Exhibition: LI ZHENSHENG. A Chinese Photographer in the Cultural Revolution
Barcelona, 30 November 2004
Thirty thousand brown envelopes hidden under the floorboards of an apartment for 35 years, bound by rubber bands and ordered by period, place and type of film. Each contained a negative inside a tiny paper sachet. Written on each envelope, in delicate Chinese lettering, was a detailed explanation featuring names of people, official titles, communes, counties and specific events. This is the story behind Li Zhensheng, a Chinese Photographer in the Cultural Revolution, an exhibition that presents 150 “unauthorized” photographs taken by a “red-color news soldier” during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution period (1966-1976). Popular tribunals, humiliation sessions, brutal assaults, public persecution, multitudinous rallies, personality cult, mass executions and firing squads are shown in these 150 gripping images that reconstruct 10 years of social, economic and political cataclysm that led to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths and ruined countless human lives in Mao Tse-tung’s China. Their author is Li Zhensheng, a Chinese photojournalist who worked nearly 20 years for the Heilongjiang Daily, and who risked his life to conserve this graphic record that narrates the collective madness that dehumanized an entire country.
The exhibition Li Zhensheng, a Chinese Photographer in the Cultural Revolution, curated by Robert Pledge, director of Contact Press Images, and Gabriel Bauret, independent editor and curator, can be visited at CaixaForum (Av. Marquès de Comillas, 6-8. Barcelona), from 1 Desember 2004 to 6 February 2005.
Organized by ”la Caixa” Foundation, the exhibit Li Zhensheng, A Chinese Photographer in the Cultural Revolution was conceived and created by Robert Pledge and Contact Press Images (New York – Paris) in a joint production with the Photographic Heritage Department of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.
The seeds of this exhibit were the 30,000 brown paper envelopes that Li Zhensheng took as of 1999 from Beijing to Contact Press Images’ New York offices, in small packages. Over three years, between 2000 and 2003, Li Zhensheng, Robert Pledge and a small team met every Sunday to bring light to this untold story. Specialized archives and documents were consulted over the course of these meetings. On several occasions, Li even sang revolutionary songs of the period.
“Red-Color News Soldier” is the translation of the four Chinese characters printed on the armband Li Zhensheng was made to wear as of the end of 1966, eight months after the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution erupted. He shrewdly realized how advantageous a press armband could be. As an official photographer for a state-controlled newspaper, (the Heilongjiang Daily, a Communist Party organ of northeast China), Li limited himself to a certain following of orders. But at the same time, as a young man gifted with a keen, subtle eye he achieved something much more complex: recording of the human drama with great accuracy. At the peak of the Cultural Revolution, Li was not exempt from the public criticism of his cohorts and rivals: accused of being a “new petit bourgeois” and a “foreign agent”, he and his wife were sent to the countryside for two years’ reeducation in 1969.
The exhibition Li Zhensheng, a Chinese Photographer in the Cultural Revolution brings together CaixaForum 150 of the thousands of pictures the photojournalist managed to hide under the floorboards of his flat. None of the photos shown has been reframed. To show the historical process in the best possible manner, the pictures are presented in strict chronological order, and are displayed alongside several notes giving background information featuring details verified and confirmed by the Heilongjiang Daily archive, where Li worked for 18 years.
Li was required to touch up some of the original photographs by the Heilongjiang Daily to make them politically correct. One such case was a picture in which a Mao quote appeared cut off and demonstrators’ fists blocked his portrait. On another note, the photos show Li’s interest in film (initially on track to be a filmmaker, the cinema school in Changchun where he was studying was made into a photojournalism school in 1962): he accomplishes panning shots by assembling several snapshots together, rendering a broad view of the multitudes participating in the rallies. He also employs counterfield to show the opposite angles of a single scene.
The result: an exhibition with 150 gripping photographs
– As an act of self-incrimination, a group of monks is made to hold up a sign reading: “To hell with Buddhist Scriptures. They are full of dog farts.”
– A suspect is made to parade about the crowd wearing a donkey hood bearing his crimes and a sign around his neck listing accusations.
– Seven men and a woman are executed from behind by a firing squad near a cemetery.
– A woman is accused of “hoarding riches” for hiding three watches, two brooches and three handbags.
– A pregnant woman carries a block of frozen soil during the annual reconditioning of an irrigation development area.
– The Red Guards burn Buddhist statues and writings during a raid on a temple. Written on the wall: “Fall of the old world.”
These are some of the photographs that can be viewed at CaixaForum. The exhibition is divided into five areas, described in the following text.
THE FIVE EXHIBITION AREAS
ACCUSATIONS AND SELF-CRITICISM
“It is right to rebel”, December 1964 – April 1966
As an introduction, this first section explains how the first tremors of the decade-long cataclysm known as the Cultural Revolution began to shake the Chinese countryside. The Socialist Education Movement, launched the prior year by Mao Tse-tung, was meant as a campaign against corruption and ideological backsliding. Droves of urban government and party cadres known as work teams arrived at country communes for yearlong stays in which to propagate socialist values. These teams, together with local commune leaders, organized mass rallies and public criticisms against the “four elements”: landlords, “rich peasants”, counterrevolutionaries and other supposed bad characters.
