Given its major transformations in recent decades, China has figured prominently in research on cultural change. Previous research converges in showing a general trend towards individualism in contemporary China while noting that rising individualism tends to coexist with enduring collectivism. To further understand this, we tested whether perceived traditional importance of cultural values would modulate the trajectory of cultural change reflected in word usage frequencies in published books. We re-analysed Google's Chinese corpus since 1980 based on a broad sample of words associated with individualism–collectivism. We replicated the pattern of rising individualism and declining collectivism among words of modest and low perceived traditional importance. Most important, however, collectivistic words of high perceived traditional importance increased in usage frequencies with time, thus departing from the general trend towards individualism. Overall, our research underscores the role of core culture in cultural maintenance during times of rapid cultural change.