Brief introduction about the book “The 1980s”:
The book is a record to show unknown stories behind the cultural changes in the decade of 1980s; it is also a collection to understand 1980s’ culture from present perspective. The author, Jianying Zha, who writes for a variety of publications including the New Yorker and the New York Times, interviewed eleven prominent Chinese intellectuals active in 1980s’ cultural circles. They recalled, analyzed, and criticized resounding events, surprising phenomena, and well-known characters in 1980s.
“The 1980s” in China: A Brief Flowering Age
“If someday there is a freedom movement in China, we must stand out and devote ourselves to it.” Bei Dao, a Chinese poet said to his friends before 1978, in a hopeless and tense political climate. Fortunately, the ideal day came in the end.
It was 22:30 on December 22th, 1978, the day that the Third Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the CPC closed. In a dusky farmhouse in Beijing, seven people finished Today‘s print after three-day fight. They cycled to a cookshop to celebrate the birth of Today —a magazine that collected modern and pioneer Chinese poems. Because of this magazine, this decade (1980s) turned out to be a golden age for poetry. On that midnight, they removed their numbers of bicycle licenses, and bravely posted Today‘s leaflets on “Xi’dan Democracy Wall”. All of them expected to be caught.
That is what one of interviews the book shows.
As the magazine Today indicates, it is 1978 that starts off with a bang, leading China’s 1980s.
The end of 1970s is vital for China. During this period, Chinese “troika” (i.e., Mao, Zhou En’lai, and Zhu De) died, the Cultural Revolution was over, “Reform and Open-up” policy was initiated, and the majority of intellectuals returned to be the center of the society. All Chinese people yearned for change.
Therefore, Chinese are willing to see 1978 as the beginning of 1980s. The book focuses much on the early 1980s. The cover is bright gold with rays of white light that emanate from the sun. Obviously, it speaks volumes, indicates freedom, and shows a sense of Renaissance.
Many Chinese people felt liberal tendencies from the macro circumstance, hundreds of underground literary journals following the step of Today, emerged to the public in the late 1970s. Today‘s foreword criticized cultural despotism in the Cultural Revolution, expressed people’s passion to build a new world, and illustrated individual values as well as illuminating deep understanding of freedom. Although Today is expensive, people queued to buy it as soon as its new issue was published.
For Chinese intellectuals, 1980s is hortatory. They felt to be extremely liberated. The magazine Today, Nietzsche’s “God has been dead”, and Sartre’s existentialism have been the symbols of 1980s.
Xi’dan Democracy Wall (1976-1979) played an important role in China’s contemporary history. The wall, 2m wide and 100m long, stood at the crossing between West Chang’an Road and Xi’dan North Road in Beijing. At that time, every person could post his political idea to the wall: people suggest to exonerate 1976′s Tiananmen event, asked for Deng Xiaoping to host the current administration, etc.. It was a public board for individuals to express themselves. Even Deng Xiaoping, a China’s powerful leader, once stood in front of the wall, said, “democracy is good.” The Wall indicates a significant change in China’s political atmosphere.
“Being liberated” pervaded the air in 1980s. Bei Dao, Today‘s editor, recalled in the book, “if Cultural Revolution had not happened, there would not have 1980s.” If people had not have a feeling of oppression, then, it was impossible to generate 1980s’ culture. 1980s is China’s cultural climax in the 20th century, Bei Dao added.
Things forbidden in Cultural Revolution—disco, curls, intimate behavior, make-up, advisements for beauty products, sunglasses—were all accepted in 1980s. Cui Jian, now as the father of rock in China, roared and sang with a guitar in a concert in Beijing in 1986, which made the audience crazy and “boiling”. They stood up with persistent applause. His song, “nothing to my name”, expressed people’s need for freedom, and broke out repression.
Cui Jian’s song “nothing to my name” and Bei Dao’s poem “answer” have become two milestones in 1980’s culture —Bei Dao answered the oppressive and ridiculous Cultural Revolution and Cui Jian released repression of the masses. Rethinking their achievements, both of Bei Dao and Cui Jian agreed that their works had been overvalued from the perspective of art. Nevertheless, in 1980s’ culture, nothing can shake their places as cultural pioneers.
Regrettably, the flowering, freeing air was transitory. Despite being viewed as “Spring of Beijing”, “Xi’dan Democracy Wall” only lasted for 3 years, and Today was also suspended. With opinions on the Wall or in journals becoming more and more radical and critical to the CPC, the government worried that that freedom might be exploited to destroy CPC and ultimately would lead to chaos. As a result, Xi’dan Democracy Wall was demolished and some journals including Today were asked to stop publication.
The book has captured thoughts of Chinese young people, the post-80s generation, who are not old enough to remember the first decade after Deng Xiaoping’s opening and reform policy dramatically changed the face of the nation. Still, the post-80s are deeply influenced by Bei Dao and Cui Jian, via textbooks and mass media. As for me, despite of awareness that 1980s may be beautified by former generations and the free atmosphere we have today, I desire to come back to the early 1980s, with the goal of seeing and enjoying days full of passion and idealism.
Although Zha says “The book is not about nostalgia”, she emphasizes the free atmosphere in the early 1980s, rather than asking interviewees facts after government restricted the freedom. However, all in all, she successfully shows us a bright, free but short-lived golden age.