also a space for parents to grade their child’s ability to copy the example identically.

Many Westerners find this rigid style of imitation abhorrent. It stifles creativity, forces learning by rote and suppresses individual expression. Even I balked when I first heard the coloring book story.

But I also grew up in Canada, so many unquestioned assumptions I hold about the value of creativity and originality are cultural inheritances. Being unquestioned, there’s certainly a possibility that these values are wrong, or lack universal applicability. That interests me, and I’d like to explore it further.

When Do You Really Need to Be Original?

Western values place such a high premium on both originality and creativity, that it’s hard to think of situations where it could possibly be a negative.

But, in contrast, I’d argue that the majority of skills, knowledge and output we want to have shouldn’t be original at all. Even the most creative works, such as art and writing, quality probably comes from being only about 10% original and 90% imitative of prior work.

Consider being an engineer or a surgeon. I certainly don’t want a structural engineer to be original in his understanding of physical formulas when deciding whether a building is stable. I wouldn’t want my cardiac surgeon to “think different” in the middle of a quadruple bypass.

What about creative professions like writers, filmmakers and artists? Well even here, I’d argue that creative genius is about 10% originality and 90% imitation. Quentin Tarantino is famous for being one of the most distinctive filmmakers, but his shots and scenes are borrowed heavily from films he admires. His ability isn’t in creating something completely original, but in adding just enough originality to make it his own.

(Warning, it’s Tarantino so NSFW)

Even in art, the most creative endeavor, originality is a spice to be added, not the meat.

Imitate First, Invent Later

The Chinese model appears to me to be: imitate first, invent later. Meaning, the goal of the student isn’t to create novel works, but to master the repertoire of techniques of the master faithfully. Once this has been achieved, then, now as a master, he or she can successfully create new works.

Stated as such, I’m not sure I disagree with this model. If even in our most creative works, unique skills are dwarfed by the presence of imitated skills, it would be reasonable to think that, as students of a skill, we will spend the majority of our time learning by copying instead of learning through original expression.

Some might argue that, even if they form a smaller percentage of the total, creative synthesis skills are much harder than their imitative components, so we should focus on that. Here, I’m not sure I agree.

Being an excellent entrepreneur, writer or painter does require original ideas. But the thing that separates the lousy from the great is rarely the ideas—it’s the execution. What’s execution, if not the plethora of imitative skills one needs to master first? If you’re incredible at execution, it seems almost trivial to now funnel that ability into an original idea.

Imitate Without Plagiarizing

I personally believe the cultural norms against copying are currently too strict. Reusing a sentence you’ve written previously makes you a plagiarist these days. People should be freer to remix and build upon others’ work.

But that doesn’t mean I endorse the opposite view, that completely copying someone’s creative work is okay, either as a creator or consumer.

Instead, I’d prefer to take a middle position. That, at the very least, one must meet the standard of originality defined by laws and cultural norms. As a writer, that means I shouldn’t reuse whole sentences without quotations, or reuse whole ideas without attribution. (In fact, my ideal world would have increased flexibility for copying along with increased attribution, not less.)

But that, given the importance of imitation in even highly creative works, and considering that most of us are perpetual students of our craft, that we shouldn’t aspire to being 100% original. We should spend more time studying, and imitating, the people and works we admire. Imitate enough people and sources, and eventually the combination will result in something uniquely yours.

  • Ando

    A really important theme Scott, that many creatives fight against. As the designer Paul Rand said: Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good.”

    A neat rule of thumb seems to be:
    It’s OK to copy when you’re not trying to pass it off as your own creation.

    That means if you’re designing steering wheels for Ford, you don’t need to acknowledge all the cars that went before you, because folk won’t assume you invented the steering wheel. But if you’re creating a copy of an obscure sculpture, then you should acknowledge source.

    I have fleshed out more thoughts around this in a post When is it OK to Copy: http://unclutteredwhitespaces.com/2010/11/when-is-it-ok-to-copy/

  • Ando

    A really important theme Scott, that many creatives fight against. As the designer Paul Rand said: Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good.”

