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.

  • John O’Donnel

    Yeah, this is an awesome post. Honestly, I always thought in this way. Now that this idea is reverberating more and more, finally in your blog, I believe that real soon westerns will feel more comfortable about imitating head on in order to learn faster (kids always do that, but when grown up, the social pressure and culture really suffocate this instinct). Alright. Now we have more credentials.

  • John O’Donnel

    Yeah, this is an awesome post. Honestly, I always thought in this way. Now that this idea is reverberating more and more, finally in your blog, I believe that real soon westerns will feel more comfortable about imitating head on in order to learn faster (kids always do that, but when grown up, the social pressure and culture really suffocate this instinct). Alright. Now we have more credentials.

  • Jerry C.

    I think a lot of people fear copying the minute they hear the word, plagiarism, and its legal implications.

    I’ve always stuck to a warped version of Homi Bhabha’s literary theory of hybridity. He showed how multiculturalism produced new types of art drawing on the past. I think that every one of us can and ultimately will bring our own unique twist when engaging in mimicry. If it’s good, that’s a whole different story.

    What do y’all think about artists taking other artists to court for plagiarized work when in fact such works might be merely inspired?

  • Jerry C.

    I think a lot of people fear copying the minute they hear the word, plagiarism, and its legal implications.

    I’ve always stuck to a warped version of Homi Bhabha’s literary theory of hybridity. He showed how multiculturalism produced new types of art drawing on the past. I think that every one of us can and ultimately will bring our own unique twist when engaging in mimicry. If it’s good, that’s a whole different story.

    What do y’all think about artists taking other artists to court for plagiarized work when in fact such works might be merely inspired?

  • Imitation is especially important in software engineering. Who wants to rewrite entire libraries or perfectly functioning apps?? The first thing I do when faced with a new task is check to see if someone else has solved the problem first. #leverage

  • Tony Yin

    Imitation is especially important in software engineering. Who wants to rewrite entire libraries or perfectly functioning apps?? The first thing I do when faced with a new task is check to see if someone else has solved the problem first. #leverage

  • M

    Great post, and I agreed with everything until the part where it says that if you’re incredible in execution it’s almost trivial to funnel that into an original idea. Not in art. While I agree that imitation is essential to learning, it doesn’t mean it makes creative effort easy. It only makes it possible. Plenty of highly skilled people out there who aren’t original and also people who aren’t as skilled but whose works have expressive value. For example, Van Gogh imitated a lot from the start(and was really bad at first), and got good with time, but he was hardly Ingres. And yet, his works are original.

  • M

    Great post, and I agreed with everything until the part where it says that if you’re incredible in execution it’s almost trivial to funnel that into an original idea. Not in art. While I agree that imitation is essential to learning, it doesn’t mean it makes creative effort easy. It only makes it possible. Plenty of highly skilled people out there who aren’t original and also people who aren’t as skilled but whose works have expressive value. For example, Van Gogh imitated a lot from the start(and was really bad at first), and got good with time, but he was hardly Ingres. And yet, his works are original.

  • Thought provoking as always.
    Would definitely mention that I was somehow using it in my high school life.
    I mean like the only reason I get the highest marks in English composition is that I rephrase David Morell’s novel “Brotherhood of the Rose” according to the topic that is given, and there you go. A professional looking piece of text 🙂

    Any action / suspense novels you’d recommend ?

  • Imaduddin Sawal

    Thought provoking as always.
    Would definitely mention that I was somehow using it in my high school life.
    I mean like the only reason I get the highest marks in English composition is that I rephrase David Morell’s novel “Brotherhood of the Rose” according to the topic that is given, and there you go. A professional looking piece of text 🙂

    Any action / suspense novels you’d recommend ?

  • John O’Donnel

    Also I want to mention something else about this topic, Mirror Neuron: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron There are a lot of research on this explaining how primates are capable of understand each other actions through mirror neurons. I’d recommend the Youtube lectures of the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and the BBC series of Africa with David Attenborough, which shows clearly that monkeys also learn by copying each other. In other words, thanks to imitation we can learn at one generation something that took more generations in that past to develop. For example, cooking, fire, wheel and so on. Take for example, drawing techniques.

  • John O’Donnel

    Also I want to mention something else about this topic, Mirror Neuron: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M… There are a lot of research on this explaining how primates are capable of understand each other actions through mirror neurons. I’d recommend the Youtube lectures of the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and the BBC series of Africa with David Attenborough, which shows clearly that monkeys also learn by copying each other. In other words, thanks to imitation we can learn at one generation something that took more generations in that past to develop. For example, cooking, fire, wheel and so on. Take for example, drawing techniques.

  • Re-use is definitely key to software engineering, but I think it’s different from imitation. One reason to re-write a library is in order to understand it better. That’s why CS students are required to implement sorting algorithms instead of just calling a library function. Once they can re-implement previously solved problems, they’re ready to start solving original ones (Imitate First, Invent Later).

