February 1, 2023

1981 photo of a man in China posing with a Coca-Cola bottle symbolized a cultural shift in the country

4 min read



written by Steffi Chung, CNNHong Kong

I suddenlywe look at the power of a single image, telling stories about how both modern and historical images are made.

A young man stands and smiles in Beijing’s Forbidden City. It is the dead of winter, and one of his hands is buried deep in the pockets of his long overcoat to ward off the cold. Another considers the obscure shape of the glass Coca-Cola bottle.

Today, Coke is the most popular soft drink in the world and can be found almost anywhere. But back in 1981, when this photo was taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Liu Heungsheng, it was only getting into the hands of ordinary Chinese people.

LeoIt was in his late 20s that he began working for Time magazine in Beijing, sensing that the country was on the brink of a great cultural change after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

“The changes (before) were subtle, and unless you lived there, you didn’t notice,” he recalled during an interview at his home in Hong Kong.

Earlier he had photographed people grieving for Mao Zedong on the banks of the Pearl River in Guangzhou. It was here that he was struck by how people handled themselves differently than in China in the late 1950s, where he grew up during the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign – before returning to Hong Kong – which failed. A series of industrial policies. Like a Child.

Under Mao, the country suffered from widespread famine and poverty, and the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution. But after the Chinese leader’s death, Liu said, “suddenly, people’s steps seemed a little lighter, they dropped their shoulders and their faces looked more relaxed.”

This would prove to be a relatively liberal period in Chinese history – politically, economically and in terms of daily life, which Liu clearly achieved. A photo from the time shows a plastic surgeon and his client after a cosmetic procedure. Another image showed people gathered at a “democracy wall” in Beijing, where they wrote now-unthinkable criticism of the government.

One of Leo’s most famous photos was captured walking into the Time Bureau when he had the strange feeling that something was “missing”. He turned his car around and sure enough, a large portrait of Mao that had once hung prominently on a building was freshly taken down. He fired quickly Pictures Workers gathered around portraits of the late chairman, with some of his scaffolding visible in the frame.

He said that China was “coming out of Mao’s shadow”.

‘That’s what it tastes like’

In December 1978, Coca-Cola became the first foreign company allowed to enter the mainland Chinese market after the Communist Revolution. That same month, Beijing and Washington announced the normalization of Sino-US relations and Deng Xiaoping began China’s transformative economic reforms with his “Open Door” policy. (Coca-Cola was first introduced to China in the 1920s but was forced to leave in 1949, along with other foreign companies, by a government that considered it bourgeois).

Liu photographed the opening of a joint-venture bottling plant in Beijing, capturing Coke chairman Roberto Guzziotta and Chinese trade officials drinking Coca-Cola and holding up bottles chanting “gunbi” (happy). He then thought to himself, “Now where can I find a (regular) Chinese man who enjoys this (drink)?”

He made his way to the Forbidden City with its heavy flow of tourists and soon found a man named Zhang Wei buying coke from a small stand.

“I remember when he drank this syrupy Coke, he made a comment: ‘It tastes so good,'” said Liu, with one of the palace’s elegant pavilions in the background. Ended up taking a few shots together.

Kok’s own reaction may have been distasteful, but the image perfectly captures the curiosity and openness that many Chinese people felt at the time.

“As a photographer, I certainly realized its significance. That this man, who was everywhere dressed in a PLA (People’s Liberation Army) coat, was one of the first to taste it,” He added: “But I didn’t. I don’t realize it will become part of the Chinese collective memory.

The photo would be widely published and exhibited in the following years, and he later befriended Zhang. In 1983, it was published in Liu’s photography book “China After Mao”, a collection of photographs taken between 1976 and 1982. Book “Liu Heung Shing: A Life in a Sea of ​​Red.”
The photographer would go on to document other periods and profound events in the country’s modern history, including 1989. Crackdown on Tiananmen Square. And just like the images of young student activists demanding democracy, Liu’s image of Coca-Cola feels part of another era entirely.

With its apparent embrace of the new and foreign — ideas embedded in most American beverages — the image stands in stark contrast to today’s China, where ties to the US are at an all-time low. Xi Jinping’s nationalist agenda has led to increasingly inhumane attitudes toward the West.

“I felt that the story I did in the last quarter of the 20th century (would) continue to be relevant in the 21st century,” Liu said.

“Especially with the story of China, I have never doubted that these images are in the collective memory of the Chinese people.

“Although that memory is re-edited… the good thing about a photograph is that you can’t re-edit it. It becomes etched in people’s minds.”

Top Image: A 1981 photo of a man with a Coke bottle in Beijing’s Forbidden City, shot by Liu Heung-shing.



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