Choosing a reward for exam success, Adrian Bradshaw was disappointed to be refused a bicycle by his fretful parents. They offered a second-hand East German camera with a surprisingly good lens instead. Little did they suspect this would be the means to a much greater journey than pedal power might have brought.
The early 1980s in China were a time of optimism, experimentation and discovery. Arriving as a young student of the language and culture with a particular interest in ancient philosophy Bradshaw found a place in ferment. Thoughts of Laozi and Mengzi were put aside to take in the present. Emerging from decades of isolation the overwhelmingly youthful population was finding its feet. The tiny number of visitors from the West who chose to live there shared a special moment in history. The decade long Cultural Revolution and before that the Great Leap Forward among other political upheavals had left China in a state of colourless stagnation, tired of suspicion and paranoia as a way of life. Everyone was ready for 改革开放 (gaige kaifang – reform and opening up), climbing back on the stage to look outwards and forwards. Personal expression was tentatively allowed then encouraged. Clothes started to change from the narrow palette of green, blue and grey.
Bradshaw seized the chance to witness the new confidence and joy of the early years of change, became the first accredited freelance photographer resident in China and went on to stay almost three decades. Equipped with a spirit of enquiry and growing language skills he carried a discreet Leica rangefinder to explore every province and region of the vast People’s Republic. With no agenda but to share what he found it was a time where the ordinary was as intriguing as the extraordinary. The change at street level was always the most fascinating; the genuine mutual curiosity between the British traveller and the subjects of his lens is evident whether it is a weather-beaten pilgrim in Lhasa or a group of trendy youths in Shanghai.
The people and places seen in these images were just beginning to experience the first stirrings of great social and economic change that are now felt throughout the world. At that time there was a gentle confidence and good humour that disregarded the austere confines of a poor country. China in the mid 1980s was rediscovering fun, fine food, fashion and faith sometimes in its own neglected traditions and sometimes in the first contact with a world of possibilities barred for generations.
In these images many of the elderly have since passed away, the youth become middle aged and the children playing in the parks and streets now in positions of responsibility. The muddy streets are paved over and the bare markets replaced by malls with branded goods. Billboards with political slogans have been replaced with advertising and the simpler times seem long ago. This was the beginning of the second 30 year epoch in the history of the PRC which is now drawing to a close. A new very different phase of development has begun which promises to bring China to the world just as the world came to China with Bradshaw as a camera toting witness