  • Duncan Smith

    Re-use is definitely key to software engineering, but I think it’s different from imitation. One reason to re-write a library is in order to understand it better. That’s why CS students are required to implement sorting algorithms instead of just calling a library function. Once they can re-implement previously solved problems, they’re ready to start solving original ones (Imitate First, Invent Later).

  • The original artist should be the one to make the choice about how their work is used. I think artists do better in the long run by allowing their work to be shared, but people shouldn’t be required to allow sharing if they don’t want to.

  • Duncan Smith

    The original artist should be the one to make the choice about how their work is used. I think artists do better in the long run by allowing their work to be shared, but people shouldn’t be required to allow sharing if they don’t want to.

  • That’s fair, rewriting functions for learning is considered imitation. “Re-use” of code is still referencing the same concept though – building on top of other people’s work and making it your own. Imitation in software is imitation taken to an extreme (or imitation done right, whichever you prefer).

  • Tony Yin

    That’s fair, rewriting functions for learning is considered imitation. “Re-use” of code is still referencing the same concept though – building on top of other people’s work and making it your own. Imitation in software is imitation taken to an extreme (or imitation done right, whichever you prefer).

  • Paula

    I totally agree with the idea of imitate first,invent later without plagiarizing. However,now in China there are tons of entertainment programs that copy from Korean entertainment or Western TV show,such as Running Man,The Voice Of XXX ,etc .This phenomenon hits Chinese creating circles so hard that nobody would have the motivation to create something new while the plagiarizing is so popular and easy to get money.

  • Paula

    I totally agree with the idea of imitate first,invent later without plagiarizing. However,now in China there are tons of entertainment programs that copy from Korean entertainment or Western TV show,such as Running Man,The Voice Of XXX ,etc .This phenomenon hits Chinese creating circles so hard that nobody would have the motivation to create something new while the plagiarizing is so popular and easy to get money.

  • Scott Young

    I used to think that way. Now I’m not so sure. Our intuitions about intellectual property rights mostly stem from our (mostly correct) intuition about property rights for physical objects. However the features of intellectual property are considerably blurrier than for physical goods.

    I’m inclined to say that the best moral position should be a utilitarian one. As in, the system of copyrights should create maximal incentive for creating new works. That means striking a balance between the rights of an original creator and the rights of an imitator. 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.

    I’m not an expert in this matter, but I think it’s far from obvious what the current balance of rights should be, and examining other value systems (like in China) is interesting for furthering that thinking.

  • Scott Young

    I used to think that way. Now I’m not so sure. Our intuitions about intellectual property rights mostly stem from our (mostly correct) intuition about property rights for physical objects. However the features of intellectual property are considerably blurrier than for physical goods.

    I’m inclined to say that the best moral position should be a utilitarian one. As in, the system of copyrights should create maximal incentive for creating new works. That means striking a balance between the rights of an original creator and the rights of an imitator. 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.

    I’m not an expert in this matter, but I think it’s far from obvious what the current balance of rights should be, and examining other value systems (like in China) is interesting for furthering that thinking.

  • Scott Young

    Part of me thinks this is just a temporary phenomenon though. I mean, currently in China, there are a lot of economic opportunities that can be gained through imitation. Given the relatively low risk of imitation compared to original creation, it’s no wonder many of the companies that have succeeded in China have been based on a foreign counterpart.

    But I think that’s just opportunism rather than an inherent weakness. Once China’s GDP per capita gets closer to developed nations, the benefits of copying will be lower, and you’ll start having more innovation. Maybe that’s already happening? Weixin is based off American social networks, but now has many features and innovations that are completely unique. Many Chinese internet companies have better revenue models than their original American counterparts.

    I think this validates the whole imitate first, invent later, Chinese philosophy, and given China’s recent spectacular growth, I’m not sure it’s a bad philosophy.

  • Scott Young

    Part of me thinks this is just a temporary phenomenon though. I mean, currently in China, there are a lot of economic opportunities that can be gained through imitation. Given the relatively low risk of imitation compared to original creation, it’s no wonder many of the companies that have succeeded in China have been based on a foreign counterpart.

    But I think that’s just opportunism rather than an inherent weakness. Once China’s GDP per capita gets closer to developed nations, the benefits of copying will be lower, and you’ll start having more innovation. Maybe that’s already happening? Weixin is based off American social networks, but now has many features and innovations that are completely unique. Many Chinese internet companies have better revenue models than their original American counterparts.

    I think this validates the whole imitate first, invent later, Chinese philosophy, and given China’s recent spectacular growth, I’m not sure it’s a bad philosophy.

