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2020-06-01 10:26:11

A young schoolgirl sits flipping through a book under a poster proclaiming the benefits of modernization. A gang of children squat on an airport runway watching the planes roll past. A grinning boy stands arms up, following his elderly neighbors in a tai chi routine.

The scenes are from “Hello, Little Friends,” a collection by the Japanese photographer Ryoji Akiyama that offers a never-before-seen glimpse into the everyday lives of Chinese children growing up in the early ’80s.

Between 1981 and 1982, Akiyama traveled the length and breadth of China documenting life in the fast-changing country. Over five trips, the photographer traveled to 12 different cities and dozens of rural areas — from the northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to the southern Hainan province — amassing a collection of nearly 8,000 images.

Some of the images were published in 1983 in a book — also titled “Hello, Little Friends” — around 300 copies of which were distributed to youth centers across China. This original book project, funded by the Japanese camera maker Konica Minolta, was essentially a marketing tool to popularize the company’s Sakura color film in the country. 

A GIF shows children painting in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A GIF shows children painting in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

“Hello, Little Friends” quickly faded into obscurity, but in 2015 a Chinese netizen discovered an old copy of the book and posted some of the images to social media. The photos went viral, with many users praising Akiyama’s ability to vividly capture the emotions of his subjects.

The buzz eventually convinced the Kyoto-based publisher Seisodo to reissue the 1983 book. The new edition was published last year, with Akiyama traveling back to China 38 years after his first trip to promote it.

“Kids love taking photos: They’d gather to watch whenever they saw my camera,” the photographer told readers at a book signing in Shanghai. “They just forgot the camera existed when they started to play games.”

Following the success of the reissued “Hello, Little Friends,” Seisodo is publishing a sequel to the book June 1, celebrated as Children’s Day in China. The new collection is made up of photos that Akiyama found in a dusty box in his attic, none of which have been published before.

A Chinese media outlet even managed to track down 10 of the children that featured in Akiyama’s original photobook, after appealing to readers for information last year.

For one family of three sisters from Inner Mongolia, the rediscovery of “Hello, Little Friends” was particularly poignant. Akiyama’s shot of the three girls with their father is the only photo the family has of the four of them together.

Now middle-aged, the women described the photo as a “treasure of their lives,” reminding them of days when times were tough but people were warm-hearted.

Three sisters and their father outside their house, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Three sisters and their father outside their house, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A father and son in the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A father and son in the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Boys drink orange soda in Tantuo Temple, Beijing, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Boys drink orange soda in Tantuo Temple, Beijing, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Students play jump-rope in Beijing, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Students play jump-rope in Beijing, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children play games in a kindergarten, Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children play games in a kindergarten, Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A boy pretends to be a traffic police officer in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A boy pretends to be a traffic police officer in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl steals a glance during “eye exercises,” massages for releasing eye strain, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl steals a glance during “eye exercises,” massages for releasing eye strain, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Students play games in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Students play games in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Boys prepare to go fishing by Dian Lake, Kunming, Yunnan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Boys prepare to go fishing by Dian Lake, Kunming, Yunnan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl poses for a photo at a rural canteen in Kunming, Yunnan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl poses for a photo at a rural canteen in Kunming, Yunnan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Classmates in Kunming, Yunnan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Classmates in Kunming, Yunnan province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children pose for a photo at a zoo in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children pose for a photo at a zoo in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl from a dance school in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl from a dance school in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children go swimming in Hainan province, 1981-1982. Few foreigners could gain permission to visit Hainan during the early 1980s. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children go swimming in Hainan province, 1981-1982. Few foreigners could gain permission to visit Hainan during the early 1980s. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A boy goes jogging with a family member in Shanghai, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A boy goes jogging with a family member in Shanghai, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A boy does tai chi with his older neighbors in Shanghai, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A boy does tai chi with his older neighbors in Shanghai, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl reads a book at a library in the Children’s Palace, Shanghai, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl reads a book at a library in the Children’s Palace, Shanghai, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Students drink water in Shanghai, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Students drink water in Shanghai, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl near a noodle shop, Shanghai, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl near a noodle shop, Shanghai, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children play with each other on a bridge over a canal, Suzhou, Jiangsu province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children play with each other on a bridge over a canal, Suzhou, Jiangsu province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl finishes washing her hair in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A girl finishes washing her hair in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A boy does his homework in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A boy does his homework in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children do a “bunny race” in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children do a “bunny race” in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A student from a local art school, Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

A student from a local art school, Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children pose with a flock of sheep, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Children pose with a flock of sheep, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo

Editor: Dominic Morgan. 

(Header image: Three girls pose for a photo in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, 1981-1982. Courtesy of Ryoji Akiyama via Seisodo)