These photographs were selected from Ren Shulin’s The Innocent in 80, which focuses on teenagers in Chinese middle and high schools in Beijing during the 1980s. Ren started to take photographs since 1976 and became a member of the April Photography Society. He belonged to a generation that grew up during the Cultural Revolution.
If you read Roland Barthes’s Travels in China, you will find a world in black, white, dark blue and green. That was the image of China during the Cultural Revolution. The powerful totalitarian culture had influenced every aspect of personal life. How you dress yourself could tell others about your thoughts and desire. Being colourful was dangerous.
For Barthes, colour, smell and fashion are culturally meaningful but attractive at the same time. He was disappointed by what he saw during his trip. However, Chinese people still wanted to be attractive (sexually appeal), but they were using codes that Barthes could not understand.
After the Cultural Revolution there were a few art exhibitions, which included for instance the sculptures of Auguste Rodin in 1979. Ren was influenced by these exhibitions significantly. He became interested in the feet and back as motifs, as he accepted a point from one of the exhibitions’ captions that one’s hands can be more expressive than face.
However, what attracted my attention was the colourful clothes of these students. It can be seen as both an objectification of the teenage process and the subjects’ puberty, as well as proof—to and extent—of the social liberation of the Chinese people at this time. I have to admit that I enjoyed these photographs from both sides.