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Period: 1990s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★★

BP Ji is the Chinese name for a pager or beeper.

Beepers made their Chinese debut in Shanghai in 1984. At first they were so expensive that only a few thousand people could afford them and acquiring one became a matter of honor and prestige. The first beepers couldn’t display Chinese characters so messages were mainly of the type “call me back on this number”. But as more sophisticated models came on the market they became a popular way for young people to chat and exchange greetings.

In the early 1990s demand soared as prices fell from several thousand yuan to just a few hundred. But the most common messages still sounded rather banal and plaintive, such as "call me if anything happens" and "why don’t you ever call me back?”

By 1998 China was the world’s number one country for pagers with over 65 million in use.

But time and technology march on and when mobile phones appeared on the scene it soon became clear the pager’s days were numbered.

In 2007 China Unicom withdrew from the beeper business in 30 provinces, sounding the death knell for the much-loved little device. In a short period of 20 years, pagers had run the course from exclusive status symbol, through universal popularity to obsolescence and extinction.

One sad consequence of the beeper’s demise was that the highly paid call center girls with beautiful voices all lost their jobs.

Tiao Cao

Period: from 1990s to the present day

Popularity Rating : ★★★★☆

Tiao cao – literally to jump to another trough – is the Chinese term for job-hopping, a common technique used by people all over the world to advance their careers and salaries rapidly. For those with qualifications, finding work in China’s booming economy is relatively easy, and job-hopping has become a source of great frustration for Chinese employers who find that their newly-trained staff may decamp to the opposition at a moment’s notice. Lately the practice has become particularly common among recent university graduates, causing some employers to prefer non-graduates as more loyal and reliable.

Da Ge Da

Period: 1990s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

Da Ge Da literally “big brother phone” or “big boss phone” referred to big and clunky early model cell phones based on analog technology.

The Motorola 3200, universally carried by gangsters in the 1980s Hong Kong mob movies, was the first model to be christened “Da Ge Da”.

China’s first 900MHz analog mobile phone network went into service in Guangdong Province in 1987. Da Ge Da quickly became prized status symbols because of their exorbitant price and high call charges. Apart from technology the biggest difference with today’s mobile phones was their appearance: black, heavy, and thick as a brick.

After China’s GSM network started operation in 1996 mobile phones became commonplace. The Da Ge Da disappeared forever in June 2001 when China Mobile switched off its analog network. But echoes of its glory days can be seen in Da Ge Da cigarette lighters and, weirdly, in the occasional outsized novelty phone.

Xia Hai

Period: after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 tour of south China

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

Xia hai, literally “to jump into the sea”, means to leave a safe government job in order to go into business. It entered the language after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 tour of south China which was seen as a re-launch of economic reform. Around the same time the State Council amended or abolished over 400 regulations that restricted business, and large numbers of officials and intellectuals began to “jump into the sea”.

Among them were Feng Lun and Pan Shiyi who, after starting out with nothing, became famous real estate billionaires. Many officials from the State Planning Commission including Gu Ningke began their business careers at the same time. Ministry of Personnel statistics show that in 1992 120,000 officials quit their jobs to do business and, perhaps even more tellingly, a further 10 million started up businesses while remaining in post.

“Money” was no longer a dirty word. The greeting “I wish you prosperity” began to replace the traditional “have you eaten yet?” In Beijing, the People’s Daily even published an article entitled “If you want to get rich, get busy”.


Period: 1990s

Popularity Rating: ★★★☆☆

MBA (Master of Business Administration) is a masters degree in professional management that originated in America in the 1940s and spread to Europe and elsewhere from the 1960s onwards. It arrived in China in the 1990s and from the outset proved very popular among Chinese managers and business organizations.

In the early years anyone who had an MBA could realistically expect not just a senior white-collar post but to advance over time to a business leadership position. The numbers taking MBA examinations shot up from 5500 in 1997 to 50,000 in 2002.

As more and more people obtained MBAs its currency in the job market became somewhat devalued. Reflecting the qualification’s falling appeal to employers, the number of people taking the exam began to drop. After the peak year of 2002, numbers started to fall in 2003 and are now steady at about 30,000.

Lai Ning

Period: Late 1980s and early 1990s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★★

Lai Ning was a schoolboy from Shimian County, who died in March 1988 while fighting a forest fire on Haizi Mountain. As flames encroached on his village and threatened to ignite oil stocks, 14 year old Lai fought the blaze for 45 hours before tragically succumbing.

Lai Ning’s courage and sacrifice were publicized around the country. In May 1988, the Communist Youth League and the State Education Commission dubbed Lai Ning a "heroic youth", and called on China’s young people to emulate him.

