Growth rates are of fundamental importance for plants, as individual size affects myriad ecological processes. We determined the factors that generate variation in RGR among 14 species of trees and shrubs that are abundant in subtropical Chinese forests. We grew seedlings for two years at four light levels in a shade-house experiment. We monitored the growth of every juvenile plant every two weeks. After one and two years, we destructively harvested individuals and measured their functional traits and gas-exchange rates. After calculating individual biomass trajectories, we estimated relative growth rates using nonlinear growth functions. We decomposed the variance in log(RGR) to evaluate the relationships of RGR with its components: specific leaf area (SLA), net assimilation rate (NAR) and leaf mass ratio (LMR). We found that variation in NAR was the primary determinant of variation in RGR at all light levels, whereas SLA and LMR made smaller contributions. Furthermore, NAR was strongly and positively associated with area-based photosynthetic rate and leaf nitrogen content. Photosynthetic rate and leaf nitrogen concentration can, therefore, be good predictors of growth in woody species.