Photography Exhibition: Memories of Youth
by Cheng Xi 3.11.2016
When talking once with Shuangzi and Liu Suola, listening to them describe scenes from the 70’s—those brave young women in swimsuits biking, singing, and playing guitar… Connecting this to the bleak city background of the 1970’s was like a scene from a movie, and I couldn’t shake it from my mind. This may have been the first appearance of a romanticized lifestyle for the youth of the decade. In such a peculiar age as that, how could such free spirits come to be, I wonder!
An individual, a group, a generation: memories of youth.
People only begin to ponder the value of youth after the time itself has passed, though when compared to death, life itself is youth. Yet we continue recording youth unconsciously, just as unconsciously as then, and it all feels as present as this moment.
The 70’s was the era of their teens and twenties, the age in which they grew up. They went to the mountainous areas and the countryside, wrote poems, played with art and literature, fought, and made revolution…. The experiences of this time established each of their initial system of values, even to the point of deciding for some the choices of a lifetime, and served as training for an exceptional community of intellectuals that was dejected, desperate, listless and starved, but rich with an intense passion starving for freedom and expression. They were mostly self-taught, writing and reading the forbidden books of the time out of an instinctual need, and it was from such a climate and frame of mind that the literature and painting of the 1970’s slowly grew. The result was a group of academics both spiritually independent and deeply fond of society. Life is beyond anticipation—after these early years many from their ranks achieved great success, as poets, academics, writers, and artists, futures unimaginable at the time. The experiences of their past growth is worth our present consideration.
All history is contemporary history: this exhibition is not just a recollection of the past, it’s the meaning of history in the present.
Yesterday is the history of today, today the history of tomorrow, we cannot possibly write the histories of our every moment, yet history, like people, has a selective memory. The history in the mind of every person and the books of every age will all be different, so memory and human life are an archaeology that needs constant excavation and emergence to draw closer to reality. From the photographs collected here, we can see or guess about the real story of the lives behind every blurred shot: the same era, each life of a different shape than the next, youth rich in varied colors, tender faces fresh and vivid. I hope that through these photos the unknown stories of these lives can be unearthed, and that further participants in this event can provide whatever photographs and materials they can find.
The content of this exhibition includes the memories of “educated youth,” Baiyangdian Lake poetry group” and Beijing culture salons, anonymous painters group, the Star Painting Exhibition and Today literary magazine, and more—scenery particular to the 1970’s. When life appears in replay, the final result suddenly becomes unimportant; the process is the most meaningful. History is complicated, there must be many academics, witnesses, and observers with different perspectives, we look forward to your participation in discussion, criticism, and commentary.
Many thanks to the poet Shuangzi for her enthusiastic promotion of this event, and to the academics, artists, and friends who provided the artwork, writing, and historical materials that constitute this show. Without your support this exhibition would not have been possible.
Finally, a last grateful word in this drab day and age that an interesting community of people lives and breathes.
Regardless of whatever way a person spends his or her life, youth is moving. In the words of Kerouac: forever young, forever moved even to tears. (Ever youthful, ever weeping).
by Mang Ke
“Suddenly, I wish to be tears falling on the ground
How else could I expect tomorrow to bring no grief?”
“O Mighty soil, you’ve impassioned my passion”
by Zhang Langlang
My 1970’s lies in the bit of water in a hollow at the bottom of the well that divided [us] from the rest of the world, there with some other even smaller frogs, croaking noisily. I don’t know if it counted as the undercurrent culture of the 1970’s, or if [our writing] counted as literature or not. It doesn’t matter what it counts as, as far as I’m concerned, the joy of these tiny croakings helped us get through that interminable period behind bars.
The 1970’s was the horizon of my life’s tranquility.
by Liu Suola
What piece of writing should I talk about? So many happy days, so many depressing afternoons, and so many anxious nights—everything that’s a part of youth was once a part of me. I pull up a blade of grass; its body is decorated with thin veins. Is this what symbolizes its childhood? Maybe on this latticework there remain its tears stains and laughter, but it doesn’t say anything; it quietly floats off with the wind.
by Li Yinhe
When I just got back to Beijing from Inner Mongolia I often felt perplexed and apprehensive, as if I had lost something, and even felt an indistinct aching for what had been lost. It felt like some of the most beautiful things in my heart had been destroyed, forfeited. Such a feeling causes people to suffer, but it’s not entirely a feeling of regret. It’s really a leaving childhood to enter adulthood sort of sensation. Even though some of the Good and Beauty, weak as it was, had been buried, dispersed by the Vile and Repugnant of an unstoppably tyrannical reality, I didn’t regret it, and rather felt that my mind was steadier than before, more mature, more powerful. After experiencing this hardship there was no kind of life I could not endure, no kind of suffering I could not bear, and no one who could make me believe in something so rashly again.
For a very long time, in an age of equal spiritual and material deficiency, books were extraordinarily meaningful for us. People know the world through living and action, but we came to understand these things through books before really entering life, entering upon a world absolutely contrary to what we had imagined—a reality we haven’t accepted to the present day. So when people are trying to recollect and understand this decade they must discover the meaning of the era here; whereas we seemingly never truly moved away from that time, our selves belonging in the end to those years of the 1970’s. Whatever the appraisal of people today is, that was the time of our youth, congealing in years of amber.
by Yue Zhong
Snow is not white, it simply has no color.
