Chinese photographer Li Zhensheng, who is known for his coverage of the Chinese Cultural Revolution during the 1960s, died at the age of 79 in New York City. His work remains an important source of rare documentation of a period marked by purges, murders, anti-intellectualism and chaos in China.
While the exact date of Zhensheng’s death is not known, an article posted on the Chinese University of Hong Kong Press’s WeChat account said he died of a cerebral hemorrhage after many days of hospitalisation.
Who was Li Zhensheng?
Zhensheng was born on September 22, 1940 in the northeastern province of Liaoning, which at the time was under Japanese military observation. According to information on the Red Colour News Soldier website – the name of Zhensheng’s book of photos on the Cultural Revolution – Zhensheng’s mother died when he was three and his older brother, who was a member of Mao Zedong’s army, was killed in the civil war.
In 1963, he found a job as a photographer at the Heilongjiang Daily, which coincided with the start of the Socialist Education Movement, as a result of which Zhensheng went back to the countryside where he lived with peasants and studied the work of Zedong.
In May 1966, Zedong launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, but it was not easy to capture this movement given the restrictions on depicting “negative” scenes through photography.
The name of his book ‘Red Colour News Soldier’, published in 2003, comes from the red armband of the Red Guards, required to be worn so that he could photograph without harassment. As a result, he not only took propaganda photographs required by the newspaper he was working for but even “negative” ones, whose negatives he hid under the floorboards of his apartment for years.
Even so, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, in September 1969, Zhensheng along with his wife Zu Yingxia was sent to the Chinese “gulag” where they spent two years doing hard labour. He eventually returned to the newspaper and became the head of the photography department in 1972.
What was the Cultural Revolution?
After the failure of the “Great Leap Forward” (1968-1962), during which time an estimated 30-45 million people died, Zedong was eager to assert himself after being sidelined in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and he saw such an opportunity in the Cultural Revolution, a way to weed out the “revisionists” and “reactionaries” from China.
The May 1966, notice announcing the Cultural Revolution said, “The whole party must follow Comrade Mao Zedong’s instructions, thoroughly expose the reactionary bourgeois stand of these so-called academic authorities,”.
From June 1966 onward, schools and universities were shut down since children and students were expected to take part in the Red Guard activities and were urged to attack the “counter-revolutionaries”. During this time, millions of people were persecuted and many officials within the party, considered to be enemies were jailed, tortured or driven to suicide.
According to Jacques Menasche, who has contributed to the text of Zhensheng’s book, by the fall of 1966, Zedong had become to most Chinese, a “living god” made possible by popular songs, editorials that extolled his virtues as millions travelled to Beijing, sometimes on foot to get a glimpse of him. “Mao managed such sweeping control over the country through a propaganda campaign of unprecedented scope,” Menasche writes. The presence of Mao’s slogans on the walls of factories and across “every” newspaper, “put his likeness into every home on posters, buttons, fabrics and dishes. Mao was simultaneously ever-present (in image) and inaccessible (in person).”
In an interview he gave to The New York Times in 2018, he said, “No other political movement in China’s recent history lasted as long, was as widespread in its impact, and as deep in its trauma as the Cultural Revolution,”.
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