    A neat rule of thumb seems to be:
    It’s OK to copy when you’re not trying to pass it off as your own creation.

    That means if you’re designing steering wheels for Ford, you don’t need to acknowledge all the cars that went before you, because folk won’t assume you invented the steering wheel. But if you’re creating a copy of an obscure sculpture, then you should acknowledge source.

    I have fleshed out more thoughts around this in a post When is it OK to Copy: http://unclutteredwhitespaces….

  • Kenneth

    What seems to be the key confusion or risk here, is the possibility of being “stuck-in-the-mud” either by not being creative enough to see when the rules don’t apply to a situation, or can be broken; or not being courageous enough to break the rules when one notices that they should be changed.

    I agree that there is value in putting people up to a standard, and letting your originality shine through either through a thoughtful remix of things that no one realized was possible (iPhone), or by using all of the things you’re copying as leverage and then just add one additional insight on the diff. But one must not forget that unconsidered assumptions as to what is allowed are responsible for limiting what we consider as possible. With copying comes many assumptons

    If you’ve read Blake Masters’/Peter Thiel’s “Startup Notes” or “Zero to One”, I’m basically with him on that.

  • Kenneth

    What seems to be the key confusion or risk here, is the possibility of being “stuck-in-the-mud” either by not being creative enough to see when the rules don’t apply to a situation, or can be broken; or not being courageous enough to break the rules when one notices that they should be changed.

    I agree that there is value in putting people up to a standard, and letting your originality shine through either through a thoughtful remix of things that no one realized was possible (iPhone), or by using all of the things you’re copying as leverage and then just add one additional insight on the diff. But one must not forget that unconsidered assumptions as to what is allowed are responsible for limiting what we consider as possible. With copying comes many assumptons

    If you’ve read Blake Masters’/Peter Thiel’s “Startup Notes” or “Zero to One”, I’m basically with him on that.

  • BARBARA

    Aristotle says “Man by nature desires to learn.” He also says somewhere something like the mind becomes what it at first contemplates. Einstein said something like the secret of creativity is “hide your sources.” These together mean to me that we adapt by learning, and we learn from the whole and the part. I think Einstein’s comment is a joke. He obviously knew the effect of the operation of the whole. I think he also saw the effect of the part. The thrill today is to glimpse, recognize, and utilize both. That’s the gift–but not entirely–of our computer culture. We are blessed.

  • BARBARA

    Aristotle says “Man by nature desires to learn.” He also says somewhere something like the mind becomes what it at first contemplates. Einstein said something like the secret of creativity is “hide your sources.” These together mean to me that we adapt by learning, and we learn from the whole and the part. I think Einstein’s comment is a joke. He obviously knew the effect of the operation of the whole. I think he also saw the effect of the part. The thrill today is to glimpse, recognize, and utilize both. That’s the gift–but not entirely–of our computer culture. We are blessed.

  • Adam

    Pablo Picasso: “Good artists copy; Freat artists steal”

  • Adam

    Pablo Picasso: “Good artists copy; Freat artists steal”

  • Verónica Valencia

    😀

  • Verónica Valencia

    😀

  • Jen

    Your post reminds me in some ways of the book “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield, where his main thrust is that many creative types get stuck in the process of thinking that they need to produce completely original work, when (as he points out) most famous artists copied and used other artists’ works to build their own, with the creative twist being that their interpretation of the copied work (which is different because we all perceive things differently – our paradigm) is what creates the new original. Your discussion with a view to the Chinese method of imitation is interesting in revealing the cross-cultural assumptions that slavishly copied work isn’t instructive, when it can be. I wonder whether the Western negative view of slavish copying is negative because (to some degree) we all realise that our brains can “switch off” the thinking process while copying. Two salient examples being the old-fashioned use of “writing lines” as punishment, and also when students simply copy down notes from the teacher’s board or lecture notes blindly without thinking about them at all. Thinking is hard, copying is easy. But then, our brains do find things “easy” that we’ve already mastered, where processes move from the hard learning to mastered automatic skills and knowledge.

