In China, sociologists often use the word tizhi to describe the country’s society and culture. Tizhi roughly translates as “system” and captures the effects of a number of political, economic, and social measures undertaken by the Communist Party since it rose to power in 1949. These days, the public has a complex relationship with several of the measures enacted during the first three decades of Communist rule, especially the notions of socialist public ownership, the planned economy, and the danwei system, under which the government assigned all able-bodied citizens into work units.
Today, many Chinese feel that the old tizhi — the system that existed prior to the economic reforms of the late 1970s onward — carries a whiff of tragedy, of a simple yet obsolete social ideal. As the reform and opening-up policy gathered speed in the 1980s, the old system was gradually dismantled. Today, the country continues its transformation from a planned economy into one where the market is king and from a collective society into a more individualistic one. Indeed, many people hold prejudices against the old system, arguing that its extreme egalitarianism fostered laziness, while the new system lauds positive individual traits like bravery, entrepreneurialism, and self-fulfillment.
At the start of the reforms, popular culture adopted a markedly anti-establishment bent. By the 1990s, Chinese film and television lionized the notion of rapid socio-economic progress, lauding works that spoke of leaving the stability of the old system behind and making money through business. In the national media, the social crises that arose during the early reform years were blamed not on new policies, but on vestiges of the old system that had yet to be jettisoned. For example, the erstwhile pillars of socialist public ownership — state-owned enterprises (SOEs) — became hulking, unproductive relics of a former era, and the mass layoffs that resulted from their marketization became painful but necessary sacrifices to “liberate” certain industries.
Since the turn of the century, however, films and TV shows have re-examined the optimism of the 1990s. For example, the 2007 TV drama “Da Gongjiang” — loosely translated as “The Great Craftsman” — depicts the glory of industrial work in SOEs during the 1950s to 1970s, but also captures the long, slow path toward destitution that many workers took after their former employers abandoned them. The protagonist, Xiao Changgong, is a model worker once honored by Chairman Mao. At the peak of his career, he lives in a two-story, 200-square-meter Western-style building in a northeastern Chinese city. But in the 1990s, Xiao sees his own children laid off from the SOE where he previously worked. The TV show clearly plays up the historical hardships of the working class caused by the reform of state-owned enterprises.
A still frame from the film ‘The Piano in a Factory.’ IC
In 2010, the low-budget art film “The Piano in a Factory” used a dark, absurdist method to depict the worn-down dignity of fired “factory children.” Several years after he and his colleagues are laid off by their former factory, protagonist Chen Guilin brings together a group of odd-job men to build a piano in the heart of their long-abandoned workroom. The task and the setting allow the men to reprise their former skill, self-worth, and confidence, challenging the mainstream narrative that laid-off workers are an inferior, backward labor force to be weeded out.
There are also works that directly touch on the early reform era itself, like the TV show “Xia Hai” — “Going Into Business” — released at the end of 2011. In the show, a group of brothers start their own companies, leave their small hometowns, and head south to Guangzhou in search of fortune. But by the end of the show, only the oldest brother, Chen Zhiping, has gained professional success, because he retains strong personal morals while all around him his companions seek to make a quick buck by unscrupulous means. In doing so, the show focuses less on the successful businesspeople who, at the outset of the reforms, chose to xiahai — a term that translates as “go out to sea” and meant “seek fortune on the private market.” Instead, it portrays the struggles, resignation, and failure of those who luohai — “get into deep water.”
Critical reflection on the reform era tends to prompt nostalgia for the planned economy, especially the point when the socialist danwei system was on the verge of being dissolved. Several movies take place in one of these work units and feature relationships between fathers and children or other family members. People look back at the mid-1980s to mid-1990s with fondness because — for the most part — it lacks both the bloodiness of the Cultural Revolution and the seediness of the market economy. That moment between these two major eras was short yet splendid.
Three movies from the early 1990s — “What’s in the Darkness,” “Young Love Lost,” and “The Summer Is Gone” — explore different spaces found within the work unit system. The first is a coming-of-age story of a young girl living in a small town in central China’s Henan province in the summer of 1991. Through the eyes of middle-schooler Qu Jing, the story traces her embarrassments growing up while simultaneously depicting the atmosphere specific to this era. A neighborhood where everybody knows each other still hides unknown risks, not least as Qu nervously, eagerly embraces the outside world and her own sexual growth, always curious to find what lies in the darkness.
“Young Love Lost,” too, takes place in the early 1990s at a state-owned factory in a fictional remote Chinese city. While certain socialist factories emphasized Marxist theories of production and the spirit of industry, the factory where protagonist Lu Xiaolu works is full of fighting, pranking, and chasing girls. Finally, in the exquisite film “The Summer Is Gone,” the danwei system is not portrayed as a backward, depressing space that props up the lazy and caters to the work-averse, but as a deep vision of stability and harmony.
Whether uncovering the old scars of laid-off workers in the 1990s, illuminating new problems caused by the reform and opening-up period, or cherishing the memory of the last socialist danwei, these films all rethink the radical marketization reform of the 1990s. They reflect on the unsatisfactory status quo of people living in the boundless sea of market economy, and hint at an alternate discourse for the next round of deep-reaching reforms and structural adjustments in China.
Translator: Clemens Ruben; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
Clarification: This article has been updated to better reflect historical realities in China between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s.
(Header image: A still frame from the film ‘The Piano in a Factory.’ IC)