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During his 40 years in China, Italian photographer Andrea Cavazzuti documented the lives of everyday people, providing precious views of the country’s opening-up during the world’s last decades offline

By Xu Pengyuan Updated May.1

The first time playwright Li Jing met Andrea Cavazzuti was in 2012 at a memorial for the late novelist Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997). “He looked like Mr. Bean,” Li said about the Italian photographer.  

As an editor for journal Beijing Literature, Li worked with Wang Xiaobo. It was at the event that Li learned Cavazzuti not only was Wang’s old friend but also shot the only known video of him.  

Born in 1959 in Capri, Italy, Cavazzuti came to China in 1981. While Cavazzuti never adopted a Chinese name, his friends call him Lao An (Old An).  

“All these years he kept his photography career low-profile, rarely compiled his works and never sought fame,” Li told NewsChina. “He’s an artist who has lived in China for 40 years and has profoundly deep feelings for this place. It’s a shame his works never found a wider audience,” she said.  

With Li’s help, Cavazzuti published his first photo collection At Ease: China, 1981-1984 in November 2021. The photographer chose the title to refer to China in the early 1980s. It was a period of respite – the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) had ended not long before, and the economic reform and opening-up that started in 1978 was still gaining momentum.  

“I was so fortunate to have witnessed China’s nascent years in the global era of technology,” he wrote in the afterword of At Ease. 

Early Access 
In the summer of 1981, Cavazzuti was a second-year student of Chinese studies at the University of Venice, when he and several classmates were accepted into a Chinese language program at Nanjing University, Jiangsu Province. Getting there was an epic journey: the students took a train from Milan to Calais, France, a ferry to Dover, England, a train to London, a flight to Hong Kong, a hovercraft to Guangzhou, and train to Nanjing.  

“What I learned in college had little to do with the real China. At college we were taught about Confucius, Mencius and such,” Cavazzuti told NewsChina. His first assigned reading at the University of Venice was “Liang Hui-wang,” a chapter from Mencius, a collection of conversations, anecdotes and interviews by the Confucian philosopher Mencius (372-289 BCE).  

“The copies we used were printed from the traditional Chinese version. In many parts, the black ink was so thick that the characters were completely illegible. When asked to summarize the chapter, every one of us told a different story because we all made it up,” the photographer recalled with a grin.  

“Later we also read Lu Xun (1881-1936). So, when I first arrived in China, the vocabulary I used was outdated or too literary.”  

Beyond literature, the ubiquitous propaganda slogans and symbols posted around China’s cities left a lasting impression on Cavazzuti.  

Cavazzuti intended to capture a side of China rarely seen by the outside world and arrived with his camera and lots of film. After six weeks at Nanjing University, the young man traveled to neighboring cities and towns to photograph whatever caught his eye.  

“The environment of China was very ‘transparent’ at the time – everything was on display. I could easily capture people in their truest and most sincere states,” Cavazzuti said.  

At a time when China saw few foreigners, it was impossible for Cavazzuti to photograph inconspicuously. He would either wait several hours for gawking crowds to leave or wear disguises.  

In 1982, Fudan University, Beijing Foreign Studies University and Shandong University offered 16 two-year government-funded scholarships to college students from Italy. Cavazzuti was among four Italian students accepted to Fudan University. His monthly stipend was 140 yuan (US$22), far more than the average monthly income of Shanghai’s working class.  

Cavazzuti spent most of the money on photography and travel. Over the next two years, he traveled to Suzhou, Chengdu, Kunming and Xiamen and even Sanya, Hainan Province, which had not yet opened to foreign visitors. He converted his dorm room closet into a tiny darkroom.  

“China is a treasure trove of intricate stories and kaleidoscopic scenes. What intrigued me most was digging them out,” Cavazzuti said.  

His work has no intended messages, ideas or explanations, he said. Rather, they are impressions of an exotic world he slowly absorbed.  

Cavazzuti vividly captures scenes of everyday life in 1980s China: two smiling girls wearing the same fashionable dress and leather sandals walk hand-in-hand in a park in Qingdao, Shandong Province (1981). A newlywed Beijing couple smiles while leaning against a Chinese-made Hongqi sedan (1981). A snack bar owner in Xiamen, Fujian Province sits at a table while his wife knits a sweater (1981) and in a teahouse in Shanghai, a young man with a mop-top haircut talks excitedly with his friend while holding a cigarette (1983).  

“[Cavazzuti] can always capture a quintessential Chinese happiness – even the mannequins in the storefronts he shot have a typical 1980s smile,” painter Chen Danqing wrote in the preface for At Ease.  

“Andrea Cavazzuti’s photos show our past selves, how we struggled to break free from shackles, and cautiously step into real life,” best-selling Chinese author Yu Hua (To Live) wrote in a blurb for Cavazzuti’s book.  

