Fifty years ago this week went out a short text that was to plague China for a decade. On May 16th 1966, after a secretive meeting of the Politburo, Mao Tse-Dong issued a document that denounced the enemies of the Communist cause that existed within the Chinese Communist Party itself. It heralded the beginning of what is known as the Cultural Revolution – a ten-year madness of purges and excesses in which temples are defaced, colleges were shut down, and mangoes are worshiped. The party debated changing traffic rules for ideological reasons (switching to driving on the left, and red traffic signals meant go).
The Revolution itself was a culmination of twenty years of tumult that began with the Communist takeover of China in 1949. During the first decade of the party’s rule in China, five million people died due to land confiscations and ‘death quotas’. This was followed by the tragedy of Great Leap Forward – a disastrous agricultural and industrial policy that led to forty-five million deaths.
One of the rare chroniclers of the Cultural Revolution in all its excesses was Li Zhensheng who worked for newspaper in Harbin, in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang. He was ordered not to take any “negative” images and executions, but working for a state-owned paper, he was able to travel around the country, taking photos of mock trials, denunciations, and destructions without being harassed.
He recorded truly bizarre moments: the head of Heilongjiang province Governor Li Fanwu brutally being shaved and torn by zealous young Red Guards, who accused his hairstyle of bearing a resemblance to Mao’s (photos below). Photo above, workers being denounced and marched off to their execution.
Li himself was a zealous Maoist, and was an eager member of the Red Guards and even organized his own group of Red Guards. He himself was later arrested in an internal power struggle, but he managed to hide his negatives away under the floorboards of his flat. Some of these photos were collected in a book in 2003, called Red-Color News Soldier. The title referred to the name given to journalists in Harbin, hinting at complex relationship between reporting, photojournalism, and the Party in those heady days.