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Generation Blessed
Text by Xuan Kang Photographs by Xiao Quan


Film director Zhang Yimou (center) eats with his staff while shooting Shanghai Triad in Suzhou, 1994. In 2014, Zhang’s latest film Coming Home hit big screens. Dancer Yang Liping, Beijing, 1992. Dubbed “Princess of Peacock,” Yang is known for her dance imitating the movements of the peacock, a totem of the Dai ethnic group in her hometown in Yunnan.  

Photographer Xiao Quan. The author of Our Generation started documenting Chinese intellectuals and cultural icons with his camera when he was in his mid-twenties.
Photographer Xiao Quan. The author of Our Generation started documenting Chinese intellectuals and cultural icons with his camera when he was in his mid-twenties.


After remaining closed through most of the 1970s, China entered the 1980s fresh and new. For Chinese intellectuals and artists, the 1980s were romantic and exciting: Obstacles binding their hands and feet had melted, and everything seemed fresh, as rock music, contemporary art, underground press and poetry societies sprouted up. However, this “golden age” of art didn’t last long. By the 1990s, after the further development and maturity of the market economy, money came to power. In the spring of 1992, Deng Xiaoping made his famous southern tour of China, stressing the importance of economic reform. With more Chinese abandoning their “iron bowls” to venture into business, the public no longer felt ashamed to talk about money. They no longer read or discuss philosophy as much as they did in the 1980s, as various forms of new entertainment replaced poetry, novels, and literature. And art began mingling with commerce.

Many people recorded China’s drastic changes over these years in their own ways, as did Xiao Quan. Now 55, he started shooting Chinese intellectuals and cultural icons during the 1980s when he was in his mid-twenties. The people he photographed were mostly born in the 1950s and 60s, and became famous in the 1980s and 90s, such as film director Zhang Yimou, actor and director Jiang Wen, director Chen Kaige, rocker Cui Jian, dancer-choreographer Yang Liping, and Taiwan-based novelist and writer San Mao. Images of such figures flavored with strong features of the era compose Xiao’s album Our Generation, which was first published in 1996. In late 2014, the album’s third edition was released, testifying to the continuing relevance of groundbreaking Chinese artists of a critical era.

Xiao spent the decade spanning from 1986 to 1996 conducting interviews and snapping pictures for Our Generation, an era when drastic change was taking place in China. Since China implemented reform and opening-up policy in 1978, the country has witnessed rapid economic development as well as accelerated philosophical and cultural emancipation. Various forms of art, including poetry, music, movie, and painting, were revived and developed at breakneck speed.  

Xiao’s documentation of Chinese intellectuals and artists of that time highlights the unique features of respective subjects. In ordinary everyday scenes, his subjects all feature expressions screaming “I am the one” yet with reverence to acknowledge “I am lucky to be in this era”, rejoicing and humbled at the same time. Xiao’s works are irreplaceable social documentation. In this issue, we compiled some of Xiao’s subjects who were young and energetic rising stars when he interviewed them, and who remain active titans in China’s literary and artistic circles today. In Xiao’s lens, director Zhang Yimou shouts “cut” at a film shoot, with his mouth wide open. Rocker Cui Jian poses rebelliously. Sculptor Fang Lijun laughs aloud, with his upper body completely exposed - mimicking his sculptures. In 2014, Zhang Yimou’s latest film Coming Home reached big screens and became a box office and critical hit. Although Cui Jian seldom releases music anymore, his directorial debut The Blue Bone was released in 2014. Fang Lijun is still considered one of the most important figures in Chinese contemporary art, and his work continues to maintain integrity of both the traditional and modern era with an eye on tomorrow.

In December 2014, a symposium consisting of some of the country’s most renowned authors, actors, screenwriters and dancers was held in Beijing. At the symposium, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared art and culture indispensable contributors to the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation, adding that good art can be intellectually and artistically profound as well as popular in the mainstream. The drive for art and culture to play a greater role in China’s modernization was sparked by the generation recorded by Xiao, but its flames must be fueled by generations to come. 

Rocker Cui Jian, Chengdu, 1990. In 2014, Cui’s directorial debut The Blue Bone came out. Film director and actor Jiang Wen, Beijing, 1995. In 2014, his latest film Gone With The Bullets hit big screens. Actor Li Baotian, Beijing, 1993. Born in Xuzhou in 1946, Li is still active in China’s television and film circles. Artists Liu Xiaodong (left) and Yu Hong, Beijing, 1993. Today, both are still active in the contemporary art circles. Writer Wang Anyi, Shanghai, 1993. Born in Nanjing in 1954, Wang is best known for her novel The Song of Everlasting Sorrow.

Writer Su Tong, Nanjing, 1991. Born in Suzhou in 1963, Su is known for his controversial writing style and is one of the most acclaimed novelists in China today. Artist Fang Lijun, Beijing, 1993. Fang is considered one of the most important figures in Chinese contemporary art.  Artist Zhang Peili, Hangzhou, 1991. Born in Hangzhou in 1957, Zhang is best known for his video art.  Late poet Gu Cheng and his wife, Chengdu, 1986. His two-line poem titled “A Generation” was perhaps his most famous contribution to contemporary Chinese literature.




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