Rocking the bell-bottoms in 1985 Shanghai. Photo by Adrian Bradshaw.
Culture

China in the 1980s, when people felt free to speak their minds

Aug 01, 2019

I was born in China during the 1980s and grew up in a modest two-bedroom house in Beijing. My father was a statistician, and my mother was a neurologist.

But beyond a few funny stories about the rationing system and modest living standards, I knew very little about that time in China. I imagined life was as simple and plain as the variety of goods available in the stores, not nearly as colorful and exciting as the 1990s and 2000s when economic growth jetted to new heights. 

So I was surprised to learn during a recent conversation with my parents that it was the most hopeful and open time they ever knew in their lives. For all its lack of material pleasures, the ’80s had no shortage of vibrant culture.

Lunar New Year in Heilongjiang Province in 1983.
Lunar New Year in Heilongjiang Province in 1983. / Photo: Liu Heung Shing

The topic came up while we were discussing the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests and subsequent government crackdown.

At first, I thought they were lamenting the death of China’s political liberalization in the summer of ’89.

(Read more: The Chinese witness to Tiananmen)

But when I pressed them further, I realized they were actually talking about much more than that: the freedom to speak their minds—and even openly criticize the Communist Party—a creative renaissance, and the proliferation of pop culture from the outside.

“In the ’80s, people were very interested in politics,” my father says. “They didn’t want to bring down the Communist Party but longed for it to be better, more open, and less corrupt.”

Ma Desheng, a Chinese artist, speaks about freedom of expression at a rally in Beijing in 1979.
Ma Desheng, a Chinese artist, speaks about freedom of expression at a rally in Beijing in 1979. / Photo: Liu Heung Shing

There is a popular theory that Chinese people are materialistic, wholly disinterested in politics, and blindly support their government.

But we need only to look back to China in the 1980s to know that is not true. Despite the government’s efforts, better living standards could not outright supplant freedom of expression and thought.

Political catharsis

The backstory to this period is the Cultural Revolution, a turbulent time when China was gripped by poverty and fear. During its worst excesses, even an honest conversation carried the risk of landing someone in jail.

When this 10-year tumult finally ended in 1976 with the death of leader Mao Zedong and fall of the Gang of Four, my parents, along with the rest of the country, celebrated by eating crabs, regarded as a symbol of corruption and abuse of power, in fours.

The political winds had shifted. Change came swiftly, and life transformed overnight.

Students read under the lights of Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1981.
Students read under the lights of Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1981. / Photo: Liu Heung Shing

University entrance exams, previously canceled during the Cultural Revolution, were reinstated. Young people who were sent to work on communal farms returned to cities en masse. Agricultural production skyrocketed after the government opened the market, and imported goods suddenly became available, adding flavor to people’s previously monotonous lives.

But perhaps most remarkably, speech was not strictly policed in the early 1980s, leading to an explosion of expression that served as catharsis for years of repression.

My father recalls testing the waters by saying, “The Communist Party is not sacred,” in front of a party secretary at his university.

In this environment, people felt free to give their own points of view without fear of reprisal. My father recalls testing the waters by saying, “The Communist Party is not sacred,” in front of a party secretary at his university. He was not even reprimanded, much less punished.

(Read more: The memes that Chinese people use to avoid censorship)

“The party was very confident,” my father says, “and it felt like people could say whatever they wanted. We had a few famous actors in our extended family like Zhao Dan who said, ‘The Communist Party cannot control too much,’ in 1980, and his wife Huang Zongying publicly denounced the Sino-Vietnamese War as an invasion! Imagine what would happen if someone said that today!”

Cultural renaissance

The ’80s also saw a burst of creative output. With the influx of foreign content and ideas, information and entertainment, once monopolized by the Communist Party, was suddenly a dazzling free-for-all.

The first narratives to gain popularity were known as Scar Literature. These works examined the suffering and lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution, and served as healing for bruised psyches.

A stroll through Beijing’s Beihai Park in 1980.
A stroll through Beijing’s Beihai Park in 1980. / Photo: Liu Heung Shing

Famous writers included Shi Tiesheng, whose works examined human nature, Zhang Xinxin, whose novel On the Same Horizon explored the romance between two volatile people, and Wang Xiaobo, who wrote on themes of sexuality.

My mother recalls a series of encyclopedic books that spanned multiple disciplines, written by the brightest minds in China and translated from multiple foreign languages.

Within just a few years, people had gone from having no books to having too many.

Within just a few years, people had gone from having no books to having too many. My parents recall losing sleep devouring the tomes they hoarded from the library. 

In pop culture, there were television shows from Japan, movies from the United States, and music from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

My father’s eyes still shine when he recalls watching the Japanese action film Kimi yo Fundo no Kawa o Watare. It was his first exposure to the fast-paced chase film after years of consuming stale propaganda productions.

Taiwanese pop singers dominated the charts with their love ballads, a welcome cultural shift from the patriotic “red songs” of the decade prior.

Teresa Teng was the undisputed queen of pop, with her dulcet tones enthralling fans the world over. A popular refrain goes that “Little Teng” had defeated “Old Deng” (referring to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping of the 1980s), at least in the cultural realm.

The very first Lunar New Year gala, considered the most-watched show in the world, aired in 1983 and heavily featured pop stars from Hong Kong and Taiwan, a mark of their widespread popularity.

It was long before the televised event became the overblown, propaganda-heavy show that it is today, and represented the optimism of a hopeful nation.

My mother’s expression darkens when she reflects on that time. She grimly remarks that the happiness of the 1980s was unsustainable.

The author with her mother in Beijing.
The author with her mother in Beijing. / Photo: Courtesy of Frankie Huang

She laments that it was too simple, too innocent, and too fragile to last, especially as China grew wealthier and powerful people began abusing their positions to get rich.

In recent years, the government’s iron grip on information and expression has grown ever firm. Major studios have had their film releases canceled, and state media coverage of protests in Hong Kong has been distorted.

Each act of censorship adds to the heaviness of all that is kept from the public, but if there’s anything to learn from the ’80s, it’s that this period of exuberance, openness, and freedom is possible in China—and might hopefully return someday.

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