Internationally, the 1980s were about MTV, big hair, and even bigger shoulder pads.
But what was it like inside China?
The decade arrived just two years after leader Deng Xiaoping set course on a set of economic reforms, dragging the country out of decades of isolation and giving its people their first glimpses of the outside world.
There was a newfound sense of optimism, particularly among young people, according to photojournalist Adrian Bradshaw, who has collected a number of his striking images from the decade in his book The Door Opened: 1980s China.
“The 1980s was when Chinese people could start to take more control over their destiny, choosing not just the clothes and haircuts they wanted but also the jobs and skills they would make their living from,” Bradshaw says.
“This was new, optimistic, and energetic, and driven to a large extent by demographics: China’s median age was around 25 in the mid-1980s, so it was a youthful population. There was excitement in the air over the new possibilities arriving on a daily basis and because the old controls had been relaxed. Everyone was looking forward to the future.”
Bradshaw first came to China to study at the Beijing Language Institute in 1984 and ended up spending 27 years in the country, mainly working as a freelance photographer for news organizations such as Reuters, Der Spiegel, and Newsweek. In 2003, he set up the China operations of the European Pressphoto Agency.
Bradshaw says that through his book, he wants to “reflect the dignity, optimism, and warmth of the people I encountered at a time of change.” Many of the most poignant images are of the young, happy children of this new China.
“They were always the most confident,” he recalls, “shouting out hello and wanting to interact with the funny-looking foreigner. They didn’t have any of the suspicion of outsiders that affected adults.”
When compiling images for his book, Bradshaw says he felt drawn to the pictures of young people, knowing that this generation is now running the country.
“Seeing the good humor and self-assured demeanor of these boys and girls is a reminder that they are now working hard, nose to the grindstone,” he says. “And perhaps they are parents to a new generation with different values.”
“People were open to being photographed more than these days.”
“Now, people are not as relaxed as before,” he says, “and not so many children are playing in the streets. They all seem to be cooped up studying.”
Life as a foreign photographer in China wasn’t always easy in the ’80s. Everything from sourcing film, paper, and chemicals to finding an approved apartment proved problematic.
White faces were still relatively rare on the streets, and Bradshaw often found himself the center of attention.
“It was essential to keep moving as the sight of a foreigner was enough to cause crowds to form, even in the more international cities such as Shanghai and Beijing,” he says. “People were open to being photographed more than these days, but access and transport were huge challenges.”
He recalls a few occasions when local officials or police tried to move him from their area, fearful of problems from higher-ups.
“I was followed throughout my first few days in the country, in Shanghai, by what I assumed to be undercover police,” he says, “but they didn’t stop me taking pictures.”
With futuristic cityscapes and a booming economy, China is now a much different country from the one in Bradshaw’s images. But the photographer believes not all the changes have been for the better.
“When I revisit cities I first saw in the 1980s, they are often much busier,” he says. “People have moved out of the countryside into the cities in vast numbers, transforming both areas. The mood is more stressed and competitive.
“Development has brought many benefits,” he continues, “but also damaged a lot of things that used to be taken for granted.
“Most importantly, people’s trust in those outside their immediate circle has eroded.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.