Blast from the Past: Chinese nostalgia for the 1980s in the 2010s

In a speech at the 35th anniversary of academic exchanges between the United States and China earlier this summer, David Moser, one of the doyens of the expat community in Beijing, recounted a recent conservation 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, current Qinghua University professor and a student at Qinghua from 1985-1989 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 screen that are generally dominated by Qing dynasty palace intrigue and the war against Japan. When a headline in The Global Times declares, without a hint of irony, that “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, 中国合伙人, 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 (新东方). 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 students over students in the 1980s. China was changing and everyone, at least as the movie portrays, tried to define their dream (梦想) 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 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 when they got their start: This story, the film seemed to say, might also be yours.

Likewise, a popular TV show this summer, 相爱十年,begins at a university in the late 1980s and follows group of classmates through the intervening decade. “Going into the seas,” (下海), a series from a few years ago, recounts the experience of starting up a business in the 1980s; “Post-80” (80后) traces the lives of people born after 1980 through the early 2000s; the upcoming film (一生一世) 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 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 “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 usually take place of a sped up timetable. But Gopnik already has an answer. Beyond the forty-year cycle there is also a twenty-year one “by which the forty-something 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 中国合伙人. Now in his early fifties, the bulk of the movie looks back at his 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 in above there is no mention of campaigns about spiritual pollution or the student protests at the end of the decade.
It is also important to keep in mind that nostalgia for the 1980s is just one of several competing historical memories. At a talk last year, Wang Hui, professor at Qinghua University and generally regarded, perhaps unwillingly, 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 and visits to the doctor were free, the audience burst out into applause. Their memory and interpretation of the 1980s is certainly a lot different than the one embodied in the recent wave of films and tv shows.

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