  • Jen

    Your post reminds me in some ways of the book “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield, where his main thrust is that many creative types get stuck in the process of thinking that they need to produce completely original work, when (as he points out) most famous artists copied and used other artists’ works to build their own, with the creative twist being that their interpretation of the copied work (which is different because we all perceive things differently – our paradigm) is what creates the new original. Your discussion with a view to the Chinese method of imitation is interesting in revealing the cross-cultural assumptions that slavishly copied work isn’t instructive, when it can be. I wonder whether the Western negative view of slavish copying is negative because (to some degree) we all realise that our brains can “switch off” the thinking process while copying. Two salient examples being the old-fashioned use of “writing lines” as punishment, and also when students simply copy down notes from the teacher’s board or lecture notes blindly without thinking about them at all. Thinking is hard, copying is easy. But then, our brains do find things “easy” that we’ve already mastered, where processes move from the hard learning to mastered automatic skills and knowledge.

  • Verónica Valencia

    Thank you! This is a really important theme for me, I think that others people work can be inspirational, if you are not trying to just steal it of course.

  • Verónica Valencia

    Thank you! This is a really important theme for me, I think that others people work can be inspirational, if you are not trying to just steal it of course.

  • william

    I totally agree with you, even though I am a Chinese. I think the key is that Chinese people just want to earn money quickly,so you see, they imitiate just because of money. Well,we are good at imitiating,and money is our god.This will not gonna change in the future.

  • william

    I totally agree with you, even though I am a Chinese. I think the key is that Chinese people just want to earn money quickly,so you see, they imitiate just because of money. Well,we are good at imitiating,and money is our god.This will not gonna change in the future.

  • Scott Young

    Absolutely copying has baked in assumptions, which may or may not hold. But that’s also what I think makes the Chinese model so interesting. The assumption being that the beginner isn’t in a place to be evaluating what should or should not be done, but just needs to master the skills as presented. There is a weakness to it, but I’m not sure the alternative (getting students to create completely original works) is necessarily better.

  • Scott Young

    Absolutely copying has baked in assumptions, which may or may not hold. But that’s also what I think makes the Chinese model so interesting. The assumption being that the beginner isn’t in a place to be evaluating what should or should not be done, but just needs to master the skills as presented. There is a weakness to it, but I’m not sure the alternative (getting students to create completely original works) is necessarily better.

  • jack

    As a Chinese people,I’d like to share my opinion.
    1.About coloring book :
    Thirty years ago Chinese people wants to have enough to eat and wear, we are impoverished.
    Just thirty years later our material life has been improved, but our spiritual life didn’t come up with. Our old thought isn’t correct ,But it still can’t completely change in short time.
    2.About China is the culture of copying:
    Like cell phone company imitating other company’s phone is not encouraged, it should be ashamed, we all know that. But the company to survive is more important.There are a great many of startup company they didn’t have ability to invent new technique. So they need imitating to survive.

  • jack

    As a Chinese people,I’d like to share my opinion.
    1.About coloring book :
    Thirty years ago Chinese people wants to have enough to eat and wear, we are impoverished.
    Just thirty years later our material life has been improved, but our spiritual life didn’t come up with. Our old thought isn’t correct ,But it still can’t completely change in short time.
    2.About China is the culture of copying:
    Like cell phone company imitating other company’s phone is not encouraged, it should be ashamed, we all know that. But the company to survive is more important.There are a great many of startup company they didn’t have ability to invent new technique. So they need imitating to survive.

  • Right now, I think we’re in a weird situation where the legal rights may be too far to the original creator, but the de facto moral norms involving piracy and copyright infringement may be too far to the imitators.

    That’s a great way to put it. Digital content is really hard to regulate.

  • Duncan Smith

    Right now, I think we’re in a weird situation where the legal rights may be too far to the original creator, but the de facto moral norms involving piracy and copyright infringement may be too far to the imitators.

