Li Zhensheng (born September 22, 1940) is a Chinese photojournalist who captured some of the most telling images from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, better known as the Chinese Cultural Revolution. His employment at the Heilongjiang Daily, which followed the party line, and his decision to wear a red arm band indicating an alliance with Chairman Mao Zedong, allowed him access to scenes otherwise only described in written and verbal accounts. His recent publication of the book, Red-Color News Soldier
exhibits both the revolutionary ideals and, more notably, many of the atrocities that occurred during the Cultural Revolution
. The Heilongjiang Daily newspaper had a strict policy in accordance with a government dictate that only "positive" images could be published, which consisted mostly of smiling revolutionaries offering praise for Chairman Mao. The "negative" images, which depicted the atrocities of the time, were hidden beneath a floorboard in his house before he brought them to light at a photo exhibit in 1988.
Li Zhensheng was born to a poor family in Dalian, which is located in the northeastern province of Liaoning, China. At the time of his birth this was Kwantung Leased Territory, where Japan maintained the puppet regime, Manchukuo. His mother died when he was three, and his older brother, who was a member of the People's Liberation Army was killed during the Chinese Civil War. Zhensheng helped his father, who was a cook on a steamship and later as a farmer, until Zhensheng was 10-years-old. Zhensheng quickly rose to the top of his class despite starting school late. He later earned a spot at the Changchun Film School, where he acquired much of his photographic knowledge. In 1963, he briefly achieved a job at the Heilongjiang Daily, however the Socialist Education Movement soon intervened and he ended up back in the countryside for nearly two years, living with peasants and studying the works of Chairman Mao.
Zhensheng returned to Harbin just months before the outbreak of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the spring of 1966. A lack of photographic film, marauding Red Guards, and a political dictate against photographing the negative aspects of the revolution restricted what he was able to portray. He soon realized that only people wearing the red-colored arm band of the Red Guards could photograph without harassment. To achieve this, he founded his own small rebel group at the newspaper. Zhensheng then captured some of the most horrific acts of the Cultural Revolution. His collection includes photos depicting dehumanizing tactics used by the Red Guards to humiliate or degrade alleged counterrevolutionaries.
Some of the images depict public displays of "denunciations," where the hair of prominent individuals is shaved. Other images show people bearing "dunce" hats; people with black paint spread over their faces; others wearing signs around their necks with writings that criticize their profession or names. Zhensheng also captured scenes of public executions of counterrevolutionaries who were never given a trial for their alleged crimes. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Zhensheng was once more sent back to the countryside in September 1969. He was sent to the May 7th Cadre School in Liuhe, a labor camp where he and his wife, Zu Yingxia, spent two years performing hard labor. Zhensheng had taken meticulous care of the documented "negative" images he captured while at the newspaper, hiding them beneath a floorboard of his one-room apartment. The dry atmosphere and mild temperatures of Harbin aided the preservation of the photographic negatives.
While he was sent away, Zhensheng entrusted a friend to care for the apartment, and instructed him to never reveal the secrets it contained. Zhensheng returned to the newspaper in 1972 as the head of the photography department, and later became a professor at Peking University in 1982.
About Red-Color News Soldier
Red-Color News Soldier
is a literal translation of the Chinese characters written on the armband Li Zhensheng wore during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Although, he says he never gave his alliance to Chairman Mao, wearing the arm band gave him unprecedented access to historic events, which have since shaped Chinese culture. The book covers the period from just before the Cultural Revolution in 1965 to just after in 1976. It is separated into five chronological sections: 1964-1966 titled "It is right to rebel"
; 1966 titled "Bombard the Headquarters"
; 1966-1968 titled "The Red Sun in our hearts"
; 1968-1972 titled "Revolution is not a dinner party"
; and 1972-1974 titled "Die Fighting."
The veteran China analyst John Gittings was among the reviewers who welcomed Li's book. He noted that Li was a Red Guard as well as a photographer and did not deny that he also led "struggle sessions" against innocent victims; but his pictures reflect a deeper desire to record and understand. Li's book was "unique" for a simple reason: "Although the post-Mao Chinese government has labeled the cultural revolution '10 years of chaos,' it still tries to suppress any real inquiry into the countless human tragedies it caused..."
The book, which has not been published in China, took many years to publish. Zhensheng's "negative" pictures (those that depicted the atrocities of the cultural revolution) were first revealed publicly in March 1988 at a Chinese Press Association's photography competition in Beijing. The show, entitled "Let History Tell the Future" consisted of twenty images from his collection, which were deemed "counterrevolutionary. " In December of that year, Zhensheng met Robert Pledge, an American who was director of Contact Press Images, an international photo agency, who had come to Beijing. They agreed to work together on a book of Zhensheng's photos, but to wait until the political climate was right.
Seven months later, in June 1989, the brutal events of Tiananmen Square made worldwide headlines, and Zhensheng became determined to produce a book to show the world the images from the Cultural Revolution. Work on the book began in 1999. Since Pledge did not speak Chinese, and Zhensheng did not speak English, the two had to coordinate work through the use of translators — many of whom became integral parts of their relationship. Zhensheng sent over 30,000 brown envelopes to Pledge's office in New York City, each containing photographic negatives. A number of the images are self-portraits of Zhensheng.
This was the result of always returning to the paper with one extra frame on the film roll; a photojournalism technique of always being prepared to cover a breaking news event at the last minute. Zhensheng would "burn off" the last image with a photo of himself shortly before developing the film. Often the poses were humorous and playful. One such image of Zhensheng exposing his bare chest was published in the book He said he was attempting to recreate the old expression of "baring one's chest in the face of adversity," or in his case, communism.
During book tours Zhensheng makes a point to speak of his love for China. He says while he disagrees with the government, he still loves his country and hopes democracy will perhaps prevail in the long-term future. He does not believe his images or the book should be considered anti-Chinese, rather a reminder of the painful past many countries endure during their evolution.