Blasts from the Past: Chinese Nostalgia for the 1980s in the Era of Xi Jinping

Photo: Scene from American Dreams in China

By Austin Dean

In a speech at the 35th anniversary of academic exchanges between the United States and China earlier this summer, David Moser, a linguist and Academic Director of Beijing’s CET study abroad program who is one of the doyens of the expat community in Beijing, recounted a recent conversation with a friend. He asked his Chinese classmate which word best summed up the 1980s in Beijing. The classmate, without hesitation, responded: romantic. As Moser reflected on his days exploring Beijing and studying Chinese, showing pictures of his old bicycle and mounds of cabbage piled high in preparation for winter, he decided his classmate was correct. For the duration of Moser’s speech, the next speaker, Shi Yigong, who is now a professor at Tsinghua University and was a student at the institution from 1985 to 1989, smiled and nodded his head. Moser was right.

A wave of 1980s nostalgia seems to be slowly bubbling to the surface in Chinese popular culture and collective memory. Thus far, it is most apparent in film and television. This trend marks a much-needed addition to the usual historical dramas one encounters on the big and small screens that are generally dominated by Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) palace intrigue and the war against Japan of the 1930s-40s. When a headline in the Global Times calls, without a hint of irony, for “Prime-Time TV to be more anti-Fascist,” 1980s nostalgia is quite welcome, if only for slightly diversifying the cultural landscape.

Now for some examples.

One of last year’s most popular movies, Zhongguo Hehuo ren, centered on the friendship of three classmates at Peking University in the 1980s and the founding of the English-language training center that closely resembles New Oriental, a major player on the international teaching scene. From a certain point of view, it is a propaganda film about the company. That said, the first part of the movie is really about the sense of possibility that had a hold over students in the 1980s. China was changing, and everyone, at least according to the movie, tried to define their dream and figure out how to fulfill it. The English title of the film directly reflects this sense of possibility: American Dreams in China. One of the few English-language reviews of the film, which ran in Variety, called it “indulgently retro.” Of course it was; that was the whole point. As the credits rolled, the movie closed with pictures of now-famous entrepreneurs back when they got their start: This story, the film seemed to say, might also be yours.

Likewise, a popular TV show this summer, Ten Years of Love, begins at a university in the late 1980s and follows a group of classmates through the intervening decade. Going into the Sea, a series from a few years ago, recounts the experience of starting up a business in the 1980s; Post-80 traces the lives of people born after 1980 through the early 2000s; But Always, an upcoming film with Xie Tingfeng and Gao Yuanyuan, takes the same approach, following the course of the relationship between two people for thirty years. Even the new multi-episode TV series about Deng Xiaoping might fall into this genre of 1980s nostalgia, as it covers the years between 1976 and 1984, the time Deng started to gain momentum in the Reform and Opening Period.

Why all the seeming nostalgia for the 1980s?

In analyzing the popularity of Mad Men, the inimitable Adam Gopnik, staff writer for The New Yorker, proposes the “Golden Forty-Year Rule” of American culture. This rule offers a simple and convincing explanation for cycles of American memory: “The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past.” His explanation for the forty-year cycle is equally elegant. The people in charge of creating cultural content—the “gatekeepers,” and “the “suits who make the calls”— are, “and always have been, largely forty-somethings, and the four-decade interval brings us to a period just before the forty-something was born.” The forty-year gap, Gopnik continues, is always a period “when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.”

Does this rule have explanatory power in China? The wave of 1980s nostalgia in China is, according to the “Golden Forty-Year Rule,” a bit ahead of schedule. This makes sense. Things in China these days often take place on a sped-up timetable. But Gopnik already has an answer. Beyond the forty-year cycle, he says, there is also a twenty-year one, “by which the forty-somethings recall their teen-age years.”

This second cycle fits the current climate of Chinese cultural nostalgia. Take Yu Minhong, the founder of New Oriental, and the central character in Zhongguo Hehuo ren. Now in his early fifties, the bulk of the movie looks back at Yu’s formative time at Peking University. Here, it is important to mention Gopnik again. These waves of nostalgia spring up not simply because they are “a good setting for a story” but because it “was a good setting for you.” Nostalgia is always a self-selecting story. In all the shows and movies named above, the one thing missing is any mention of political campaigns, from those against spiritual pollution in the early and mid-1980s or the student protests that came late in the decade.

It is also important to keep in mind that nostalgia for the 1980s of the sort described here is just one of several competing forms that play on historical memories closer to the present than the eras of Qing decadence and Japanese invasions. At a talk last year, Wang Hui, a prominent Tsinghua professor who is generally regarded—perhaps unwillingly by this point—as a spokesperson of the New Left, recounted a recent trip to North Korea. When he mentioned that houses there were still allocated under the fenpei system (which in China is associated with the Mao years [1949-1976] and the early part of the current Reform period, predating today’s skyrocketing real estate prices), and that visits to the doctor were free, the audience burst into applause. Their memory and interpretation of the 1980s, it seems, is different than, and perhaps in some cases more linked to times that preceded that decade, than the one embodied in the recent wave of films and TV shows.

 

Austin Dean is a PhD candidate in East Asian history at Ohio State University and is currently based in Beijing conducting research. This is an adapted version of a post that originally appeared at his blog, The Licentiate’s Ledger.

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