    That’s a great way to put it. Digital content is really hard to regulate.

  • Zuhair Aamer Ghias

    I think imitation is also a good way of learning. Just as when learning guitar you first learn already existing songs, or when learning to program you first copy certain methods/functions. In any situation starting from scratch would be a tedious process. It may not be good to rely on imitating others but as long as you can improve an idea(which in many cases would be becoming obsolete) it can only benefit society. The main problem would be crediting the original idea. However I think that if the pioneer is credited, there isn’t really much of a problem. Also in the long run this can prevent monopolization and encourage evolution of thoughts and ideas(like technological advances).

  • Zuhair Aamer Ghias

    I think imitation is also a good way of learning. Just as when learning guitar you first learn already existing songs, or when learning to program you first copy certain methods/functions. In any situation starting from scratch would be a tedious process. It may not be good to rely on imitating others but as long as you can improve an idea(which in many cases would be becoming obsolete) it can only benefit society. The main problem would be crediting the original idea. However I think that if the pioneer is credited, there isn’t really much of a problem. Also in the long run this can prevent monopolization and encourage evolution of thoughts and ideas(like technological advances).

  • Love this! One thing I say Imitation + Creation = Innovation. Talking with writers I’ve ruffled some feathers when I talk about the problems with being too creative. Being overly creative to me is like sitting a baby at a piano and expecting to enjoy what you hear. Flexibility within confines of structure is the Yin/Yang balance almost everyone can agree leads to the best results.

  • Derek Doepker

    Love this! One thing I say Imitation + Creation = Innovation. Talking with writers I’ve ruffled some feathers when I talk about the problems with being too creative. Being overly creative to me is like sitting a baby at a piano and expecting to enjoy what you hear. Flexibility within confines of structure is the Yin/Yang balance almost everyone can agree leads to the best results.

  • KSCN

    Paradoxically, in China, “Imitate First, Invent Later” has been criticized widely. (but they still act in that way)

  • KSCN

    Paradoxically, in China, “Imitate First, Invent Later” has been criticized widely. (but they still act in that way)

  • Seth Boone

    Scott, thank you for the thoughtful article. You certainly shifted my perspective in a positive and intriguing way.

  • Seth Boone

    Scott, thank you for the thoughtful article. You certainly shifted my perspective in a positive and intriguing way.

  • Milk

    Hi Scott, I love this post! I think the point here is to be in the balance of “imitation” and “originality”. As all the learning process starts with imitation, there’s hardly anything “100% original” in this world. But after you master the basics, the question becomes how can you excel or improve what you’ve learned/known? And to that, I think the answer is a little originality.

  • Milk

    Hi Scott, I love this post! I think the point here is to be in the balance of “imitation” and “originality”. As all the learning process starts with imitation, there’s hardly anything “100% original” in this world. But after you master the basics, the question becomes how can you excel or improve what you’ve learned/known? And to that, I think the answer is a little originality.

  • laki

    Thank you ! Scott, I think that many inventions are based in these original , and only do more practice(i called imitation) ,we would get new things. I lived in my country china.From my eye,Cottage-culture that have rapidly risen in earlier years, so that and foreign brands,such as headache.but the quality of most of the product is very low. and then today more and more chinese don’t like these ,otherwise, many -companies produce good quality product rather than as a copycat .we can see that Cottage-culture is not applicable from long-term interests of chinese .Above all imitation is the foundation of innovation,you know plagiarism will never change !

  • laki

    Thank you ! Scott, I think that many inventions are based in these original , and only do more practice(i called imitation) ,we would get new things. I lived in my country china.From my eye,Cottage-culture that have rapidly risen in earlier years, so that and foreign brands,such as headache.but the quality of most of the product is very low. and then today more and more chinese don’t like these ,otherwise, many -companies produce good quality product rather than as a copycat .we can see that Cottage-culture is not applicable from long-term interests of chinese .Above all imitation is the foundation of innovation,you know plagiarism will never change !

