Over the holidays I got Ma Jian's massively enjoyable China Dream as a Christmas present. It tells the story of a party official who wants to fulfil the China Dream of Xi Jinping. To this end, he imagines a way tapping into the dreams of Chinese citizens to make sure they are spiritually and politically pure so the China Dream will be realised.
Unfortunately for him, his own dreams, and then his waking life, a life where he juggles mistresses, corruption and the eviction and destruction of a village for commercial development are infested with his memories of the death of his parents, mass graves, and extreme violence during the Cultural Revolution. However much he tries, he can never forget. The memories are always there.
It's a satirical novel that works on the themes of how we remember the past, how we reinvent the past, how we forget the past. And then do the same with the present. It's about forgetting then. But also about how we can't forget. We can try to shut the memory down but up it will pop in some unexpected place.
I read the book and then saw this story on Li Zhensheng's brilliant Red Color News Soldier - an amazing series of pictures shot during the Cultural Revolution and his troubles on showing them in China. Again, it's a story about forgetting, about obliterating the past. But luckily we have Li's pictures to remind us. And what pictures they are. This is why photography matters.
And this is an interview I did for The Far Eastern Economic Review when Red Color News Soldier was first published.
When Chinese photographer Li Zhensheng was at film school, his teacher Wu Ying Xian (the respected Chinese photographer) told him, “Photographers are not only witnesses. They are recorders as well.”
“It made me realise,” says Li in an interview in London, “that when we record history, we have to record it completely - not only the positive images but also the negative ones as well.”
Soon after Li began working as a photographer at the Heilongjiang Daily. It was 1963 and Li’s brief was to capture glowing images of the party, peasantry and workers of China’s most northerly province.
Then in 1966, Mao Zedong announced the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s aim - to halt China’s slide towards revisionism and re-establish Mao as the nation’s unquestioned leader.
For 600 million Chinese, the next 10 years were a nightmare of persecution and paranoia. Purges of ‘class enemies’, capitalist roaders” and ‘counter-revolutionary’ communist party leaders led to fighting between rival groups of Red Guards that claimed millions of lives and brought the People’s Republic to the brink of collapse.
There to record it 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 images that constitutes the most important body of Chinese photojournalism ever created.
As the Cultural Revolution gathered pace in 1966, temples, churches, monasteries and mosques across China were destroyed in part of the campaign to destroy the ‘Four Olds’ - old thought, old culture, old customs and old practices. In Harbin, Heilongjiang’s provincial capital, Li photographed the desecration of a Buddhist Monastery, and the humiliation of monks forced to stand before the mob holding a banner that reads ‘To hell with Buddhist Scriptures. They are full of dog farts.’
The real aim of the Cultural Revolution, however, was to purge Communist Party officials suspected of reformist tendencies. 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.
Other Cultural Revolution photography does exist, but it is almost all of a propagandist nature. What makes Li’s archive unique is he was perhaps the only photographer to record in detail the violence that was happening during the Cultural Revolution. Shooting such material was regarded as both politically suspect, and, with film supplies extremely limited, a waste of film.
“When I took these images,” explains Li, now aged 63, “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.”
To get better access to political events, Li formed a rebel group and got his rebel armband - with Red Color News Soldier emblazoned on it. 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.”
Li’s images became 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 is a sequence showing 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 girlfriend and first love, Sun Peikui, left him after her mother was denounced as a ‘dog landlord’ and killed herself. ‘It’s because I love you that I don’t want to destroy you,’ wrote Peikui in her farewell note.
Li’s personal journey through the Cultural Revolution is revealed through an incredible series of self-portraits. Filled with Li’s charismatic presence, they have a theatrical tone that contrasts the harsh realism of his photojournalistic work.
“The reason why I have so many self-timer pictures is I was a soldier,” says Li. “I always left one negative in my camera in case something surprising happened on the way back to the office. If nothing happened, I’d take it back to the office, and not wanting to waste the film, I’d do a self -timer. I had 2 cameras, I had a medium format and a 35 mm camera, and many of the pictures are number 12 from a medium format camera.”
These self-portraits also reflect Li’s personal fortunes. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Li portrays himself as a true believer in Mao’s cause, posing in imitation of a movie hero with bared chest, his blazing eyes ready for the ideological battle to come. In May 1967, he stands behind Sun Peikui, his face beaming as he photographs her in a mirror. Two months later, Sun Peiku has left Li and we see Li holding his Rolleiflex, his face strained by the tortures of the love he has lost. In August, Li photographs himself with a new girlfriend (and future wife), his smile and natural vigor gone, a touch of bitterness intruding on his normally animated face.
In 1969, Li was criticised and spent 2 years’ hard labour at a ‘rectification’ school near the Chinese-Soviet border. Li survived - and so did his negatives, wrapped in oilskin cloth and hidden under the floorboards of his one-room home.
The Cultural Revolution came to its official end when Mao died in 1976. China moved away from revolutionary communism and reform began. Even so, Li’s photographs were not made public until March 1988 when 20 won first prize in an exhibition in Beijing. “In December that year,” says Robert Pledge, cofounder of Contact Press Images and editor of Red Color News Soldier, “I met Li and he told me his story. I still hadn’t seen his images, but he was so convincing that I agreed there and then to work with him on a book and exhibition.”
The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing postponed proceedings until 1996 when work finally began with Li placing 50 images with Contact Press in New York.
“They were very impressive,” says Pledge, “but Li’s images were cropped. I was intrigued to see more, but uncropped. So Li made a selection and showed me them in New York. They were quite extraordinary, but I wanted to see more. He said how many more. I said everything. He said that’s not possible - I’ve got over 60,000. Well, he edited them down to 30,000, and brought them over bit by bit.”
But even this wasn’t easy. “The first time I went to New York,” says Li, “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.”
The 30,000 negatives Li carried to New York were gradually edited down to the 285 featured in the book, all of which are shown uncropped and in chronological order.
“It’s very exciting,” says Pledge. “I don’t know if in the history of photography there has been a single photographer who has covered a series of events over such a long period of time. Li represents those events in such a coherent form, and it’s the only such record.”
“I’m hoping that when Li’s photography is published, any other material that might exist will surface. Sometimes photography can stimulate ideas, debate and bring out new material. It shows photography can be used as an important historical tool.”
As for Li, his main goal is to show young Chinese what happened during the Cultural Revolution. “I hope this book will show what happened in that period,” he says, “in order that this tragedy will never happen again.”