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Reflections on a Passion-filled Decade

Zha Jianying admits to having a "1980s complex."


The Chinese author channeled her fascination of the decade that influenced China's transition in her recently published book The 1980s.


The book, published by Beijing-based SDX Publishing Company in May, reminisces about the era through interviews with 12 people who were culture activists in the 1980s, but later disappeared almost entirely from the scene.


Zha, a culture critic who received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003, said she is surprised at the heated responses accompanying the book's release.


"I guess it is because we are telling some truths. It is much more important to speak honestly than to speak smartly," she said. "We don't lack smart people in China. We lack people who have the necessary courage and skills to speak the truth."


Though she spent the majority of the 1980s outside China, Zha's interest in that time period remained strong.


After graduating from Peking University in 1981, she went to the United States to earn her bachelor's degree at the University of South Carolina in 1984, and a Mphil at Columbia University in New York in 1987. She then returned to Beijing and now shuttles back and forth between China and the United States.



The idea of compiling The 1980s first came to Zha two years ago when she was working at Time Out Beijing as the magazine's editorial advisor.


At first the magazine was going to invite five people to talk about the 1980s, but soon found the topic was too heavy and unsuitable for the city guide, which boasts an easygoing style.


Zha decided to expand the feature she was writing into a book, hoping to accommodate in-depth discussions and genuine introspection.


She was so engrossed in the idea that she suspended her plan of writing a sequel to her 1995 book, China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture, which portrays the impact of popular culture and mass media on traditional Chinese society.


She selected 11 diverse representatives who were active in the "cultural fever" of the 1980s.


More than half of the selected interviewees had experiences abroad, an important factor to Zha.


"I believe the geographic distance, as well as the distance in time, can provide a different angle of vision," she said.


The interviewees she finally selected included novelist A Cheng, poet Bei Dao, painter Chen Danqing, rock star Cui Jian, critic Li Tuo, composer and novelist Liu Suola and film director Tian Zhuangzhuang.


Since most of the interviewees have been her close friends for many years, she was able to delve into deep conversations with them.


A period for reflection


Zha has found that she is not the only one with nostalgic feelings for the 1980s.


Those years were exciting not only because of the political chaos of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) ended but also because they marked the end to years of closure in the country.


People began to open their eyes and minds to the wealth of ideas and cultures from the outside world.


This period was also like a crevice between politics and economics, when people's enthusiasm in culture was released, giving birth to what Zha describes in the book's preface as "an unprecedented romantic time."


The decade saw its cultural heroes writers, painters, film directors, journalists charging in their respective fronts courageously.


People were thirsty to read, and literature and films grew in popularity.


Literature magazines enjoyed tremendous popularity. People's Literature, a monthly magazine of novellas, poetry and short stories, was selling more than one million copies.


Writing surged with the emergence of many new styles, such as the "literature of the wounded," which related the nightmarish experiences of the "cultural revolution," and the "literature of seeking roots," which is characterized by rural settings and the incorporation of local dialects and folklore. Pop science publications gained readership. Knowledge is Power, a monthly magazine published in Shanghai, was the one that sold most copies. In the film circle, "the fifth generation," which refers to a group of filmmakers who graduated from Beijing Film Academy in early 1980s, began to excite the world with their revolutionary pictures. The most prominent representative, Zhang Yimou, who is still very active today, won a golden bear award in Berlin, Germany in 1988.


Concerts of classical Western music drew crowds to a few music halls in Beijing and Shanghai, with music teachers traveling to universities to give lectures on various styles of Western music.


Even philosophy books, such as translated Western philosophy classics including Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, became bestsellers.


"An important character of the 1980s is passion. Everyone was passionate, everyone had ambitions just like he had the responsibility to open a way for the country's future," said Li Tuo, one of the book's interviewees.


On the back cover of her book Zha listed words she believes best describe the 1980s: Passion, romantic, idealism, collectivism, inartificial, crazy, simple and thirst.


To contrast, she also lists words that describe the 1990s and the first several years of the 21st Century: Reality, individualism, shrewd, sophisticated and diversified.


But while she too is passionate about the decade, Zha said she is against any exaggeration of the importance of the 1980s.


For example, she does not agree with a statement that the 1980s was "the Renaissance of China."


"Although what we achieved in the 1980s was remarkable, obviously it did not scale the height of the Renaissance," said Zha.


She was pleased that most of her interviewees avoided unnecessary beautification of the 1980s. On the contrary, they made their reflection with sober attitudes.


Chen Danqing made the most caustic comment on the 1980s in the book.


"Comparing the 1980s to the Renaissance is like a paralytic who walks with the help of others but thinks he is dancing disco," Chen had said.


Zha said she is not in full agreement with Chen either, but she likes Chen's sober attitude.


"The most important significance of the book is reflection. It encourages those who have gone through the 1980s to reflect on the past, to think about both the gains and losses," said Zha.


(China Daily June 16, 2006)

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