Photographer Li Zhensheng (李振盛; 1940-2020) documented the dark side of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), producing powerful black-and-white images that remain a rare visional testimonial to the disturbing brutality of that decade.
Li was a young photographer at a local newspaper called the Heilongjiang Daily in Heilongjiang province (northeastern China) when Mao embarked on his Revolution in May of 1966.
He had noticed how the Red Guards (红卫兵in Chinese) — the nation’s militant students back in the first stages of the Revolution– were granted access to photograph anything they wanted. Li then cunningly decided to make himself an armband emblazoned with the words “Red-Color News Soldier”.
Not knowing just how important the body of work he was on the verge of creating was to become for future generations.
Wearing his red armband, Li was given extraordinary access to official events. Nevertheless, Li’s initial excitement at the promising prospects of witnessing all that goes on behind the scenes of the quest for a “brighter, enlightened” future of a nation quickly gave way to an entrenched sense of grave concern.
What had commenced as a political campaign aimed at consolidating power, soon engulfed all of the Middle Kingdom, unleashing decade-long turmoil that overran all of Chinese society. Factions of radical youths — the earlier mentioned Red Guards — flush with ambition roamed the country battling one another as well as perceived “class enemies”.
Li particularly began to have his doubts after witnessing Red Guards in Heilongjiang province raiding churches and temples, burning scriptures, and castigating monks. Countless historical sites and relics were destroyed, all in the name of stamping out China’s “feudal” and “bourgeois” culture.
Dancing for Mao
In the cult of Mao, everyone was expected to perform the “loyalty dance” — from miners to minors to office workers to toddlers to old ladies whose feet had been bound. The movements were always toward the sky — that way you could show how respectful you were to Mao. Everyone knew how to dance it.
Translated into Roaring Twenties 2.0 lingo — for those of you early-20-somethings who want to culturally revolutionize (which is a good thing) themselves — the Mao move was Tik Tok-proof.
Li found himself at the Red Guard Stadium in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, along with hundreds of thousands of Communist Party cadres, workers, peasants, and other soldiers who had gathered for a marathon conference on the teachings of Chairman Mao.
It was 1968, and Mao’s attempt to purge Chinese society of those supposed wretched bourgeois elements slowly has resulted in his long-term goal of escalating his very own cult. All about Mao.
Attendees seemed to be trying to outdo one another in their professions of love for their nation’s leader when all of a sudden, in front of the soldiers in the stadium stands, five-year-old Kang Wenjie skipped in place and sang:
No matter how close our parents are to us, they are
not as close as our relationship with Mao
Eager to please, the excess of zeal perturbed the young photographer. Nevertheless, his images put the girl — and her hometown — on the map for all posterity. Express yourself, eh.
Put on Parade
Li continued to take pictures, including those he referred to as his “negative negatives”. Red Guards shaving the head of a provincial governor because his hairline was too similar to Mao’s; security forces shooting, point-blank, two accused counterrevolutionaries for publishing a flier the government deemed too pro-Soviet. These merely two examples of a myriad of “incidents”.
These were the (behind-the-)scenes snaps that China did not want the rest of the world — or its own people — to see.
In the darkroom, Li would separate potentially dangerous negatives from the flock and bury them in his desk. When the time seemed right, he would take them home for safe(r)keeping, hiding them under the floorboards of his one-room apartment in the city of Harbin, capital of China’s northernmost province.
Even after the Cultural Revolution effectually ended with Mao’s death, aged 82, in 1976, Li remained wary about unveiling his more, shall we say, “subversive” (read: potentially fatal) work.
He had compiled an anthology, if you will, of roughly 100k images over the course of that distrubed decade, many of the negatives safely stored “underground,” hidden from potential prying eyes…
Where they remained undeveloped for years.
Li’s collection remains one of the most integral and nuanced visual narrations of how deeply the Cultural Revolution turned upside down daily life far away from China’s capital, Beijing.
Among the photos are numerous ones depicting the so-callede “struggle sessions,” during which people were criticized, abused, and made to stand for hours with their heads bowed before a sea of accusers.
All but forgotten to those who lived through it, in recent years Chinese authorities have nevertheless reversed efforts to reckon with modern history, resulting in what some sarcastically refer to as “collective amnesia”.
For the Love of Mao
Mao literally mobilized thousands of Chinese youth to destroy the “four olds” in Chinese culture, namely old customs, habits, culture, and thought.
Colleges were shut down so students could concentrate on the “revolutionary” tasks at hand, and as the movement spread, these students began to assault anything and anybody that represented authority.
Children turned on their parents, students turned on their teachers, intellectuals were exiled. Thousands were beaten to death or driven to suicide.
Li’s job left him in the unique position of being able to record the violence and brutality that was happening around him. And, at great personal risk, capture the absurdity of it all — with the inhumanity and atrocities thereof — for future generations to come.
“I realized that this turbulent era must be recorded. I didn’t really know whether I was doing it for the revolution, for myself, or for the future,” Li told BBC News back in 2018, “Some have criticized me, saying I am washing the country’s dirty laundry in public, but Germany has reckoned with its Nazi past, America still talks about its history of slavery…
Why can’t we Chinese talk about our own history?”