on ren Shulin's works


Young but Growing

Chen Danqing


The boys and girls in these photographs are now over 40 years old and are likely parents themselves. Do they still remember the photographer working on their campus some 30 years ago?
In 1979, Ren Shulin was 25 years old, just about ten years older than the peo-ple in his photographs. This was a crucial age for him; he was far from middle age, but no longer a youth. He is clearly seeing himself in the past. Of course, the kids were also at an important stage; they were neither children nor young adults. In English, kids aged 13 to 18 are called "teenagers." They are growing up, but they still have some growing to do. They do not fully understand the complexities of adulthood, but they are beginning to engage with the world.
These are such sentimental and sensitive photographs that they almost do not feel like photographs; they seem to offer a quiet gaze that freezes those bygone moments of the 1980s. That was the last pre-modern decade for many Chinese cities. The campus culture in Beijing schools that had existed since the 1950s was fading away by the 1980s. During the 1990s and especially in the 2000s, those simple campus facilities and fittings were replaced. The buildings, desks, and blackboards from the 1950s and 1960s, the clothing that ordinary children wore in the early days of Reform and Opening, the braids, the cloth shoes, the Chinese-made sneakers, and even the way girls held hands as they walked together, every symbol of the 1980s in these photographs has gradually yet permanently faded away.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, youth were rarely portrayed in Chinese photo-graphy, except perhaps as a social or political group. Since Reform&Opening, there has been a marked increase in images of teenagers, but most of those pictures feature glamorous models and actors who are styled in the expected way. School pictures are ubiquitous, but offer no glimpse of the student's personality. In contrast, images of countryside children are common in con-temporary Chinese photography, but these images are limited to either young members of the People's Communes smiling as they labored in early pro-paganda photography or as suffering illiterate children or child workers in more recent photography. In a country in which can never fully express one's views, young people are a manipulated subordinate group. If we review the images of people in Western photography, we find many vivid depictions of children and young adults. When mixed with images of the adult world, they together reflect the variety of human life. Furthermore, there are at least a dozen European and American movie classics told from the perspective of a boy. In narrating history, these characters touch upon deep and moving themes. 

Of the half a century of Chinese images I have seen, Ren Shulin's photographs are undoubtedly the first ones to portray high school students simply as teenagers, representing them only as kids of a certain age. They embody the liveliness of that age, full of youthful movement, fragility, and hope. These students have a sense of awe that only young people can possess. Most of the photographs in this project were taken at the prestigious High School No. 171 in Beijing's Chaoyang District. In addition to their time in class, Ren seems to have captured every moment of student life at this school. These photographs are so much more than the mere documentation of a high school; they are visual texts on the mysteries of youth. In my opinion, the most stirring pictures depict students bored after class, staring off into space. This scene feels so familiar. Who doesn't have a hazy memory of letting your mind wander while at school?

In the 1980s, everyone, especially young people, were full of hope and expectation. China’s disasters and nightmares were over, things of the past. Those students might not really remember those disasters, and they did not understand what happened to their parents and their country. After returning to normal school routines, they did not know what society would expect of them. They still seemed to be in a daze. At break times, in the hallways, and on the playground, they are young and delicate, their faces and bodies emanating the innocence of youth. Ren also photographed many interactions between classmates. In a corner near the door and in the hallways between classes, he finds boys interacting with boys, and girls interacting with girls. Sometimes he captured boys and girls together, conversing in groups, chatting privately, or just casually whiling away the time. These conversations represented the beginnings of friendships, the uncertainty of the future, and latent but rising sexual curiosity. Ren did not simply focus on the students' faces; he also captured their backs, feet, shoes, and even empty walls at the end of a corridor, depicting youthful joy and confusion. The colorful details of these students' clothing has been gradually washed from these photos, turning them into black and white images of the past.

After the Cultural Revolution, Ren Shulin was an early participant in the third April Photography Society exhibition. He was a student of Di Yuancang, and a part of the first group of young photographers inspired by modern Western photography during the Cultural Revolution. In the late 1970s, many photographers of his generation started to experiment with diverse methods, but Ren focused on the school and those young students. He began the eight year-long project in 1979, and he has left us with this treasure trove of images. By the time French poet Stéphane Mallarmé said, "Everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book," photography had already been invented. Now, we can say that time is preserved in photographs. In our lives, is there anything more interesting than that brief and confusing period of our youth? When asked why he chose a group of students, Ren said that everything in life has already begun and has already been decided at that time in school.

 Is it true? We can't ask the teenagers in these pictures, but we can probably ask ourselves. Now that 30 years have passed, these students are older than Ren was back then and they can now observe other teenagers, or maybe even their own children. Over the last 20 years, no other photographer has been as dedicated to uncovering youth culture. I hope that these photographs will resonate with students today who are burdened by course work and examinations. For those who grew up at that time, only these frozen moments of the 1980s can remind us of who we were.