In May 1989 the Young Pioneers (China’s equivalent of scouts and guides) were urged to “"Learn from Lai Ning”. New editions of school books were printed carrying the logo “Little Hero Lai Ning”. Schoolchildren took Lai Ning to their hearts and he became an object of hero-worship.

In recent years there has been something of a rethink and official publicity now urges children and young people to call emergency services rather than risk their lives. But Lai Ning remains a symbol of his times.

Heimao, Baimao

Period: late 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★★

Heimao, Baimao literally means “black cat, white cat”.

In 1962 Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, while discussing agriculture, famously said “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white; as long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.”

After the third plenary session of the 11th CPC Central Committee, the “Cat Theory” became a shorthand way of talking about China’s new focus on economic development.

In 1985, Deng was voted Man of the Year by America’s Time magazine and his “black cat, white cat” catchphrase became well-known around the world. In 1992 Deng’s tour of south China gave his bon mot a new lease of life.

Hu La Quan (Hula-Hoop)

Period: late 1980s to early 1990s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

In the late 1980s China was gripped by a new craze that developed into one of the most popular exercise games in Chinese history – the hu la quan, a type of Hula-Hoop. Like the Hula-Hoop, the hu la quan was a tubular plastic hoop swung around the hips; but the Chinese version was filled with tiny balls that made a “hula” sound as the hoop spun. A few people swinging hoops could be heard miles away.

Hu la quan soon became a spectator sport with group performances, solo performances and competitions, some of them televised; in 1990, during the Asian Games, the Hula-Hoop became a sort of national obsession. Nearly every family had one or two Hula-Hoops hanging on the door ready to go.

On the 1994 Spring Festival TV Gala a 13-year-old Shanghai schoolgirl Ouyang Beini got her name into the Guinness Book of Records by simultaneously swinging 98 hoops. Her record was broken a few months later on CCTV1 by another Shanghai girl who managed 144. Yet another Shanghai girl, 10-year-old Zhang Yaru, set the record for the longest continuous spin of 78 minutes.

Soon afterwards the Hula-Hoops disappeared from sight as suddenly as it had arrived on the scene. But it has recently made a comeback as an exercise and slimming aid.


Period: the 1980s to 1990s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

In August 1983 Guangdong-based Sanshui drinks company launched Jianlibao, an electrolyte sports drinks based on a formula devised by Professor Ouyang Xiao.

A publicity coup at the 1994 Los Angeles Olympics sealed the drink’s popularity. Jianlibao boss Li Jingwei made sure Chinese athletes were supplied with, and seen drinking, Jianlibao, even though stocks had run out in China.

As the Chinese medal count mounted, Jianlibao got its fifteen minutes of fame in the world’s press. Japan's Tokyo News talked about “a 'magic water' behind the Chinese team’s results, a new drink that gives athletes an immediate energy boost."

Back home, "Chinese magic water", became a patriotic nickname for Jianlibao and people scrambled to buy it.

The Chinese National Beverage Industry Association statistics show that during 1991-1996, Jianlibao was the top national soft drink in terms of production, sales and profits.

Wan Yuan Hu

Period: 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★★

Wan yuan hu, literally “ten thousand yuan household”, was a common term for well-off families back in the early 1980s, when 10,000 yuan was considered a huge some of money. Such families were seen as pioneers of the drive to get rich promoted by economic reform.

The term was popularized by a 1985 China Comment article about a village in Guangxi called Pandi in which all but one of the thirty households were Wan Yuan Hu. The exception was old Aunt Liu who was provided for under the five guarantees system (childless and infirm old people were guaranteed food, clothing, medical care, housing and burial expenses). The tiny village was honored as a “cashbox”.

In the 1980s ordinary workers earned less than 100 yuan a month. Towns, villages and firms began a kind of informal competition in which they listed and celebrated their Wan Yuan Hu. The practice seems quaint now, but at the beginning of reform and opening-up it reflected a pent-up desire to make money.

It was around the same time that the slogan “to get rich is glorious” began to filter into people’s minds.

Deng Lijun

Period: 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★★

Taiwan-born Deng Lijun (aka Teresa Teng), was one of the best known performers in mainland in the years following the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But her most famous hit song When Will You Come Back Again traveled a rocky road to popularity.

The song was written by Liu Xuean in 1936, and became a huge hit in China when sung by Japanese/Manchurian songstress Li Xianglan. During the Cultural Revolution Liu Xuean was denounced as a “traitor and a rightist” and when Deng Lijun recorded the song in the 1980s the authorities denounced it as a “traitorous song” representing “spiritual pollution”. But the attempt to ban her music only increased Deng’s popularity.

