Shanzhai (山寨) can be literally translated as “camp on a mountain”. It also carries overtones as an outlaws’ camp on the mountain. Anyone who have read one of the Four Classic novels — the Outlaws of the Marsh — will get an idea what an outlaw’s camp is like.
Because of the lawless and the underground meaning associated with Shanzhai, it is used to describe the China-made electronics with no brand names or fake trademarks.
The quality of these products is generally good, and the price fits the budget of the wage-earners — two factors that explain Shanzhai products’ ever-increasing popularity and competitive edge.
If you can’t afford to buy an Iphone, you can find a Shanzhai version Iphone, or Hiphone by another name, spending only a quarter of an real Iphone. There are also Shanzhai version for Nokia, Samsung and Sony-Ericsson cell phones. I personally own an Hiphone for a price about $150 dollars, and it does a decent job. Unlike Iphone, it doesn’t have WIFI and the system is not as snappy as Iphone, but it has good multimedia playback cababilities and it looks so close as an Iphone.
The word Shanzhai can also be used to describe anything that is non-official, underground, inexpensive with acceptable quality. For example, many Chinese dislike the extravagant, boisterous, cloying and politically correct Spring Festival Gala held annually by CCTV. In the meantime, the Shanzai version of the Spring Festival Gala, put together by a group of unknown performers with a low budget, becomes a great alternative.
So how to translate Shanzhai into English? I think the closest equivalent I can get in English is “poor man’s something”. You can have a poor man’s Ferrari, a poor man’s Iphone and a poor man’s tangy life.