Photographing the Chinese Cultural Revolution….
I have been awe-struck by the photographs and text in the wonderful book by journalist Li Zhensheng Red Colour News Soldier (Phaidon 2003) which documents the entire period of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) under the abhorrent leadership of Chairman Mao. This remarkable book is a product of thousands of original negatives kept hidden by Li Zhensheng for almost forty years, the only complete set of surviving photographs to cover this shameful period in modern history.
For anyone who has admired Frank Dikotter’s concise trilogy of books on the reign of Mao then this must surely be an invaluable accompaniment, the monochrome images paint a desperate picture of the suffering which millions of Chinese endured because of ludicrous schemes conjured up by Mao and ruthlessly enforced by his deputies. I cannot help but feel that western society doesn’t do enough to shame the leaderships of Stalin and Mao, millions of deaths through beatings, imprisonment, torture and starvation are the true realities of their communist ideal and we in the west reserve almost all of our bile for Hitler.
Mao’s crackpot schemes would be hilarious if they hadn’t been so deadly, his Great Leap Forward which began in 1958 was going to miraculously catapult China ahead of America and Britain in economic growth and living standards, it would prove disastrous. Between 1960 and 1962 a great famine swept the country, some twenty million are reported to have died. The leadership’s obsession with imposing communist ideals upon their people saw communities ripped apart by false claims of insolence and harbouring of personal wealth, friends and family turned against each other as the brainwashing weaved itself throughout the uneducated masses. Zhensheng’s photographs capture public gatherings where the wrongly accused are paraded in front of huge crowds to be humiliated and abused before sentenced to hard labour, imprisonment or execution.
Li Zhensheng quickly realised that in order to photograph the daily lives of the proletariat he needed help, that help came in the acquisition of a Red Guard armband. Once the Cultural Revolution began he formed his own group of ‘rebels’ called the ‘Red Youth Fighting Team,’ these groups were determined to show Mao’s enforcers how ‘red’ they were, Zhensheng played the game brilliantly. When crowds chanted pro-Mao slogans he chanted louder, flashing his armband and clenched fist to show his commitment before picking up his camera and quietly doing what he set out to do. So convincing was he and his team that his regional headquarters gave their support to the group and awarded them a new name, Red-Colour News Soldier, with new, shiny arm bands to match.
The book is a stunning collection of life under a dictatorship, it is incredible to see a country so vast controlled by an ideology run by so few. Images of Mao on banners, signs and walls ran to every province, ‘thought propaganda teams’ spread his teachings across schools and workplaces, in one image we see workers huddled together to read “A letter to peasants from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party” This indoctrination pitted colleagues against one another, fear of reprisal from the state was embedded in all of them and Zhensheng took huge risks as he illegally kept and hid negatives. Li Zhensheng was, by his own admission a rebel and he and his family paid a price for false accusations levelled against him. He was sent to ‘re-education’ camps and hard labour in the countryside but he never lost sight of his independent thought. His witnessing of the execution squads, the public humiliations and the insane production targets set by the state with crippling cost to the workers and the landscape solidified his hatred of the regime.
When Mao died in 1976 Zhensheng struggled to photograph anyone who was truly upset, years of suppression, indoctrination and abject fear made the Chinese numb, their admiration for him had eroded along with their lives and hopes. Mao himself received little criticism but his Cultural Revolution did, Deng Xiaoping who succeeded Mao in 1977 had good reason to criticise Mao but never did. His analysis of Mao’s leadership was considered, he embodied the view that Mao was no god but a human who had “confused right and wrong and the people with the enemy…Herein lies his tragedy”
This book records China’s tragedy, it should be widely read and viewed in the rightful context. Millions suffered under Mao’s regime and because of lack of access few in the west could truly grasp the scale of the protracted disaster. This book goes a long way in righting that wrong and reminding us of a deeply shameful period in recent history.
Red-Colour News Soldier by Li Zhesheng
Phaidon Press 2003
Categories: The Reading Room