Deng brought a fresh sound to people brought up on a uniform diet of slogan songs. She appealed to both men and women and all age groups.

In 1995 Deng died of an asthma attack while on holiday in Thailand. She was 42. The Taiwan authorities organized a lavish funeral and thousands of her devoted fans visit her mountain tomb every year.

Huo Yuanjia

Period: in the 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★★

Huo Yuanjia was the first Hong Kong TV series to be broadcast on the mainland. The story of the eponymous late Qing dynasty martial arts hero rapidly attracted a vast audience, and watching became almost obligatory. Its theme song The Great Wall Will Never Fall Down is still popular today.

Huang Yuanshen and Liang Xiaolong, who played lead characters Huo Yuanjia and Chen Zhen, became the era’s screen idols. The show was rebroadcast many times after its first showing in 1983, and each time it stirred up huge excitement and patriotic feeling.

In 2006 the story of Huo Yuanjia was retold in the feature film Fearless starring Jet Li in the title role.

Tiebi Atongmu (Astro Boy)

Period: from 1979 to the middle 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★★

Tiebi Atongmu, literally “Iron armed Atongmu”, was a popular Japanese cartoon character. In English speaking countries he was known as Astro Boy.

The Astro Boy cartoons were originally introduced into China by electronics giant Casio as a promotional ambassador for their products. They told the story of a robot boy created by a scientist as a replacement for his son who had been killed in a car crash. Astro Boy traveled the universe fighting crime and righting wrongs.

As the first ever overseas animated film to be seen on Chinese TV, Astro Boy created a sensation and a craze for Japanese manga cartoons that has yet to subside. Thousands more followed in its wake. Later Japanese favorites included Detective Conan and Dragonball.

Pi Li Wu

Period: in the late 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

Pi li wu – literally “thunderclap dancing”, is the Chinese term for break dancing.

Break dancing took off in China after American movie Breakin’ was shown in 1987. It told the story of Ozone and Turbo, two young break dancers. Ozone’s introduction of himself as “street dancer, Ozone” became a popular catch phrase, while young people tried to copy Turbo’s dazzling moves.

The late great Chinese break dancer Tao Jin began his career after watching the movie; at first he failed to win over other dancers to the new style, but after his stunning performance on the Spring Festival TV Spectacular, break dancing swept the country. Young people began dancing in the street, imitating classic moves like the moonwalk and robot dancing.

Today’s street fashion has moved on to hip-hop and skateboarding.

Qiong Yao

Period: 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

Qiong Yao (aka Chiung Yao) is a popular Taiwanese romance novelist. Many of her works have been made into movies or TV series.

According to a 1986 report in the Wenxuebao newspaper, 70 percent of Guangzhou students had read at least one of her novels.

In the 1990s her novels and the TV series adapted from them became huge hits in Taiwan and mainland. Perhaps best known was the 1998 TV series Huan Zhu Ge Ge, (Princess Returned Pearl). Its audience ratings broke all records, reaching 44 percent in Beijing and 55 percent in Shanghai.

Xiao Ren Shu

Period: 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

Xiao ren shu – literally “books for little people” were comic books principally designed for children. They are an ancient Chinese art. The earliest example of a xiao ren shu was excavated at Mawangdui in Changsha, and recounted tales from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 25 AD).

The 1970s was a boom period for xiao ren shu publishing and the genre reached its zenith. Print runs ran into millions, and books such as The Young Warriors broke all publication records. Other popular titles were The Biography of Yue Fei, The Journey to the West and Railway Guerrilla. But competition from TV and other media eventually damped demand and by the 1990s the golden age of the xiao ren shu had come to an end.

Xiao ren shu that only cost a few cents in the 1980s have now become collectors’ items. A 1970s copy of The Idiom Story published by Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House was sold for 6,000 yuan in 2007. And a complete set of Romance of Three Kingdoms published in the late 1950s will set you back more than 100,000 yuan.

Si Da Jian

Period: 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

In the 1980s Si Da Jian, literally “four big things” or “four main items” meant refrigerators, televisions, washing machines and radios.

The idea was that anyone who possessed these goods had attained happiness; getting all four was especially important for people planning to get married and set up home.

However people’s expectations and aspirations are constantly developing.

Before reform and opening-up, people were happy with a watch, a bicycle, a radio and a sewing machine. By the 1990s, color televisions, refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners were the targets.

Today the consumer goods on offer are so various – mobile phones, camcorders, computers, mp3s, motorcycles, cars and so on – that people would quickly run out of fingers if they tried to count all the items they consider “necessary”. The Si Da Jian have become fading memories of a simpler age.


