Red-Colour News Soldier – so read the Chinese characters written on the armband that Li Zhensheng wore during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This armband gave Li unprecedented access to witness, and photograph, the horrific and brutal events that took place in China in the decade from 1966 to 1976, one of the bloodiest eras in Chinese history. Realising that only those who wore the red armband could freely move around and take photographs without excessive scrutiny and harrassment, Li founded his own rebel group at the Heilongjiang Daily newspaper in Harbin. Serving as official photographer for Chairman Mao Zedong’s notorious Red Guards, Li not only took “positive” propaganda pictures of the masses whipped up in revolutionary fervour in accordance with the dictates of the Chinese Communist Party, but also took countless other more questioning and nuanced “negative” photographs that would have been deemed counterrevolutionary by the political dictates of the day.
As part of the Singapore International Photography Festival 2016, more than 100 of the thousands of images that Li took during this period are on display, for the first time in Southeast Asia, at The Arts House till 29 October 2016. Whether you are an avid history buff or a fervent photography enthusiast, the show is well worth a visit to view and reflect on the vivid and indelible images that Li has documented and saved, at great personal risk, so that we may, in his words, “know the truth in order not to repeat history.”
Listening to Li speak at the Arts House yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help but be struck by the humour, warmth and optimism of this man who has been witness to so much of the evil that we humans can inflict on our fellow man. Soon to celebrate his 76th birthday this September 22nd, Li spoke with the vigour and verve of a much younger man, unflagging in his energy and enthusiasm for sharing his personal story as well as the story of the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. Stopping only to allow for translation of his speech into English, Li spoke and answered questions for almost three hours, mostly on his feet, once even briefly breaking into a snippet of a revolutionary song. While his translator spoke, he would jump up from his seat from time to time to take photographs of members of the audience, sometimes with his camera and, like all of us, sometimes with his smartphone.
All in all, Li photographed and then hid almost 30,000 negatives that depicted the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution underneath the floorboards of his house in Harbin. Among some of the more distressing images (and there were many!) were a photograph of the Governor of Heilongjiang province, Li Fanwu, accused of harbouring opportunistic political ambition for sporting a hairstyle similar to Chairman Mao’s, having his hair forcibly shaved and torn out by members of the Red Guard and photographs of the execution of eight “criminals and counter-revolutionaries” on 5 April 1968 in Harbin. For our readers who are not in Singapore and can’t visit the exhibition, here’s a link to a slideshow of some of Li’s photographs, including the ones just mentioned:
While Li’s talk and his photographs deal with matters of great historical significance on a national and global scale, it is often the personal stories that bring home to us the extent of the suffering and the life-altering cost these events exacted on men and women just like ourselves. Li met his first love, Sun Peikui, in university and they were in a relationship for six years. Sun’s mother was criticised for “belonging to a landlord family” and, unable to tolerate the persecution, committed suicide in 1967. Sun eventually ended her relationship with Li “not out of hate, but out of love” as she was afraid his association with her would get him into trouble as well. Finally accepting her decision, albeit reluctantly, Li wanted to have a photograph of himself with Sun, as a keepsake. However, men and women did not have photographs taken together when they were not in a legitimate relationship and Sun refused. Li eventually persuaded her to let him take a photograph of her looking at herself in a mirror and, by means of his reflected image, inserted himself into the photograph as well! This poignant photograph, taken when they had already decided to part ways, clearly shows the mutual affection and closeness that existed between them.
Li’s photographs transcend mere reportage or photojournalism. “Beyond simply covering the unfolding of the Cultural Revolution, Li gives it an epic dimension, beauty in its forms.” (Gabriel Bauret, 2003). By asserting a unique and deeply personal point of view, Li provides us with his understanding and perspective on the events that he witnessed, as they unfolded. If, as prominent art theorist Arthur Danto says, works of art are that which embody meaning, then Li’s photographs are, indeed, art.
(Note: Li Zhensheng’s photographs from the Cultural Revolution were published by Phaidon Press in the book, Red-Color News Soldier, 2003, which is available in six languages.)