Li Jing told NewsChina that photography from mid-20th century China is seeing a comeback, such as the work from documentarians Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marc Riboud, Liu Xiangcheng, Akiyama Ryoji and Ren Shulin. In 2020, Unnamed, a photo collection of over 1,500 photos showing life in China from the 1950s to the late 1980s was a surprise hit. Compiled by Jin Yongquan, editor-in-chief of Popular Photography, all the photos in Unnamed are anonymous, salvaged from recycling stations and junk stores. 

“People are longing for memories,” Li told the reporter. “Particularly during a time when our lives are besieged with digital information, our sense and feeling for tangible things is becoming increasingly fuzzy.”  

“People’s expressions, personalities and values have changed. The tangible past has faded, and it’s instinctive for people to seek things from their past,” Li added. 

Andrea Cavazzuti (right) with friends at Fudan University, Shanghai, in the 1980s

A street view of Shanghai in 1982, from At Ease

People take photos in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province in 1982, from At Ease

On the Road 
After completing his studies at Fudan University, Cavazzuti returned to Italy for one year of mandatory military service. He later worked at Techint, one of Italy’s largest steel companies. As China’s reform and opening-up gradually brought its enormous market to the world, Techint opened an office in Hong Kong. Cavazzuti became the firm’s chief representative in Hong Kong.  

“In the 1980s, the tallest building in Italy was the Pirelli Tower near Milan Central Station, which was a little over 100 meters (127 meters). The Hong Kong office building I worked in was in Admiralty, surrounded by high-rises. From my office window I could see ships in Victoria Harbour and planes landing in Kowloon. I could also see warships and helicopters at the British naval base,” Cavazzuti said.  

But life among skyscrapers felt “too closed off” for Cavazzuti. After three years, he became restless. Influenced by beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, as well as authors Jorge Luis Borges, Henry Miller and Gertrude Stein, Cavazzuti heard the road calling.  

“I often had the urge to break free from the shackles of daily life and see the outside world. As someone who has no interest in drugs or alcohol, China enabled me to live a life outside myself. I packed up and continued my voyage. For me, living in China is not only like being in a distant, parallel universe but also in a different time. I always felt like I had lived two lives,” Cavazzuti wrote in the afterword of At Ease.  

He moved to Beijing in 1990 and bought a Grand Cherokee Jeep for US$25,000. He enjoyed the freedom of speeding 190 km/h down highways or walking through cities and towns with his camera.  

“One of my friends checks his step count on his phone every day. Yesterday I told him that if I had a smartphone back in the day, it would have exploded. In the early 1990s, I would walk 100,000 steps a day. I was always hungry, in every way,” he said.  

At a time when car ownership was rare in China, Cavazzuti made lots of friends. Many were young avant-garde artists and writers who later became very influential in China’s literary and art scenes, including architect Zhang Yonghe, filmmaker Zhang Yuan, authors A Cheng, Yu Hua and Wang Xiaobo, dancer Jin Xing and painter Wang Jianwei.  

“I had more money than most of them. I often treated them to meals and picked them up in my Jeep to hang about. Sometimes, they just liked to have a foreigner around, even if I said nothing,” Cavazzuti said. 

Digital Exchange 
During the coronavirus pandemic, Cavazzuti spent most of his time sorting through his hundreds of old photos from the 1980s and video footage he shot during the 2000s.  

“Recently, I’ve been digitally converting the video I took from 2000 to 2010. During the process, I’ve often been extremely moved, even to tears. I got to wondering why it was so much easier to communicate with people back then. Relationships were so smooth and comfortable, regardless of social rank. People craved connection. They wanted to be understood. Why is everyone so upset now?” he said.  

But documenting China today is a very different venture than the 1980s. While Cavazzuti has mulled many promising projects, he admits to being unsure how to execute them in the digital age.  

“I have always wanted to document passionate hobbyists. In the old days, I knew lots of people like that. They all seemed weirdly obsessed with their hobby. They would talk about it with like-minded people regardless of education, social rank or wealth. You’d see a poor guy talking excitedly with a rich guy about a hobby they had in common. I think a worthwhile project like this would reveal a certain side of Beijing. But Beijing changed. These exchanges are seldom done in person now. It’s all online. How would I film them?” Cavazzuti said.  

But the 62-year-old photographer plans to hit the road again with another idea he has been kicking around – drive the G108 highway to film a documentary exploring Chinese people’s online and offline lives. Crossing six provinces, the G108 stretches 3,356 kilometers from Beijing to Kunming, Yunnan Province.  

“The G108 connects cities, towns and villages, big and small. I think it’s a good angle to observe the country from. Along the road, you can better observe the relationships between people’s lives online and offline,” Cavazzuti said.  

“For instance, it’s easy to find vloggers and livestreamers online from all around the country. But I’m curious to know about these people’s offline lives – how they manage their time and energy while simultaneously living a virtual life? Who do they connect and interact with in their offline lives?  

“The internet blurs boundaries between big cities and small towns. When you watch a livestreamer, usually it’s hard to tell where they’re from. Some talk about local issues, but most show no regional characteristics at all. I want to explore the dynamic relationship between people and their environments,” he said.