RED-COLOR NEWS SOLDIER - A chinese photographer's odyssey through the cultural revolution

Title: RED-COLOR NEWS SOLDIER - A chinese photographer's odyssey through the cultural revolution

Photographer(s): Li Zhensheng

Writer(s): Robert Pledge, Jacques Menasche, Jonathan D.Spence

Designer(s): Julia Hasting

Publisher(s): Phaidon, London, England

Year: 2003

Print run:

Language(s): English

Pages: 316

Size: 20 x 26 cm

Binding: Softcover, Red plastic cover

Edition: French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish


Nation(s) and year(s) of Protest: China, 1966-1976

ISBN: 978-0714843087

This is the first visual history of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and includes the only complete set of surviving photographs to document the entire period. It is drawn from thousands of original negatives that were hidden for nearly 40 years by photographer Li Zhensheng, at great personal risk, and accompanied by his own personal story. Zhensheng brings to light in this historical record one of the most turbulent, controversial, and under-documented periods in modern history.

The project to bring Li Zhensheng’s photographs of the Cultural Revolution to the wider world was first conceived fifteen years ago in Beijing. It was there, at the Chinese Press Association's photography competition in March 1988, that Li first publicly exhibited twenty images from his “negative” negatives – that is, those which had been deemed counterrevolutionary under the political dictates of Chairman Mao Zedong. The affect of the exhibit, entitled “Let History Tell the Future”—which included pictures of the former governor of Heilongjiang Province having his hair brutally torn out at a Red Guard rally—was seismic, and Chinese Communist Party-controlled newspapers for the first time were heard to use the term, “shocked.”

In December of that same year, Li met Robert Pledge, director of Contact Press Images, the international photo agency, who was in Beijing on the occasion of the seminal exhibition: “Contact: Photojournalism Since Vietnam” held at the National Museum of History at Tiananmen Square, one of the first contemporary western photography exhibits on the mainland, which was attended by over 10,000 a day during a ten-day period. There, Li and Pledge quickly determined to work together to someday bring out Li’s work. Politically, though, the climate would have to be right.

Seven months later, in June 1989, the brutal events at Tiananmen Square squashed the ascendant democracy movement in China, and with it, hopes that Li's images would soon be brought to light. It would be nearly another decade before the work on the project would truly recommence. Jiang Rong, who had been Pledge's translator in Beijing in 1988 and had become friendly with Li, was now in New York, working at the United Nations as an interpreter. Wang Gang (Peter Wang), who had initiated and coordinated Contact's tour in China, was also in New York, having founded his own digital imaging company. Li, too, was living part-time in New York City, accompanying his two children who had been awarded scholarships to study in the United States.

Beginning in 1999, work got under way. First, there was the delicate matter of bringing the negatives to New York. These were frames Li had cut from his negatives strips at the Heilongjiang Daily throughout the sixties, kept hidden under the floorboards of his home during the height of Red Guard storm, and — as is natural in China ever since in relation to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution— didn’t much talk about. They arrived at Contact's offices in several batches comprised of multiple bundles of brown paper envelopes, each containing a single negative. There would be about 30,000 such envelopes, each of which would be carefully examined by Pledge over and over during the many rounds of editing.

On approximately one hundred weekends over a four-year period, Contact's offices on West 38th Street in New York sprang to life with the sounds of Chinese, French, and English, as the "work team"—Li, Pledge, writer Jacques Menasche and translator Rong Jiang—later joined by Li's daughter Xiaobing, plunged into the task. At any given moment, one might find Li, Rong, and Menasche in heated discussion at one side of the office, while Pledge and Li Xiaobing pored over negatives, prints, and old pages of the Heilongjiang Daily, deciphering calligraphy on rebel banners and placards, on the other. Statuettes of Mao, Li's cameras, revolutionary posters, documents, Chinese books and music, even the sound of Li singing revolutionary songs — all combined to create the super-charged atmosphere in which the project was forged.

Augmenting these sessions, normal work weeks were full of thousands of exchanged e-mails and telephone calls clarifying details, especially regarding the text written by Menasche, which based on his hundreds of hours of interviews with Li, ping-ponged many times from Chinese to English and back again, as well as in-depth research of both primary and secondary sources. In time, Contact would assemble a prodigious library of books, photographs, and documents related to the Cultural Revolution.

