Red-Color News Soldier

What led Li Zhengsheng, a Chinese newspaper photographer, to preserve vivid images of the Cultural Revolution, even at enormous personal risk?

China’s Cultural Revolution, which ran from 1966-70 and continued to reverberate around the country until Mao’s death six years later, is an episode as opaque to Westerners as any in recent history. At the time ‘China watchers’, perched in Hong Kong and armed with little more than binoculars, tried to gain a sense of what was going on in the country. Since then, memoirs of this turbulent period, such as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, have achieved a worldwide readership. But we still know little about what the Cultural Revolution looked like.

This is about to change. Li Zhengsheng was born in Dalian in Liaonong Province in 1940 (then part of the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo). Aged eighteen at the start of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, he was given the job of painting murals. At home, though, he built up a stamp collection which he later swapped for a camera. In the early 1960s he went to film school, where he was taught that his job would be to record history in the making. From 1963 he worked as a photographer – his official title was later to become ‘Red-Color News Soldier’ – for the largest provincial newspaper, the Heilongjiong Daily. He took images of a broad cross-section of life and events in and around Harbin, the capital of that northern province of China. His pictures range from unruly Red Guard rallies to relentless public denunciations, from rural re-education centres to prominent political figures.

It was anathema for any newspaper to publish a blurry image of the Great Helmsman, so if any photograph turned out to have a poster of Mao out of focus in the background, or partially obscured, it had to be retouched. Li prided himself on his skill at this, though he recognised how often the result was visually illogical.

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