Pictures of high school students in 80s make Chinese nostalgic for past, cynical about present

May 17, 2011Jing Gao7 Comments, , , , , ,

A series of photos taken back in the 1980s by Chinese photographer Ren Shulin (任曙林) of junior high and high school students were put on display in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, a thriving artists’ community similar to New York City’s Soho some time ago. NetEase posted these photos on its website.

China in the 1980s was still an economic backwater where resources were scarce and life was very simple. Chinese economy did not show a sign of taking off until early 1990s.

Many netizens who saw the photo series reminisced about their youth and age of innocence while expressing a healthy dose of aversion for today’s society.


June 1983. At the door of a classroom at Beijing No. 171 Middle School.


December 1983. Outside Beijing’s Anding Gate near the city moat.


June 1984. On a playground in Beijing’s No.171 Middle School, after a rain.


September 1984. At a playground in Ditan, Beijing.


June 1984. At a playground in No. 171 Middle School.


August, 1985. At the school gate of Beijing No. 171 Middle School.


June 1985. At a swimming pool in Beijing.


June 1985. At a swimming pool in Beijing.


September 1985. Students do a routine cleaning of their classroom at Beijing No. 171 Middle School.


April 1985. Two students study in a classroom at Beijing No. 171 Middle School.


April 1986. A classroom at Beijing No. 171 Middle School.


April 1986. A student does the daily cleaning.


October 1988. A red scarf and a shirt.



Back then despite having no money, everybody lived very happily. Now despite having money, heartfelt happiness is getting farther and farther away from us. We have had money, and pressure from life as well.

网易广东省珠海市网友 [村长算个屁]

The two in the second picture are very innocent, which I yearn for.


Will you still remember tomorrow the diary you wrote yesterday; Will you still think about the weepy one you used to be? (Jing’s note: from lyrics of a popular Chinese song “You, My Seatmate.”)


The living standards of the people in Beijing were indeed high. I remember that when I went to school during those days, I wore clothes with patches.

网易浙江省绍兴市网友 [小二上茅台]

The living standards of the people in Bejing were not bad indeed. I became a first grader on exactly Septermber 1, 1986. I recall vaguely that I went to school barefoot.


Most students in our rural village were barefoot during winter.


This is the photo series titled “Middle School Students in the 80s.” by Ren Shulin

It was on exhibition not long ago in 798 (Art Zone).
I like best the one of (students) wiping glass windows.
Reminds me of many things in the past.
There weren’t many people who had the courage to take photos of China from an artistic perspective in the 80s.
Have the feel of Bresson’s works.
The 80s are the era of pastoral songs and poetry.
An era free from post-industrial pollution.
The generation consisted of people full of ideals,
Who are now pillars of the current society.
What kind of world is in their hands?
What they have changed,
Are not only material conditions,
But the convictions and faith they held true as well.

网易江西省赣州市网友 [张爱国]

Refreshing memories. An era of ideals.


I am thinking why we are so nostaligic for the past. Because we have no future. No hopeful future.


Not until we become so manic and raged,
Do we realize that we once led such a simple life.
Had no computer, no iPhone.
No stock market, no McDonald’s.
We could smell the soil,
And see shyness and bitterness of the first love.
We now seem to own everything.
We now seem to own nothing.


That was a leisurely and carefree era, free from pollution caused by filth of the society nowadays.

网易江苏省泰州市网友 [风一阵一阵]

The bygone youthful days…


Everyone was so slim…Ah…


It triggered my memory. Very sweet. Hope that mind can still keep an element of innocence.

网易江苏省镇江市网友 [舒淇唉你] 的原贴:

At that time, politics was quite liberal. Unlike today, money and the lower part of the body are liberal.

网易广东省珠海市网友 [大话110] 的原贴:

How similar did it look to North Korea.

网易广西南宁市网友 [月下林山] 的原贴:

Looking similar to North Korea, so what? People back then were pristine and kind-hearted.


Most today’s people’s perceptions can be summed up by the word “money”. It is like the glamor and impulse and pollution of the city versus the nature and fresh air of the countryside and field. One may not necessarily be able to tell which one is better if one is inside one of them. Only after experiencing both can one make a judgment.


The percentage of students wearing glasses was much lower than now.


Much better than Brother’s (Jing: referring to self)school.


These photos are really great! Make people think about the bygone days and friends!

网易北京市网友 [个人看法1]:\

These pictures might be not a big deal back then when they were taken. However, two decades later, they have quite an artistic feel.

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7 comments to “Pictures of high school students in 80s make Chinese nostalgic for past, cynical about present”

  1. @RyanMCFC | May 17, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    I always shake my head at people reminiscing for the "good old days." Yes, ignorance is bliss. The kind of bliss that is dull and monotonous while you live it and wonderful from the distance of time. Us older people just hate feeling like we are left out of modern opportunities of youth and have to find a way to shit on current times. It is the same in all countries.

  2. tombot2010 | May 17, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    Classrooms in Guangxi province still look the same, but the fashions have changed a lot.

  3. Terry | May 18, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    I love the dresses the girls wore. The Li Ning athletic suits that current students wear are so unappealing. the photography in this series is also superb!!

  4. komodo_dragon | May 22, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    Seemingly alienated slimmer people living under constant fear from their government.
    Yeah, that's the way to go!

  5. [...] Chinese college students circa 1980s.  Reminds me of the carefree and languid sense of freedom in Jiang Wen’s brilliant 1994 film, In the Heat of the Sun.  These pictures also reminds me of my parent’s photo albums circa the late-80s.  And of the clothes that I would filch from Mom after I shed my Limited Too habit. [...]

  6. [...] Pictures of high school students in 80s make Chinese nostalgic for … May 17, 2011 … A series of photos taken back in the 1980s by Chinese photographer Ren Shulin ( д»»ж›™жћ—) of junior … [...]

  7. [...] “Ministry of Tofu” website has posted some great photos of high school students in the 1980′s.  They bring back [...]

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