As It Happens

How a photographer secretly documented the darkest moments of China's Cultural Revolution

Li Zhensheng — a photographer who lived a double life during China's Cultural Revolution — has died at the age of 79.

Li Zhensheng, who hid thousands of illegal images under his floorboards for years, has died at the age of 79

Li Zhensheng in his office holding his Rolleiflex (photographed with another medium-format camera set on a self-timer) in July 1967. (Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images)
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Li Zhensheng — a photographer who lived a double life during China's Cultural Revolution — has died at the age of 79.

Li worked for a state-run newspaper as a photographer. He was ordered to not take "negative" images, but he secretly snapped thousands of illegal pictures that displayed the harsh truth of the decade.

In May 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong announced the start of the Cultural Revolution, which effectively purged the Communist Party ranks and consolidated power for Mao. It resulted in economic stagnation, hunger, persecution, and bloodshed that left at least half a million people dead

Li's job with the newspaper Heilongjiang Daily allowed him to document a period of massive upheaval in China. He hid thousands of negatives under the floorboards in his apartment. Years later, he published some of them in his book Red-Color News Soldier. The images have also been displayed in exhibits around the world.  

The New York Times has called his pictures, "perhaps the most complete and nuanced pictorial account of the decade of turmoil ignited by Mao Zedong."

Robert Pledge is the director of the photographic agency Contact Press Images and editor of Red-Color News Soldier. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

I just want to say just for people who don't know the Cultural Revolution or don't remember, this was an extraordinary period of time ... from 1966 to 1976. It's believed that maybe a million and a half people were killed during that time. Tens of millions were persecuted for "revisionism." And he was able to get some very candid photos. How did he do that? How is he able to get access to these moments?

Because he was a newspaper photographer, and therefore allowed to carry a camera, which most people were not allowed to do during that very turbulent period. 

It was a very violent period of time where parents were denounced by children. People were publicly humiliated. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people were killed [or] committed suicide. 

Swimmers prepare to plunge into the Songhua River to commemorate the second anniversary of Mao’s swim in the Yangtze in Heilongjiang province, China, on July 16, 1968. (Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images)

He worked for a newspaper. And therefore, he was part of the propaganda machine, if you will. And that gave him some protection. Unlike most of his colleagues, he realized that this event would be very profound and long lasting. 

And he sensed that this was an event that was so huge that he had to record it and go beyond being part of the propaganda purpose.

He was, on the one hand, the propaganda photographer and on the other hand, the undercover photographer who was recording the reality—the things that were really happening—and taking great risks doing that.- Robert Pledge, editor of Red-Color News Soldier

Did he set out to do that? At the beginning did ... he know that he was going to be exposing the dark side of the Cultural Revolution when he set out?

No, of course not.

I think in May 1966 … Chairman Mao declared that China would undergo Cultural Revolution and that would happen every seven years in China. Li Zhensheng was ... a young photographer [who] thought that was terrific for his career. 

The only problem is that very quickly he realized that this Cultural Revolution had everything but ... culture. Temples and churches were being destroyed, statues were being broken down. People were being mistreated. There was nothing cultural about it. 

That's when he realized that he had to record what he was seeing, what he was experiencing for history. So there's something very interesting and unique in his situation because he was, on the one hand, the propaganda photographer, and on the other hand, the undercover photographer who was recording the reality — the things that were really happening — and taking great risks doing that.

Just for an example, can you give us some of the most striking images. There's so many of them, but what are the ones that really do expose that dark side?

In the early stages of the movement, '66, '67, there were these massive rallies of young Red Guards. Teenagers ... would publicly humiliate members of the establishment — political establishment, if you will — the governor, the general secretary of the party, the professors, the teachers, even the parents. 

And they would bring them out in the stadium … to publicly humiliate them. [They] had them stand on a chair with their hands tied behind their backs [to] be shouted at and whipped and mistreated in public. 

I mean, it was devastating. So many people committed suicide as a result. They weren't necessarily killed right there on the spot. 

Accused of bearing a resemblance to Mao, Heilongjiang province Governor Li Fanwu’s hair is brutally shaved and torn by zealous young Red Guards. (Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images)

For instance, the governor of Heilongjiang Province, Li Fanwu, was brought up and stood on a chair. And young kids 12, 13, 14 years of age would shave his hair off — tear his hair off to humiliate him because they accuse him of wanting to look like Chairman Mao with his hairstyle. And that they noted [the governor's] ambition, political ambition.

And Li Zhensheng photographed these moments. He photographed them and he realized that they would never be published.

How did he conceal the photos?

He would then process the film [and] he would edit the film. [He would] choose the pictures and all the images on his negatives that he knew were politically incorrect, if you will, all those negatives that were negative, he would cut them out and then he would bundle them. And he ended up burying them under the floorboard of his very small apartment.

Li Zhensheng, self portrait, taken May 23, 2008. (Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images)

We know that Li Zhensheng's photos have been seen around the world, that they are famous images. But he had only limited access ... to mainland China. How important was it that people in China should see his work of the Cultural Revolution? 

His main objective in life since he retired was to have his images be seen by the younger generation of Chinese who were never told much by their parents or grandparents who felt embarrassed or ashamed [or] traumatized by the events.

You had to remember that some families were torn between those who supported the Cultural Revolution and those who now opposed it. The participants and the victims are alive today. So it is not something that people would speak about comfortably.

And they never told their children, or few told their children or their grandchildren what happened to them during that kind of time. And Li wanted that to be known. That was his goal in life, to get the pictures published.


Written by Lito Howse. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Edited for length and clarity. 

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