The book Memories of Chinese Life encompasses almost every aspect of ordinary people’s lives, including their clothing, food, housing, transportation, entertainment, and daily necessities. The book chronicles the day-by-day changes of Chinese society, starting from the 1950s till today. Some fashions during different periods of time are selected and presented to reflect the massive changes of society and the pathway people followed towards a moderately prosperous society.
In the 1950s, the old-fashioned Chinese tunic suit, Western-style clothes, and women’s chi-paos were replaced by the fashionable Lenin coat and women’s Bragi dresses. Bragi, the Russian transliteration of one-piece dress, was the attire worn by a heroine in Soviet literature and the informal clothing of Soviet women. It was mostly illustrated in magazines and films of the Soviet Union. Thus it became the most popular choice of all Chinese women at that period of time.
In the 1960s, the food subsidy coupon was a necessity when making any purchase of food. Vegetables were officially classified as a National Grade II Good, which was supplied by quota. Those who had official registered permanent residence in Beijing had access to 100g of fresh vegetables per day, but were limited to select one of the three vegetables of radishes, potatoes, and cabbage, of which most people selected potatoes. In addition, a small number of coupons were also issued called the “scallion coupon.” With that coupon, people could buy a handful of scallions, ginger or garlic. During that period, the most fashionable means of transportation in a family was a bicycle manufactured by the famous brands Phoenix or Flying Pigeon.
Dacron – a polyester fabric – first emerged in China in the 1970s, when coarse cloth was the most common material for making clothes. It soon became a symbol of fashion. At that time, it was quite popular for a man to buy a Dacron skirt as a gift for his girlfriend, just as men today like to buy Cartier bracelets for their girlfriends. Women tended to show off their Dacron clothes to neighbors to show how much their boyfriends or husbands loved them. Besides the pursuit of fashion, the reason for the popularity of the material was also due to the fact that it was the easiest way to satisfy the demand for beauty among ordinary people. In the 70s, the three basic things necessary for a man to propose to his bride were a bicycle, a wrist watch, and a sewing machine. Later the radio receiver was added to that list. These advancements in materialistic requirements of couples for marriage showed the elevated living standard of newly married couples and families in general.
Red dresses were in fashion in the 1980s, together with fake collars, suits, and jackets. Maxim’s de Paris and the American-style chain restaurants – McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) – could be seen on the street of Beijing. Teresa Teng’s sweet songs, disco dance, and music broadcast by cassette recorders could also be heard on urban streets and in parks as a way of entertainment. The Chinese women’s volleyball team, led by “Iron Hammer” Lang Ping, won the world championship and was the pride of Chinese people. Going on honeymoons also swept through the crowds of newlyweds in the country. A photo of newly married couples taken during their honeymoon best reflected the fashion in those days.
In the 1990s, the fashion of making deliberate holes on jeans, cultural T-shirts with slogans printed on the front, cosmetics and skin-care products, Japanese anime, the vegetable basket project, fresh seafood, buffets, Starbucks coffee shops, and supermarkets were the typical memories. Soon, the Chinese-style Tang suit, mortgage slave, artificial beauty, super girl, and high-speed rail became the popular elements of people’s daily life. With the improvements of people’s material and spiritual life, a moderately prosperous society is almost about to be realized.
After entering the new millennium, people’s lives were deeply changed by the Internet, transforming a group of commoners into cyber-stars. When the buzzword “gelivable” came out, it was immediately reported via domestic and foreign media. The Beijing Olympic Games held in 2008 was also a landmark that a prosperous and stronger China was stepping onto the center stage of the global arena.
The recent decade has seen historical changes of China in its pursuit of realizing a moderately prosperous society in all respects. The promise of the Chinese government to its people is: “The aspiration of the people for a better life is what we are striving for.” Supply-side structural reform, fighting against poverty, environmental protection, providing affordable housing and healthcare insurance – all these reforms have been forward steps to facilitate the realization of Chinese people’s dreams. A string of grand diplomatic events that have been successfully held in China, including the World Exposition 2010 and the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, the International Horticultural Exhibition and the Belt & Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, all drew the world’s attention to today’s China. The popularity of the documentary series A Bite of China has also introduced Chinese delicacies to the world.
Memories make those passed-by times meaningful. While Memories of Chinese Life resonates with the hearts of overseas Chinese, it also provides a window for foreigners to learn about the changes of this country since its reform and opening-up, and the efforts Chinese people have made to secure a victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects.