The Strange Case of Copycat Cities

Thanks to National Public Radio, I learned something new recently: China has spent billions of dollars constructing buildings—and even entire cities—to replicate some of the world’s most renowned architecture.

If you live in Beijing or Shanghai, you no longer have to travel to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, for there’s now a copycat version in your own country. If you’ve always wanted to visit Manhattan, you can see a replica nearby, complete with Rockefeller and Lincoln centers and even a Hudson River. And for those looking for something more serene, the gorgeous Austrian town of Hallstatt has been replicated in all its picturesque beauty.

In most Western cultures, people look down on you for being a copycat. Not so in China. They take pride  in their replicas, whether the replicas are of watches, electronics, missiles, or cities. Psychologically, it probably feels as if they have conquered  the objects they’ve recreated.

Personally, I would much rather visit the real  Eiffel Tower than see a cheap imitation. And I’ve never been very attracted to Rolex watch knockoffs, because I know there really is a difference between the real and the counterfeit.

If everyone followed the Chinese copycat philosophy, we would soon reach a point where nothing  was real. Creativity and innovation would be a thing of the past, because all we’d ever do would be to copy from one another. In such a world, Steve Jobs could never have created Apple, because there was nothing yet to copy. It’s as if he saw something unseen to model his products after.

But my biggest criticism of China’s copycat cities is this: The Chinese are seeking to copy the wrong things.  Sure, Paris and Manhattan are iconic places in the human scheme of things. Yet why not shoot for a higher  model these earthly places?

Here’s what I mean…

I think the Chinese ought to take some time to read Augustine of Hippo’s famous fifth-century book about the contrast between the City of God and the City of Man. While the well-intentioned Chinese builders are spending lots of time and money to duplicate the best architecture the world offers in the City of Man, a much better quest would be to reflect the heavenly city whose designer and builder is God”  (Hebrews 11:10 TLB).

Why try to copy each other and replicate earthly models, when our objective should be to model the kingdom of heaven? Yes, it’s certainly easier to reproduce Paris or Manhattan. But in the end, it’s much more rewarding to reflect God’s architecture instead of man’s.

However, before we’re too hard on the Chinese, we should all ask ourselves some hard questions: What are we  building? What model are we patterning our  lives around? Are we living for earthly things or for God’s eternal kingdom?

These questions are at the very heart of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray (Matthew 6:9-13). Our prayers and our lives should reflect a glorious quest for His kingdom to come and His will to be done—modeling on earth what is already happening in heaven. In the end, that’s the only city worth replicating.

So go ahead and be a copycat. People shouldn’t have to go to heaven to see what it’s like. They should be able to look at your life and mine.