  • Henriette

    Good. Now that you established that, suggestion: why don’t you tell us what article are you imitating in the next article (just letting us a link of a web article which is similar to yours) or giving us the type of article you’re writing (informative, argumentative, etc.), writing a kind of introduction about what kind of readings inspired you, and in what sense this article comes as a conclusion, what form it will take, why. Tell us more about your research process. Will you do that in the next articles ?

  • Henriette

    Good. Now that you established that, suggestion: why don’t you tell us what article are you imitating in the next article (just letting us a link of a web article which is similar to yours) or giving us the type of article you’re writing (informative, argumentative, etc.), writing a kind of introduction about what kind of readings inspired you, and in what sense this article comes as a conclusion, what form it will take, why. Tell us more about your research process. Will you do that in the next articles ?

  • Scott

    Makes sense to a degree. There’s usually an element of “rip, pivot, jam” in anything new…
    Hate to bring Steve Jobs up but the story of him using his calligraphy class as an inspiration for Apple designs.
    But this needs to be mixed with an edge of novelty, so that something new is actually being created.

    That’s the distinction between piracy and genuine building off what other people have done.
    Ie: the distinction between a cheap rip-off and something that’s actually new.

  • Scott

    Makes sense to a degree. There’s usually an element of “rip, pivot, jam” in anything new…
    Hate to bring Steve Jobs up but the story of him using his calligraphy class as an inspiration for Apple designs.
    But this needs to be mixed with an edge of novelty, so that something new is actually being created.

    That’s the distinction between piracy and genuine building off what other people have done.
    Ie: the distinction between a cheap rip-off and something that’s actually new.

  • Tracy

    I agree there are so many similar entertainment shows in China to those in Korea and US. However, i heard that it’s not a plagiarizing, instead, they collaborate with the original creator to import those programs in based on certain fee. It’s similar to the fact that you have British Grand Prix which is in Wimbledon, US Grand Prix in New York and etc…

  • Tracy

    I agree there are so many similar entertainment shows in China to those in Korea and US. However, i heard that it’s not a plagiarizing, instead, they collaborate with the original creator to import those programs in based on certain fee. It’s similar to the fact that you have British Grand Prix which is in Wimbledon, US Grand Prix in New York and etc…

  • Tracy

    agree, that’s why stackflow is the go-to-place for me!

  • Tracy

    agree, that’s why stackflow is the go-to-place for me!

  • byustudent

    Spoon does this a lot: try to sound like another artist or song, come off sounding like Spoon. There’s a podcast called Song Exploder, where the artist comes on and explains a song. Their drummer, Jim Eno, explained on of their greatest songs, Inside Out. What did they rip off? Dr Dre! And when they play both tracks, you can hear it, the similarities. But Spoon, because they are really good and have their own voice, come off sounding original and really damn good.

    There’s nothing wrong with copying someone else. Most of my good ideas are stolen or inspired and adapted.

  • byustudent

    Spoon does this a lot: try to sound like another artist or song, come off sounding like Spoon. There’s a podcast called Song Exploder, where the artist comes on and explains a song. Their drummer, Jim Eno, explained on of their greatest songs, Inside Out. What did they rip off? Dr Dre! And when they play both tracks, you can hear it, the similarities. But Spoon, because they are really good and have their own voice, come off sounding original and really damn good.

    There’s nothing wrong with copying someone else. Most of my good ideas are stolen or inspired and adapted.

  • bobango

    I run an IP company, so I care a lot about the issue of piracy. My problem with the Chinese (and also the Russians, Ukrainians, Indians, etc.) is not that they imitiate or borrow IP made elsewhere. It’s that they don’t use for creativity; they just steal it and sell it directly with no innovation at all. That’s called stealing in my book.

  • bobango

    I run an IP company, so I care a lot about the issue of piracy. My problem with the Chinese (and also the Russians, Ukrainians, Indians, etc.) is not that they imitiate or borrow IP made elsewhere. It’s that they don’t use for creativity; they just steal it and sell it directly with no innovation at all. That’s called stealing in my book.

  • Raj D

    Great conversation, Scott, as always. Reading your words I’m reminded that the artist as renegade is a pretty modern construct. Prior to the renaissance all artists were craftsmen and work was credited to the “studio” rather than the individual. The role of the journeyman and the apprentice was to imitate and that’s all he did for many, many years… He colored “in the lines” until the master could no longer tell which work was his own… I’d like to think the “cult” of individuality has been beaten back by the open source movement and that we can embrace the idea of building off each other’s successes, learn faster, grow stronger… Creativity knows no bounds and nothing bungs it up worse than hoarding it.

