In a country like China where radical changes are happening every day, nostalgia is something can be felt in the air every now and then, especially among the post-80s generation (born after 1980s), the generation that is China’s first one-child generation, the generation who grew up together with an opening-up China, and the generation who experienced China’s sea changes from communism to capitalism (or socialism with Chinese characteristics) first hand.
Li Lei and Han Meimei, two of the main characters in China’s middle-school English textbook used across the nation 20 years ago, made a comeback in this year’s new version of middle-school English textbook and started a new wave of post-80s nostalgia.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. Thank you. And you?”
The conversation is how most of China’s post-80s generation first started to learn English. It left such a permanent mark in the minds of the now middle-class-wannabes that even after 20 years, many post-80s’ first reaction to “How are you?” is still “And you?” They may not speak it out, but that classic answer line would always flash by their eyes. It’s a conversation that has been repeated countless times by Li Lei and Han Meimei in textbooks.
When the post-80s generation first met Li Lei and Han Meimei in textbooks, Li and Han were also middle school students trying to learn English. Given the fact that the post-80s generation is China’s first one-child generation and that the education system in China put a lot of emphasis on English and memorizing content from textbooks, this generation probably spent more time with Li Lei and Han Meimei than with their friends in those younger days.
Illustration from the old English textbook
Starting 2006, the year when a lot of post-80s bid farewell to school life and got their first jobs, they started to look back to their “innocent ages.” Li Lei and Han Meimei started to rise as icons of the post-80s collective memory because many found out that they’ve all imaged a love affair between Li and Han during those young and care-free years, when they themselves were told not to touch young love and focus on studies. Fabricated stories and comics started to circulate online on how the two fell in love at the first sight, how they flirted, how they kept their relationship a secret, how Jim and Lily, another two main characters in the textbook, tried to break them up and how Ms. Gao, the English teacher in the textbook, tried to destroy their young love. The story of Li Lei and Han Meimei was even made into a play and put on stage nation-wide.
A Li Lei and Han Meimei postcard, one of the many products based on the Li and Han complex
As the post-80s generation grew up and went through life’s ups and downs, they also wrote stories on Li Lei and Han Meimei’s college life, first jobs and struggles as an adult. In a word, they see Li and Han as projections of their own lives. When they heard the news that Li and Han will make a comeback in the new English textbook this year, they naturally expected a “happy ever after” for the two just like in those imaged stories.
But…there is never any “happy ever after”, even in middle-school textbooks. Han Meimei was already married, not to Li Lei, but to a new character named Han Gang. She also has two children, Keke and Xixi. Li Lei, on the other hand, picked up a pair of glasses and became a teacher. He had no girlfriend or wife in the new book.
Illustration from the new English textbook
The news that Han Meimei didn’t marry Li Lei made headlines and stayed on the Top Trending Topics on Sina Weibo, China’s most populat micrblogging service, for about a week. Why such a big deal? As many post-80s netizens commented: “Han Meimei is married, but Li lei isn’t the groom. It’s love broken for a whole generation.”
Is this the end of story? No, this is just the beginning. Though most netizens expressed extreme disappointment at the ending, they started a new round of backstage story speculations. The names of Han Meimei’s children, Keke and Xixi, if put together, mean “pity” in Chinese. Many netizens believed that Han gave her children such names because she felt it was a pity to not being able to marry Li Lei, the love of her life.
Stories of why the two ended up split started to emerge. The post-80s generation, who are now moms and dads or leftover women and men themselves, once again projected their own lives onto Li Lei and Han Meimei (leftover women and men are those who failed to find someone to marry until their late 20s or early 30s). One of the most circulated version told a story that has happened and will continue to happen on many post-80s in real life – Li Lei failed to buy an apartment, Han Meimei broke up with him and married a second-generation-rich who can provide her with a better life.
Such a large scale of nostalgia probably can only happen in China – if the post-80s generation was not the first only-child generation, if they haven’t lived through China’s sea changes in the past 20 years, if they are perfectly happy with their adult life now….Like the lyrics in song “Li Lei and Han Meimei” go, “The happiness and sorrows in textbooks, the right and wrongs outside of textbooks…like Li Lei and Han Meimei, we all live in a future that we would never have thought of before.”
Music video for the song “Li Lei and Han Meimei”: To all post-80s