Pictures of young couples in Mao suits, holding the little red book with quotations from the paramount leader and carefully keeping each other at arm's length, were the stereotypical images of China as a land without romance.
Thirty years later, the stereotype is no more. Young Chinese spend lavishly on roses, chocolates and candlelight dinners with their sweethearts.
A week into the Year of the Rat, the imported holiday of Valentine's Day has again spurred discounts at department stores and helped hotels, restaurants and flower markets to prosper.
"Buy a paper, get a rose," a popular Beijing metropolitan newspaper offered at every newsstand on Thursday morning.
In the booming eastern city of Wenzhou, young couples rushing to get married on this special day led a downtown registry office to open 30 minutes early on Thursday morning -- and to stop accepting divorce applications for the day.
Even old couples want to try the Western holiday: 60 years into their marriage, a couple in Xi'an in northwestern Shaanxi Province decided they, too, wanted to celebrate Valentine's Day.
The news was published on a local newspaper on Tuesday and by 6 p.m. on Wednesday, about 1,500 people had put up Internet postings, 90 percent of which voiced support.
Though most young Internet users suggested a candlelight dinner for two with chocolate, roses, perfume and whispered "sweet nothings", Li Baoshan, 82, said he would just browse through their photo album with his wife Li Guiyun, 80, and have a grand family dinner.
"Theirs was a marriage arranged by their elders and they never even met each other before they were wed," said Li Jingwen, one of the old couple's many granddaughters. "But they are very much in love and never blow up at each other. I really envy them."
No one remembers exactly when Chinese began to celebrate Valentine's Day, but until the 1980s, love was not a topic for open discussion among the Chinese, who translated "Valentine's Day" into "Lover's Day" or even "Mistress' Day", with a mixed feeling of curiosity about this Western novelty and a disdain for public exposure of private life.
Thirty years ago, no Chinese couple would show the least intimacy in public and even holding hands was taboo. Not to mention factors other than love: to be rich or to have a relative aboard, for example, were taken as "defects".
In early 1981, China's first classified ad appeared in a Beijing-based newspaper, with a 40-year-old school teacher looking for a wife. Ding Naijun, from the southwestern Sichuan Province, posted a photo wearing dark glasses and declared his monthly salary was 43.5 yuan. Today, that's a pittance -- about 6 U.S. dollars at current exchange rates -- but it was about the average income level of the time.
More than 270 women responded. Within a year, Ding had married a 28-year-old teacher from the northeastern Jilin Province. Their only 'dates' were monthly letters.
In the 1980s most lonely bachelors proudly declared their status as members of the Chinese Communist Party and occupations as drivers and seamen and listed "love for literature" and "non-smoking" as a plus.
Today, those putting up classified ads are almost always bragging about their big apartments, expensive cars and overseas education -- things that appear too good to be true for many who are seriously looking for a spouse.
Behind their fears are some phenomena that have sprouted with China's booming market economy and three decades of opening up, in particular, corruption, which can lead to an obsession with money and keeping a mistress.
Maybe it's not a coincidence after all that the Chinese translated "Valentine's Day" as "Mistress' Day".
In several cities, private detectives (whose work remains illegal in China), are asked by desperate housewives to tail husbands who shopped and dined with mistresses over the holiday.
This year's Valentine's Day, in particular, was overshadowed by the exposure of photos that purportedly showed Hong Kong actor and singer Edison Chen in bed or other sexually suggestive poses with several female stars.
The photographs, copied from Chen's computer when it was serviced last year and later distributed over the Internet, sparked a media frenzy in Hong Kong and the mainland alike.
Despite public anger at the pop idols involved, many on the mainland just shrugged off the scandal as "disgusting" and "that's life".
Valentine's China Element
"The cold snap in the south has frozen the roses and we suggest lovers exchange celeries and Chinese onions instead," reads a joking text message that spread widely among Chinese mobile subscribers.
More than three weeks of snow and sleet hitting central, southern and eastern China starting in mid-January cut off transport, power and water supplies and stranded millions of people on their way home for the Chinese New Year, which started last Thursday.
Though most regions are warming up these days, the havoc drove up rose prices to three times the normal level.
University students, the most avid group of Valentine celebrators, have called on peers to "buy fewer roses and donate the money to the snow-plagued people instead".
The Chinese have also found alternative gifts to mark Valentine's Day: cell phones, rings, garments and traditional Chinese artwork.
Zheng Xianglin, a folk artist in the eastern Fujian Province, didn't expect his handmade peony-shaped lanterns could sell so well among the young.
"I make 20 pieces a day at the most -- every day they're sold out within an hour," he said. "Most buyers are young couples."
The debate over whether Western holidays should be allowed to become so prominent in China is continuing. So is folk culture activists' call for establishment of China's own "lover's day", to be celebrated in summer.
Yet many agree China is no more the isolated Middle Kingdom it once was.
"Even the Chinese New Year is becoming a universal festival, with the Empire State Building in New York lighting its tower red and yellow Thursday evening to ring in Lunar New Year and half a million Britons gathering in central London to celebrate the same occasion," reads an opinion published on Thursday's China Youth Daily.
"We don't have to care where the holiday originates, as long as it brings us happiness," it said. China "needs to be an open-minded nation to embrace the world in a mature and confident manner" with its people being "global citizens of an open society."
(Xinhua News Agency February 15, 2008)