  • Raj D

    Great conversation, Scott, as always. Reading your words I’m reminded that the artist as renegade is a pretty modern construct. Prior to the renaissance all artists were craftsmen and work was credited to the “studio” rather than the individual. The role of the journeyman and the apprentice was to imitate and that’s all he did for many, many years… He colored “in the lines” until the master could no longer tell which work was his own… I’d like to think the “cult” of individuality has been beaten back by the open source movement and that we can embrace the idea of building off each other’s successes, learn faster, grow stronger… Creativity knows no bounds and nothing bungs it up worse than hoarding it.

  • Luiz Machado

    Scott,

    I appreaciate the next evolution of your blog. In many ways you have pivoted your focus from the mechanics of studying to strategic ways to lead our lives. In many ways this is similar to Cal Newport’s blog with your own twist.
    I guess you are following your own advice. 🙂

  • Luiz Machado

    Scott,

    I appreaciate the next evolution of your blog. In many ways you have pivoted your focus from the mechanics of studying to strategic ways to lead our lives. In many ways this is similar to Cal Newport’s blog with your own twist.
    I guess you are following your own advice. 🙂

  • Lauren Lagergren

    I am writing the first draft of my first book and the more I write, the more I notice in my reading the styles of different writers and think about incorporating or imitating their style. I consider it an organic process to notice and practice other styles. As the saying goes, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” And, I also realize they all started with crappy first drafts and only gradually discovered their own style.

  • Lauren Lagergren

    I am writing the first draft of my first book and the more I write, the more I notice in my reading the styles of different writers and think about incorporating or imitating their style. I consider it an organic process to notice and practice other styles. As the saying goes, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” And, I also realize they all started with crappy first drafts and only gradually discovered their own style.

  • Scott Young

    I’ve been writing for too long. In the early days of my writing, you could pick out the handful of writers that heavily inspired my style and topics. Now, I’d say it’s matured a lot more so the influences are broader.

    Generally when I imitate now, it’s not whole works but sub processes. I based my research process off of James Clear when writing my updated post for speed reading. I’m working on introducing more repeating themes into my work, similar to Cal Newport. But, as I’ve been writing for so long, the momentum of my current writing habits means that it’s not nearly as imitative as when I started, even if I try to.

  • Scott Young

    I’ve been writing for too long. In the early days of my writing, you could pick out the handful of writers that heavily inspired my style and topics. Now, I’d say it’s matured a lot more so the influences are broader.

    Generally when I imitate now, it’s not whole works but sub processes. I based my research process off of James Clear when writing my updated post for speed reading. I’m working on introducing more repeating themes into my work, similar to Cal Newport. But, as I’ve been writing for so long, the momentum of my current writing habits means that it’s not nearly as imitative as when I started, even if I try to.

  • Scott Young

    Depends on the skill, I suppose. Art is somewhat extreme for valuing originality (and, not to mention, tastes at the time). Even if you step down the creativity ladder a step or two (non-fiction writing, graphic design, etc.) you’re getting into a realm where execution skill matters a lot.

    I think a lot of people who have great execution skills but aren’t successful, usually suffer from auxiliary skills deficit (like they can’t sell/market their work).

  • Scott Young

    Depends on the skill, I suppose. Art is somewhat extreme for valuing originality (and, not to mention, tastes at the time). Even if you step down the creativity ladder a step or two (non-fiction writing, graphic design, etc.) you’re getting into a realm where execution skill matters a lot.

    I think a lot of people who have great execution skills but aren’t successful, usually suffer from auxiliary skills deficit (like they can’t sell/market their work).

  • thanor

    If You Steal From One Author, It’s Plagiarism; If You Steal From Many, It’s Research.

    🙂

  • thanor

    If You Steal From One Author, It’s Plagiarism; If You Steal From Many, It’s Research.

    🙂

  • Blackbanan3y

    Thank you for the post. I happen to have some reflection and struggle on this topic about how to do my assignment.

    I used to prefer starting with building up my own ideas but I always find it is time consuming and sometimes even worse it leads to procrastination when I am stuck. Sometimes time is too limited to allow us to do that and I believe in the future we are required to learn as fast as we can. It seems this is not the shortcut to increase the efficiency.

    So now I will start with the existing samples from previous work of others if there are any. I believe the basis has been well-built and all I have to do is to refine it to what I want and make further improvement.

    However, I still have concern about whether we will easily fall into stereotyped thinking once we step into referring to/imitating others.

  • Blackbanan3y

    Thank you for the post. I happen to have some reflection and struggle on this topic about how to do my assignment.

    I used to prefer starting with building up my own ideas but I always find it is time consuming and sometimes even worse it leads to procrastination when I am stuck. Sometimes time is too limited to allow us to do that and I believe in the future we are required to learn as fast as we can. It seems this is not the shortcut to increase the efficiency.

    So now I will start with the existing samples from previous work of others if there are any. I believe the basis has been well-built and all I have to do is to refine it to what I want and make further improvement.

    However, I still have concern about whether we will easily fall into stereotyped thinking once we step into referring to/imitating others.

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