Bringing the Revolution Home.
When Li Zhensheng, now 63, began working as a photographer at the Heilongjiang Daily in 1963, his job was simple – to capture glowing images of the party, peasantry and workers of China’s most northerly province.
Then came the Cultural Revolution. Purges of “class enemies” and “capitalist roaders”, the overthrow of “counter-revolutionary” communist party leaders and internecine fighting between rival groups of Red Guards claimed millions of lives and brought the People’s Republic to the brink of collapse.
There to record it all was Li Zhensheng. Acting outside his brief of presenting only the positive side of proletarian China, he captured the violence and chaos in an archive of incredible images that constitutes arguably the most important body of Chinese photojournalism ever created.
Li’s inspiration to record history started at Changchun Film School in the early 1960s. “Wu Ying Xian, the famous Chinese photographer told me, “Photographers are not only witnesses. They are recorders as well.” It made me realise that when we record history, we have to record it completely – the negative as well as the positive,” explains Li.
As the Cultural Revolution gathered pace, negatives there were aplenty. Li recorded the desecration of a Buddhist Monastery, and the humiliation of monks, forced to stand holding a banner that reads “To hell with Buddhist Scriptures. They are full of dog farts.”
Then there is the political persecution. In one incredible sequence, Li shows Heilongjiang’s Provincial Governor, Li Fanwu, being denounced. Head bowed, and standing on a chair, his head is shaved by zealous Red Guards, their eyes full of ideological fury.
Ren Zhongyi, the provincial party secretary, is shown with his face daubed with ink and wearing a dunce’s gap. In 1966, Ren was accused of being a “Black Gang Element” and “capitalist-roader”. Surviving the traumas of over 2,000 criticism sessions, Ren became the Party Secretary of Guangdong Province in the 1980s – and can count the establishment of the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen amongst his reforming achievements.
Other photographs from the Cultural Revolution do exist, but what makes Li’s unique is they are the only ones that portray the period with such journalistic and historical integrity and purpose. “When I took these images,” explains Li, “photographers from other newspapers just stood there. They said – “what’s the use of taking these photos – you will be criticised for wasting film” – and would only shoot the positive propaganda images.” Li, in contrast, would shoot pictures for publication, then concentrate on capturing the negative images – the violence and psychodrama of Red Guard rallies and criticism sessions.
To get better access to political events, Li noticed that “…people wearing a Red Guard armband could take photographs freely…” So Li got his rebel armband
and “…whenever I wore it I could take all the photographs I wanted, and nobody ever bothered me.”
As a Red Guard, Li soon became the target of rival groups – as did his growing archive of politically suspect negatives. “Before I realised it was risky to take these photos,” he says, “I only put the negatives away so my colleagues wouldn’t see them. In 1968, when our rebel group was about to be criticised, I realised I had to do something about the negative images. I transferred all the negative images from my office to my home. Had they been found, they would have been burnt. I witnessed many negatives being burnt.”
Li’s images became even grimmer as the Cultural Revolution descended into chaos. He shows us factional fighting between rival groups and, in some powerful portraits, the resulting injuries and deaths.
Most moving are a series of images of eight people being executed. One of the condemned is a “counterrevolutionary” technician. As he is taken to the place of execution he closes his eyes for the last time and cries out, “This world is too dark!” Then he is led away to be shot, his eyes closed tight against the world he will never see again.
Li also suffered personal tragedies. His first girlfriend left him after her father was denounced as a “dog landlord”, his father-in-law killed himself, and Li himself was criticised and spent 2 years at a “rectification” school near the Chinese-Soviet border.
But Li survived and so did his negatives – wrapped in oilskin cloth and hidden under the floorboards of his one-room home.
Normality slowly returned to China, and Li returned to the Heilongjiang Daily where he photographed Harbin’s commemoration of the death of Mao in 1976 and the celebrations that met the fall of the Gang of Four and the historic end of the Cultural Revolution.
Li’s photographs were not made public until 1988 – when 20 were shown, and won first prize, in an exhibition in Beijing. These images were so powerful that they attracted the attention of Robert Pledge, cofounder and director of Contact Press Images, who met with Li and agreed to edit and publish the book. The Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 delayed work on the book which only began in 1996.
First, the negatives had to be taken to New York. “The first time I went to New York, I didn’t dare to bring negatives for fear they would be confiscated. The next time, I carried a small amount of negatives each time, which I hid in my wife’s feminine products. After two times, there had been no problem, so I became bolder and carried more.”
Li carried over 30,000 negatives to New York, which were edited down to 285 featured in the book, all of which are shown uncropped and in chronological order, as a true historical record of the Cultural Revolution.
Li’s aim is for Red-Color News Soldier to be published in mainland China. “It will be published in China,” he says, “but it’s a question of time.”
It’s also a question of politics, and whether the Chinese Communist Party leadership are willing to address the tragedies of 20th century Chinese history and the role the party played in them.
If they are, then the true historical value of Li’s photography will be realised, and Li’s ultimate goal met – “I hope this book will show what happened in that period, in order that this tragedy wil never happen again.” CP
A version of this review previously appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review.