Adrian Bradshaw’s best photograph: the future arrives in 1980s China

‘These guys came out of a Shanghai factory on their lunch break. One had a radio with headphones. I love their expressions – the fascination with something new’

When westerners think about China back in the 1980s, they tend to think about one thing: Tiananmen Square. But as one of the few westerners who spent a significant proportion of that decade in China, I think it erases a much more complicated history – a time of hope and optimism that has since been forgotten.

I had been fascinated by China since reading translations of ancient Chinese literature when I was at school, but my interest was in the classical philosophy and language – I had practically no interest in modern China. I studied Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and we had to spend our second year at a language institute in Beijing. I landed there in 1982. I had no huge enthusiasm for going to a repressive communist state which seemed to be only just recovering from a violent hatred of its own culture during the Cultural Revolution, but it was an adventure.

Being there allowed me to pursue my other great passion, photography. I contacted a few newspapers and very soon I was working: there were so few freelancers there. I went out every day taking pictures, and magazines and papers were hungry for anything coming out of China at the time.

I lost interest in returning to London to finish my degree, and moved to Shanghai. I stayed a month at the music conservatory because it was cheap, and bought an old bike to get me round the city. When the communists took over, Shanghai had looked rather like Liverpool. By the time I got there, it was like a film set in decline.

This shot was taken on one of the main roads running through the city. These guys had come out of the factory on their lunch break and one of them had a radio. I love the expressions on their faces – it’s the fascination of experiencing something new. There’s a curiosity and maybe a little bit of envy, and it encapsulated the energy of the time perfectly.

It seemed like every day something new was happening, that there were new freedoms, people were trying new things and there was an eagerness to experiment that made the decade an odd and magical time. I think everybody who experienced those years looks back with some nostalgia.

This photo and many others sat for years in my personal archive. But when I moved back to England with my family in 2014 after nearly 30 years in China, some Chinese friends came to visit and saw these shots. They were amazed, because images like this aren’t widely available, particularly for the younger generation who have no idea what that time was like. They urged me to publish them so Chinese people could better understand those years and their own history.

On a personal level, it was an extraordinary period. Being a twentysomething alone in China was just so much more interesting than my life in the UK could ever have been. I and my fellow students featured in a movie at one point. Some of my work was picked up by Life magazine. And I even spent a week trailing Muhammad Ali. He and his entourage thought I was from the Rotary Club when I was in fact working for Reuters.

For China, it was a time of immense promise. Some Chinese people look back on those years with regret that the country has not opened up in the way that it might, and see Tiananmen as a pivotal moment in that history. But many I have met over the years aren’t so negative about the aspects of their life that many westerners find horrific. For many, artificial intelligence and surveillance technology brings conveniences and a sense of safety that they value.

The west assumed the 1980s was an opening up of the country which would inevitably conclude in liberal democracy. That was never a foregone conclusion for me. I never saw China becoming like Europe – its attachment to its own culture and independence is much too strong. I think we are seeing that today too. It’s powerful, and it’s forging its own path in the world, whatever the west might think of it.

The Door Opened: 1980s China by Adrian Bradshaw is published by Impress.

Adrian Bradshaw’s CV

Adrian Bradshaw self-portrait for My Best Shot only

Born: Cambridge, 1964.

Studied: Self-taught.

Influences: Marc Riboud, William Klein, Liu Heung Shing, Graham Greene, Simon Leys.

High point: “Having a personal tour of the Forbidden City with Bernardo Bertolucci when he enthusiastically described what he dreamed of filming for The Last Emperor.”

Low point: “When a jealous photographer asked the foreign ministry to expel me from China after I beat him to a story.”

Top tip: “Borrowing from Antonio Machado: ‘There is no path, the path is made by walking.’”

Contributor

Interview by Edward Siddons

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