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.

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