THE SUMMER OF THE RED GUARD
“Bombard the Headquarters!”, May – September 1966
This ambit illustrates the first months of the Revolution. On 16 May 1966, Mao issued the document that officially launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. “The whole Party must follow comrade Mao Tse-tung’s instructions, fly the Proletarian Cultural Revolution flag high, thoroughly expose the reactionary bourgeois stand of those so-called “academic authorities” who oppose the party and socialism, condemn and reject the reactionary bourgeois ideas in the fields and intellectual work, education, journalism, literature, art and the press, and take the reins of these cultural areas.” The announcement coincided with the birth of the Red Guards at a middle school in Beijing. The grass roots student movement placarded the nation’s walls with slogans and dazibaos (wall posters), held rallies and attacked teachers and all forms of authority.
“The Red Sun in Our Hearts”, October 1966 – April 1968
The third section of the exhibition shows the worship of Mao’s personality. By the fall of 1966, Mao had become a living god to most Chinese. This sweeping control over the country was achieved through a propaganda campaign of unprecedented scope. Carefully coordinated by his new second-in-command, marshal Lin Biao, the force behind the Little Red Book, and the chairman’s wife, Jiang Qing, who wielded her power over all aspects of culture and media, the cult of Mao splashed the great leader’s slogans onto the walls of every factory and across every newspaper, and put his likeness into every home on posters, buttons, fabrics and dishes. Mao was simultaneously ever-present (in image) and inaccessible (in person).
RE-EDUCATION AT THE MAY 7TH CADRE SCHOOL AT LIUHE
“Revolution is not a Dinner Party”, April 1968 -September 1972
This area displays the restructuring imposed throughout China. By the end of 1968, the bloodletting of previous years had left power fully in the hands of Mao and a small coterie including Lin Biao and Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. With former president Liu Shaoqi purged, and all of China’s 29 provinces now in the hands of the new provincial revolutionary committees, the Red Guards, whose anarchic impulses had triggered a civil war, were dissolved. To redirect the destructive energies of the student rebels who had left school to make the Revolution, and to counteract growing unemployment in the cities, the chairman launched a new mass movement in the countryside. The May 7th Cadre School program, sprawling throughout China, combined hard manual labor with the assiduous study of Mao’s writings. Millions of Party cadres purged their errors within a campaign to “eradicate the class system”.
THE END OF THE MYTH
“Die fighting”, September 1972 – October 1976
The end of the Cultural Revolution is shown as a conclusion. By 1972, China was adrift between two opposing ideologies. On one side hovered the chairman’s almost universally-detested wife, Jiang Qing, promising endless class struggle, while on the other stood the proponents of modernization and moderation, the stance of Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, who offered to end it. The ensuing battle, which contested the very legacy and meaning of the Cultural Revolution, would consume the last four years of Mao Tse-tung’s life. Less than a month after Mao’s death, on 9 September 1976, Hua Guofeng, his handpicked successor, authorized the arrest in Beijing of Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan, smashing the Gang of Four and the Revolution from which they had sprung.
BIOGRAPHY OF LI ZHENSHENG
Li Zhensheng was born on 22 September 1940 in Dalian, Liaoning Province, in northeast China. His mother died when he was three. His older step-brother, a member of Mao’s army, was killed in combat in 1949 at age seventeen, one month before the end of the civil war. Li himself helped his father, a cook on a steamship who later became a farmer, work the fields until the age of sixteen. Although he began his schooling late, Li quickly rose to the top of his class, and through his single-minded drive succeeded in earning a spot at the Changchun Film School, in Jilin Province. When the school was converted to the more “socially useful” purpose of photojournalism, his complaints led to his being sent to northeast China, to the province of Heilongjiang to photograph scientific documents. It was also through persistence that he found on his own a better job photographing for the Heilongjiang Daily in Harbin Province, in 1963. The Socialist Education Movement intervened and he ended up back in the countryside for nearly two years, living with peasants and studying the work of Chairman Mao.
Li returned to Harbin just months before the outbreak of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the Spring of 1966. Lack of film, the soon-marauding Red Guards, political pressure against photographing “negative” scenes and the need for caution all conspired to reduce him to the level of a propaganda functionary. But in reality, things were different. Realizing how advantageous wearing the press armband could be for him, he founded his own rebel group within the newspaper. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, like many of those he had photographed, Li fell victim to the public criticism of his colleagues and rivals, and was once more sent back to the countryside in September 1969, this time for reeducation at the May 7th Cadre School in Liuhe where he and wife Zu Yingxia, who also worked at the newspaper, spent two years at hard labor.
From early on, Li had taken care to keep his politically “negative” negatives hidden under the floorboards of his apartment. They remained safe there for many years, until after he returned to the Heilongjiang Daily photography department, which he became the head of in 1972. Ten years later he moved with his family to Beijing, where he dedicated his time to teaching in the Journalism Department at the International Institute of Political Science of the University, until his retirement in 1996. He now lives between Beijing and New York.
Li Zhensheng, a Chinese Photographer
in the Cultural Revolution
1 Desember 2004 to 6 February 2005
”la Caixa” Foundation’s Social and Cultural Center
Cristòfor Colom, 2
Monday to Sundays and holidays, 10 am to 8 pm
”la Caixa” Foundation Information Service: Tel.: 902 22 30 40