Over the years the team would grow: in New York, Wang Gang scanned Li's prints, sometimes assisted by Li’s son, Li Xiaohan, with production coordinated by Tim Mapp at Contact; in Paris, Gabriel Bauret helped arrange the opening exhibit at the Hotel de Sully, initiated by then-director of the Patrimoine Photographique, Pierre Bonhomme, and later overseen by Michaël Houlette, while Dominique Deschavanne, director of Contact's offices in Paris, supervised every aspect of the French edition of the book. Joined in both places by the impressive staff of the publisher, Phaidon—notably designer Julia Hasting, editors Karen Stein and Valerie Vago-Laurer, publisher Amanda Renshaw, and company president Richard Schlagman—in 2003 the historic project finally came to its long-planned-for fruition.

2003 © Contact Press Images

The book is divided into five historical chapters. Each is preceded by Li's personal account for the corresponding period of times and is illustrated with pictures of himself and historical documents. Each chapter is accompanied with general background text and detailed captions exist for each photograph.


1964-1966 "It is Right to Rebel": Prelude to the Cultural Revolution


1966 "Bombard the Headquarters"


1966-1968 "The Red Sun in Our Hearts"


1968-1972 "Revolution is Not a Dinner Party"


1972-1976 "Die Fighting"


1980: The execution of Wang Shouxin

Born on September 22, 1940, to a poor family in Dalian in the northeastern province of Liaoning—a part of China then under Japanese military occupation—there was little in Li Zhensheng's background to suggest that he would become the premier documenter of a crucial moment in Chinese history. His mother died when he was three. His older brother, a member of Mao's army, was killed during the civil war. Li himself helped his father, a cook on a steamship who later became a farmer, till the fields until the age of ten.

But 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. Yet obstacles would continually dog Li's way. When his future in film was converted to the more "socially useful" one of photojournalism, his complaints led to his being sent to the far-flung province of Heilongjiang to photography scientific documents. And when through persistence he found on his own a better job photographing for the Heilongjiang Daily in 1963, the Socialist Education Movement soon 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. Then too he would be severely tried. Lack of film, marauding Red Guards, and a political dictate against photographing "negative" scenes, all conspired to reduce him to the level of a propaganda functionary. Li, however, proved resourceful. Realizing that only those wearing the armband of the Red Guards could photograph without harassment, he founded his own rebel group, which soon rose to power at the newspaper.

But for all his troubles, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Li would be plotted against by rivals, publicly denounced, and once more sent back to the countryside in September 1969, this time to the May 7th Cadre School in Liuhe—the Chinese “gulag”—where he, as well his wife, Zu Yingxia, spent two years at hard labor.

Luckily, Li had taken care to keep his meticulously documented "negative" negatives hidden under the floorboards of his one-room apartment. They remained safe as he returned to the newspaper and became the head of the photography department in 1972. Even after Mao's death in 1976, after Li became a professor at a university in Beijing in 1982, and as he began to undertake in the 1990s the preliminary work for Red-Color News Soldier — his photographs remained as fresh and vital on the heady days when they were taken.

Presently Li Zhensheng is engaged in research, and lectures on the Cultural Revolution, tirelessly pursuing his lifelong mission to enlighten the world about this critical, cruel, and largely unknown period in Chinese history.

2003 © Jacques Menasche

Li Zhensheng's work is not just reportage — it asserts a personal point-of-view, a way of understanding events as they happen. Beyond simply covering the unfolding Cultural Revolution, Li gives it an epic dimension, beauty in its forms. What we first notice is the compositional quality: the square—Li often used a 2 1/4 camera—is very "full"; the image occupies the entire frame. Li mastered this notoriously difficult format, framing his shots with precision, resting his composition on the edges of the image, giving it energy, and creating tension between the different zones.

Whether using a 2 1/4 or 35mm camera, Li plays with the entire range of depths, de-centering the subject, sometimes subtly tilting the frame. Thus he organizes into visual perspective the events he photographs, generating stress between the subject and its surrounding context, between the protagonist, or protagonists of the action, and the bystanders. An approach that results from the political process then engulfing the country. Li takes photography beyond the limitations of the still image, expressing his intuitive narrative sense, but also that of movement... 2003 © Gabriel Bauret

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