The beginning of winter in 1970 was a spiritual “early spring” for the youth of Beijing. Two books popular at the time, The Catcher in the Rye and blew a new wind to these Beijing kids, soon followed by a gust of taboo literature read widely in Beijing:
[The essence of the era as I experienced it has been buried into history, having turned out to actually be a few invalids flying up to the sky of the present day. That’s why other than providing a narration of the era there is no other alternative.]
by Ma Kelu
I often remember that time, as if it’s still too close, because some tender feelings and anxiety still exist. I don’t remember who said: “In the twilight of a lifetime it is difficult to recall and understand its dawn…. The light changes ceaselessly, changing ceaselessly the way each seen object is understood.” All along I’ve never been able to use a light and pleasant tone when talking about that past age; hedonism and a derisive stance are things only those born after the 1960’s can affect.
by Yan Li
[I remember] one thing that happened then, a French exchange student at the exhibition said she wanted to buy one of the pieces and I was a little dumbfounded for a second, because I didn’t know paintings could be sold too. I rushed to ask another Star member, How much should the price be and would it be illegal? Someone said it should be worth at least a month’s pay, but I thought of another way—to exchange goods for goods—and told the exchange student that I’d really like a camera, I’d never had one, and if she agreed we could make a trade. So she went to Hong Kong that weekend, bought a camera, brought it back and we made the exchange. I had my first camera, and afterward used it to take lots of photographs.
The “Star Art Exhibit” had an enormous influence in China—especially profound and far-reaching was the impact it had on the formation of a Chinese art world. In August of 1980 the second “Star Art Exhibit” formally opened at the Chinese Art Gallery, not a year after the first open-air showing.
by Lu Yansheng
At the start of the Cultural Revolution my parents were subject to persecution. Because of the long-term closure of schools at the time, we received little formal education. Because of the Cultural Revolution we had art salons, which gave us the opportunity to meet and host cultural events with friends of similar societal standing, family circumstances, value systems, and interests. Because of the specialty of the members of this little circle, we had the opportunity to come in contact with books, paintings, and music that most people of the time could not. We started trying to use the methods of art to express our resistance and anger, thoughts and hopes. Together we read, sang, wrote poetry, painted, pondered and discussed, and used all kinds of uncommon ways to pursue the rudimentary education of our selves. Though we always felt a fear of government oppression, it was within just such a fear that we learned to think, to doubt and resist. We learned to view the world with a critical gaze.
by Wang Ruye
An uncertain life of interminable waiting is very torturous. Our tenacity, resolution, and patience were all subject to trial. I read poetry when I had free time, entrusting my willpower therein. When filled with hope I liked to read, “.” When in low spirits I liked to read, “!” At extremes of disheartenment my favorite was Zheng Banqiao: “!”
Ten-plus years later, I got a Master’s degree and became a college professor, and finally returned to long-lost Beijing. An excited me was taken aback at a feeling of unfamiliarity and confusion. After eventually combing through these feelings I found them to be a kind of disappointment brought on by the sudden disappearance of years of accumulated uncertainty. I could clearly see every step, every lecture, every teacher, all the way up to retirement. Such a turn in life, such sudden vision of the end of the road ahead coming to me, this all was very unsettling, indescribably horrifying even. No one thinks the arrangements of fate are so simple, knowing that many complications still lie ahead—but that’s a later chapter of the story. Today after many years, now that the life before me has again become simple and sure, the fear of the past is gone, replaced by a kind of envy for these youth with time to face uncertain life.
by Xu Haoyuan
Remembering them now, those beautiful, forever lost lines of poetry make me as sad as ever. They were the immaculate crystallization of the spirit of that generation’s youth as they struggled in a tempest.
Beijing had a very attractive power for us, the main attractiveness being that Beijing is a cultural center. This center is not in culture, nor in the national orchestra, and definitely not in the movie industry—those places have no connection with us. For us, the cultural center was the house of Tie Silu. Literary youth frequently gather at Tie Silu’s house, where we can discuss literature and even pull out our own work for others to see. If these literary products fell into the hands of the Cultural Management Department we would have faced imminent disaster. Only in the housing block of Tie Si could we share these things with other people. And there were people to read them, we even criticized and discussed them.
by Lu Xiaoqin
Coming back from the mountains to Beijing to see relatives, I used all my savings to buy an accordion to take back to the northern wasteland. Afterward, once the life of upheaval had ended and I had a steady job, I purchased a set of speakers for my house. Listening to music and searching everywhere for the records I revered became a big hobby in my leisure time. Though much in life is still not as one might like, to this day I can still find wonderful feelings in music.
by Zhang Liaoliao
After a hundred years
Erect a stone tablet
For our generation
The following four words
‘We are not guilty’
We also loathe
People of the future
When you’re cursing
The empty-handed legacy
We’ve left behind
In another world
Curse in unison
Just like you
We detest even more
When life lacks chance meetings
This is our generation’s
Bloody and teary