  • Ralph acosta

    The link below gives a great example of the usefulness of imitation – a guy who thought he couldn’t do math is inspired by the poet Sylvia Plath having learned to write by imitating other poets, and becomes a mathematician. He now runs a charity that helps kids succeed at math. The speaker also points out that in this country we expect kids to learn by imitating, but would not suggest the same thing for an adult, and i think that’s the real issue Scott is talking about. Well, he’s really talking about two things – the better way for an individual to become creative, and the question of China’s perceived culture of imitation.

    Two fields as diverse a poetry and math – in poetry, Plath chose to learn by “imitating” her favorite poems, but she did this by trying to understand the style and use of words, then writing her own version of the same poem. In math, on the other hand, i don’t believe there’s any other way to learn than to slavishly imitate exactly how things were done before, with the hope you’ll eventually understand WHY they did it that way. So i guess it depends on the thing being learned.

    Also a good illustration that we never know the reach of our actions. I suspect that Sylvia Plath never imagined that teaching herself to write poetry would lead to kids learning math in a better way.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=kids-jump-for-math-john-mightons-ju-13-08-07

  • Ralph acosta

    The link below gives a great example of the usefulness of imitation – a guy who thought he couldn’t do math is inspired by the poet Sylvia Plath having learned to write by imitating other poets, and becomes a mathematician. He now runs a charity that helps kids succeed at math. The speaker also points out that in this country we expect kids to learn by imitating, but would not suggest the same thing for an adult, and i think that’s the real issue Scott is talking about. Well, he’s really talking about two things – the better way for an individual to become creative, and the question of China’s perceived culture of imitation.

    Two fields as diverse a poetry and math – in poetry, Plath chose to learn by “imitating” her favorite poems, but she did this by trying to understand the style and use of words, then writing her own version of the same poem. In math, on the other hand, i don’t believe there’s any other way to learn than to slavishly imitate exactly how things were done before, with the hope you’ll eventually understand WHY they did it that way. So i guess it depends on the thing being learned.

    Also a good illustration that we never know the reach of our actions. I suspect that Sylvia Plath never imagined that teaching herself to write poetry would lead to kids learning math in a better way.

    http://www.scientificamerican….

  • Ricardo

    Imitation is good, but you must respect the original work and author.

  • Ricardo

    Imitation is good, but you must respect the original work and author.

  • this is very true, sadly

  • SueC

    this is very true, sadly

  • Bob

    Not true about the material/spiritual life.This theory is way too out-dated. Chinese people are still short of resources, they are not even developed yet.

  • Bob

    Not true about the material/spiritual life.This theory is way too out-dated. Chinese people are still short of resources, they are not even developed yet.

  • Scott

    Fantastic article, Scott! I have been studying musical composition at university for the past four years, and I wish I had read this post four years ago. New music (contemporary classical) is still influenced from the ‘modernism’ of the 20th century – creating something new, pushing forward for the sake of pushing forward. I agonized about how to be completely and utterly unique, and I was foolish enough to avoid listening/copying great composer’s scores and works, in hopes that my output would be more original and unique. Guess what? This has stifled my artistic development, when I could have made some significant improvements. Well, it’s never too late to start imitating.

  • Scott

    Fantastic article, Scott! I have been studying musical composition at university for the past four years, and I wish I had read this post four years ago. New music (contemporary classical) is still influenced from the ‘modernism’ of the 20th century – creating something new, pushing forward for the sake of pushing forward. I agonized about how to be completely and utterly unique, and I was foolish enough to avoid listening/copying great composer’s scores and works, in hopes that my output would be more original and unique. Guess what? This has stifled my artistic development, when I could have made some significant improvements. Well, it’s never too late to start imitating.

  • Keri Peardon

    Renaissance painters all got their start by making copies of existing works. You practiced technique before you started dreaming up themes, experimenting with light, colors, etc.

  • Keri Peardon

    Renaissance painters all got their start by making copies of existing works. You practiced technique before you started dreaming up themes, experimenting with light, colors, etc.

AS SEEN IN