CHINA 1979. The focus of this photo collection is China in 1979. Why 1979? That was a significant year for China, a watershed year. Mao died in 1976 and until he was gone change seemed impossible for China. A new regime under Deng Xiaoping came to power and it swept away much, but not all, of the ultra-radical policies that had governed China chaotically and often tragically for 40 years. Prior to that the Chinese refer to as their 150 years of humiliation. Some of that was self-inflicted through hubris, much was inflicted by losing conflicts with an aggressive West.

The hubris was generated by a Chinese sense of superiority gained by, frankly, being superior. To the north, nomads; westward, aggressive Tibetans and their slave-raids on the sedentary, agricultural Chinese neighbors on the east; to the south, savages and jungles; to the east, the trackless and dangerous mis-named Pacific Ocean, anything but peaceful, a direction that brought destructive typhoons.

Shanghai asylum for former Red Guards 1979
Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) closed schools. Young city people were sent to the countryside to be re-educated by poor farmers. Separated from their homes and families for an undetermined time and forced to live in shocking conditions, the emotional suffering for some was unbearable. The strong ancient tradition of respect for elders and parents was put under attack. Youngsters were taught to mistrust their parents and to see them as a bad influence. Many young people, such as the young woman here in the front row, second from the left, were driven insane and placed in asylums filled with people about her same age. The young woman, now deceased, was my wife’s niece. Her mother, my wife’s sister, committed suicide. The photographer, Don Gibbs, is standing on the left. The doctor is the tall man in the center: the girl’s father on the far right. The mother is in the left front row. The girl’s aunt, Loretta Gibbs (photographer’s wife) is on the front right. All the others are nurses.

China’s agriculturally based economy gave it surpluses that allowed investment in learning, literature, art, invention, crafts—what we call civilization. Certainly, wherever China looked, she herself was the most civilized of nations.

Thus, when the Western Powers arrived seeking trade, China disdained all intercourse. China was self-sufficient and content. When by force of arms, trade was initiated, China’s tea, silk and porcelain created sever trade imbalances resulting in the Opium Wars and imperial predations into China’s territory and wealth and a weakening of the empire.

Don Gibbs with minotiy girl 1986
The photographer, Don Gibbs, with a young lady of the Bai nationality in Yunnan Province, in the 1980’s.

The Opium Wars were followed by a disastrous insurrection that took an estimated twenty million lives and laid waste entire provinces. Economic advantages seized by foreign countries, together with national opium addition, impoverished the nation. The central government was overthrown in 1911 casting most of the country into anarchy and rapacious exploitation by regional warlords. The Japanese capped that with their invasion that began in 1931 and became wholesale in 1936, not ending until 1945.

Don Gibbs driving tractor 1987
Photographer/professor Don Gibbs posing on tractor-truck conversion. The loads piled on were staggering. The springs just ahead of the rear wheel are down flat from the load.

Peace and reconstruction came to Europe at WWII’s end, but not to China. Civil war broke out and did not end until 1949 with the communist victory and establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, which in our captions we call the PRC.

Radical economic policies under a new dictatorship took land from farmers and forcibly collectivized it into enormous units called communes. The utensils of private kitchens were melted into scrap for heavy industry. Commune kitchens often were inconvenient distances from where people lived. From 1959 to ’61 starvation took at least fifteen million lives. A radical political campaign of intense class warfare was launched in 1966 under the banner of The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It ended with Mao’s death in 1976. By 1979 a new government was on its feet and a new path was set for the nation. We call it capitalism; the Chinese government calls it” Chinese Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”

Photographer Don Gibbs in crowd 1979
If I just stood still for a moment a crowd would gather around me. Then as they discovered I spoke Chinese the crowd swelled and sometimes stopped traffic. Except for an occasional policeman, never once was anyone hostile; which was remarkable after all those years of anti-American propaganda.

Our camera seeks to survey the land at the time of this great change, to record a basis upon which the new China we see developing before us today can be measured. Thus, 1979, a year of great importance for China, is the title of our collection.

Don Gibbs


Dr. Donald Gibbs is Emeritus Professor of Chinese language, literature and film at University of California, Davis. Beginning his teaching career at Harvard University, he founded the Department of Chinese and Japanese at UC Davis. He also founded the UC system-wide summer session which took to him to China every year beginning in 1979. More recently he was the UC Education Abroad Director resident at Peking University in Beijing. Upon retiring from academics, he developed a second career as a business consultant and participated in the introduction of the MiniMed insulin pump and other medical devices to China.



6 thoughts on “ABOUT

  1. Hello-
    You sent me your book at Berkeley School but I hav no way to contact you. Can you send Melissa your email so I can reply-Kenlight@berkeley./edu

  2. I was born in Yingshan, Hubei. I used to live in Chicago for one year. I want professor’s book “The Year That Changed China”. But I am in China now. Is there any possible to give me a electric version? Thank you!

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