Period: from the early 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

Disco was adopted as a loan word from English.

In 1985 the Indian film Disco Dancer caused a national disco craze. People may have forgotten the plot but everyone remembers the theme music Jimmy Jimmy Ajaa.

From the mid to late 1980s, various styles of Western dance music were gradually introduced into the mainland. One of the most popular styles, cha cha cha, helped shape the memories of an entire generation.

In April 1985 British teeny-bopper idols Wham became the first ever western band to perform in China when they played in front of 15,000 fans at Beijing Workers Stadium. After the gig, the band remarked “We wanted to show them something new.”


Period: In the early 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

Xingzi was the heroine of Japanese TV series Blood Suspect that became a huge hit when it was broadcast in China in 1982.

The series told the tragic and romantic tale of a high school girl who, when she had a blood test, discovered that her boyfriend was in fact her half-brother, and that she had leukemia.

For many Chinese this was the first time they had heard of the fatal blood disease, or of pseudo-scientific theories, popular in Japan at the time, relating blood type to personality. Many people rushed to have their own blood tested.

Momoe Yamaguchi, the beautiful young actress who played Xingzi became a teen idol. Xingzi T-shirts went on sale everywhere. Everyone one could hum Thank You, the theme song from the series; some even learnt the song’s lyrics in Japanese.

When Xingzi finally died of leukemia, one young girl was so overcome with grief that she committed suicide. But Xingzi’s tragic fate reputedly inspired many others to study medicine..

Zou Xue

Period: from 1980s to the present day

Popularity Rating : ★★★★☆

Zou xue, which literally means to walk into a cave or dark place, is the Chinese expression for moonlighting or taking an unofficial second job, often without declaring the income or paying tax. Originally used in theatrical circles to refer to “resting” actresses working in restaurants and suchlike, it is now used to refer to second jobs in general. These days, people of all professions and occupations moonlight. Teachers have become a notorious example, with some university students complaining that a few professors put more effort into their spare time work than their official duties.

Bao Mi Hua (popcorn)

Period: in the 1980s

Popularity Rating: ★★★★☆

Men walking from place to place carrying strange black pots were a familiar sight in 1980s China. The pots were used to make popcorn. In children’s eyes the popcorn man was a kind of magician.

When people heard the shouts of the “magician”, they would rush out of their houses with bowls of rice or corn. The popcorn man performed his mysterious ritual and, as if by magic, the rice or corn was changed into popcorn. The trick usually ended with a loud bang, causing the customers to cover their ears.

“Bao mi hua” – literally “exploding rice flower” – was a popular cheap treat back in the 1980s and for many people the bang of the popcorn pot is a nostalgic memory of the period. Nowadays to make popcorn you just pop a packet in the microwave, but there are still a few of the old magicians around so if you hear the occasional explosion, don’t be alarmed – it’s probably just the popcorn man.

Tan Lian Ai

Period: from 1978

Popularity Rating: ★★★☆☆

Tan lian ai means to be in love. In the 1960s dating in public was regarded as disgraceful and degraded behavior. Lovers had to date secretly or invent some official business as an excuse to meet. They wrote love letters addressed to “My comrade”, ending them with “revolutionary regards”. But by 1978, the climate had begun to thaw. It became permissible to feel love as well as “class solidarity”, and the phrase “Tan lian ai” became popular nationwide.

But “Tan lian ai” remained in some sense taboo. In 1979, Popular Cinema, then the only entertainment magazine printed in color, published a still photo featuring a kiss, from the British film The Slipper and the Rose. An irate reader demanded to know “Have hugs and kisses become the most important things in today’s socialist China?” The questioner’s anger resonated with many other readers.

Gao Cangjian

Period: from 1978

Popularity Rating: ★★★☆☆

Gao Cangjian is the Chinese name of Japanese actor Ken Takakura, famous for his tough-guy roles, and sometimes referred to as the Japanese Clint Eastwood.

In 1978, the Japanese movie Kimi yo fundo no kawa o watare (Across the River of Wrath) was a wild hit in China. The Japanese media estimated about 800 million Chinese saw the film. Ken Takakura played the lead – the dream lover of uncountable young women.

Many young men tried to imitate his brooding, silent character, including, it is rumored, the then unknown Zhang Yimou, who began to dress like Takakura. Soon afterwards the future great director quit his job in a textile factory to study at Beijing Film Academy.

In 2005 Zhang Yimou and his idol Takakura collaborated on the movie Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

(China.org.cn October 24, 2008)

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