From gender fluidity to growing up in a shrinking town, these photographers are uncovering the growing bands of disillusioned youth in China
China’s ‘new generation’ has come of age in a time of rapid development and political upheaval. An urban-dwelling youth, they are often characterised as individualists, with a less rigid approach to life than that of their predecessors. The rise of technology and unprecedented economic growth has led to a generation able to express themselves outside of traditional values and construct identities previously considered taboo. These seven contemporary photographers offer glimpses into Chinese youth cultures not so commonly featured in mainstream media. From evolving perceptions of gender and sexuality to the disillusionment of the ‘Chinese Dream’, they capture what it means to be young in China today.
Hailed by Ai Weiwei as one of the ‘rising stars of Chinese photography’, Luo Yang has been capturing intimate portraits of young Chinese women for over a decade. Living and working between Beijing and Shanghai, she was recently cited by the BBC amongst the 100 most influential women worldwide. In her acclaimed photo series and accompanying film Girls which debuted on Dazed, Luo challenges traditional beliefs about femininity and identity in Chinese culture. The women she depicts are at once vulnerable and self-aware, suspended in a time of inner growth whilst their external environments change rapidly. There is friction in her work which speaks to the universal tensions and unresolved feelings that accompany girlhood, whilst maintaining a distinctly Chinese perspective. Her raw images bare witness to the individuality of her subjects, their contradictions, complexities, and diverse expressions of gender.
Having grown up in the 80s when China was becoming increasingly more urbanised, Ronghui Chen’s work addresses the complications of rapid urban growth and consequent consumerism. His series, Freezing Land focuses on the lives of young people across northeastern China’s shrinking towns, where dying industries and dwindling resources have left a shortage of opportunities for the younger generation. A mix of landscape photography and environmental portraiture, these images explore the relationship between China’s urbanisation and the lived experiences of young people who call these places home. The derelict scenery resonates with the lonely, uncertain futures faced by young people in these areas, who share a similar dilemma - to leave their homes for the challenge of a bigger city or stay and embrace their fate? His photos tell stories of isolation and hope, documenting the forgotten lands of an otherwise thriving nation.
Otherwise known as 223, Lin Zhipeng is a writer and photographer based in Beijing whose erotic portraits of love, life, and youth were first popularised through self-published zines and social media. Considered one of the ‘new generation’ of Chinese photographers, alongside the likes of the late the late Ren Hang, Zhipeng’s photographs offer an honest look into the lives of his intimate circle of friends and lovers. Shooting spontaneously, he has previously described his work as a ‘not so private diary’, impromptu moments of poetry captured within the everyday. Sexuality and gender play a central role in his photos, and his subjects are approached with a soft, playful hedonism as naked bodies collide with flowers, fruits, and each other.
Originally from Henan Province, an ancient district of central China, Yangkun Shi moved to London to study photojournalism at London College of Communication. Returning home from University, he was surprised to discover how drastically his hometown had changed. This experience inspired his 2016 series Sostalgia, which speaks to a special sense of homesickness one experiences when “home” is no longer familiar, a common sensation for a generation of increasingly mobile young Chinese. Conversely, his 2018 project Retrotopia documents villages where China’s collectivist dream lives on, capturing the tensions of a younger, more individualistic generation as they struggle with the reality of life in a time capsule. Although the stories Shi tells through his work are personal, they also constitute a larger part of Chinese history.
After moving to London aged 11, Alexandra Leese returned to her birthplace of Hong Kong as an adult in order to reconnect with a culture she had left behind. It was here she began shooting Boys of Hong Kong, an extensive zine and photo project that considers what it means to be male in Leese’s native China. Photographing a wide spectrum of young men, from schoolboys and skaters to tattoo artists and bikers, Boys of Hong Kong dismantles western notions of Asian masculinity. Her sensual portraits celebrate a diversity of beauty and character through subjects both self-assured and tender, affectionate, and funny. In 2018, she collaborated with Luke Casey on a short documentary of the same name. Depicting a myriad of sexualities and gender identities, Leese’s work champions a new wave of gender fluidity amongst Hong Kong’s young men.
Living and working in Shanghai, Ka Xiaoxi is a photographer and curator who has been documenting the changing underbelly of the city’s subcultures for over a decade. His introduction to photography first came through shooting bands at local music venues, but as his attention shifted to the young people around him, so did his lens. Known for an off the hip snapshot aesthetic, his work is dedicated to capturing Chinese fashion, youth, and street culture in its most authentic state. His 2015 book Never say goodbye to planet booze, features over 200 photos taken in bars, clubs, music festivals, and private parties across Shanghai, whilst his fashion and commercial work feature clients such as Adidas, Converse, New York Times and Nike. Xiaoxi’s photos are records of flourishing rebellious youth culture in a nation once considered famously conservative.
In 2007, Pixy Liao began her ongoing project Experimental Relationship with her Japanese partner, Moro. Probing the possibilities of portraiture, the series explores how nationality and culture influence their relationship, playfully contorting traditional gender roles. In “Carry the weight of you” she lifts him confidently over one shoulder, whilst “Start off your day with a good breakfast together” sees Pixy tucking into a papaya fruit balanced upon Moro’s body. Her photos propose alternative possibilities to the power and gender relations she was exposed to growing up in Shanghai, where men were always positioned as the dominant, assertive party in romantic relationships. With tenderness and a great sense of humour, Pixy uses the female gaze to re-assess historically gendered roles of dominance within heterosexual relationships.