The past is another country as reports take us back in time

To much of the world, China remained a mystery in the summer of 1981. Back then, China's economic reforms were just 3 years old. The country was cautiously opening its doors to the world, and the world was curious to peek inside. Now let's take a close look at how the world media covered events in China three decades ago.

Origin of the proverb

  • "The past is another country."
  • Leslie Poles Hartley (1895 – 1972) was a British writer best known for The Go-Between (1953). The book's opening sentence, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there", has become almost proverbial.


The Associated Press: July 15, 1981

New restrictions went into effect Wednesday to keep Chinese from using special money for foreigners to buy imported televisions and tape recorders. Huge crowds poured into stores on Monday to beat the restrictions.

Sino-US ties

The Economist: March 28, 1981

President Reagan had his first long talk with a real live Chinese Communist last week. Two, to be exact: China's ambassador to Washington and the American-educated head of China's America department.


United Press International: April 17, 1981

Beggars in the southern city of Canton (Guangdong) tend to congregate at the railroad station, parks and hotels. Some are streetwise children who play on the sympathies of passers-by, especially foreigners.


The New York Times: Jan 5, 1981

In 1973, when they first came over here, they weren't very good," he (the legendary US gymnast Frank Cumiskey) said. "They had some guy who was about 35 who was their best gymnast, and he could not do a heckuva lot. And we beat their girls easily. Now they have girls 11 years old in international competition.


Reuters: Oct 22, 1981

About 15,000 people listened to the French composer of "Oxygene" and other best-selling albums, applauding occasionally but showing more interest in the spectacular lasers than in the eerily hypnotic music. The stadium was about 80 percent full when the concert started, but nearly half the audience left before the end.


The Associated Press: Nov 21, 1981

Designer Pierre Cardin presented Peking's first fashion show Saturday with Chinese models who wobbled in gold high-heels and covered bare shoulders in embarrassment. "Yes, they were a little embarrassed," Cardin said. "But it was fantastic. They are beautiful girls, but today was the first time they wore these clothes."

Young men

Christian Science Monitor: Jan 23, 1981

In China everyone works and everyone has a job, but usually not his own choosing. Many youngsters are placed in the nursery almost from birth. Some are picked up by parents in the evening; other go home only on weekends.


United Press International: March 14,1981

The official Workers Daily on Saturday cautioned Chinese who deal with foreigners to mind their manners and not leave their pants unbuttoned, eat with a knife or laugh when someone has an accident.


The New York Times: Nov 15, 1981

Some of the Chinese students have managed to adapt to life here with astonishing ease, but most have remained isolated and alienated from American society. Selected from "China's leap to American campuses"