Red-Color News Soldier presents the horrific realities of the Cultural Revolution in northern China. Stacked floor to ceiling are hundreds of images of people buried alive by the Red Guards. The pages are covered in red to make Lis intent apparent.
But beyond the poignancy of its symbolism, Red-Color News Soldier also captured a China that had all but died. According to Li, this was because in the wake of the Vietnam War, the People Republic of China had looked to the West for inspiration. This helped crystallize the socialist ideals that still inform the country today.
Now living a long life in southern California, Li and his wife Wenrong still carry forward the ideals of their parents generation, his son Edward Chow tells BBC News Online. The image is still the one thing they have in common, he says.
Red-Color News Soldier is a controversial visual record of an infamous, misunderstood period of modern history that has been largely hidden from the public eye, both within China and abroad. Li Zhensheng (b.1940) – a photo journalist living in the northern Chinese province of Heilongjiang – managed, at great personal risk, to hide and preserve for decades over 20,000 stills. As a party-approved photographer for The Heilongjiang Daily, he had been granted unusual access to capture events during the Cultural Revolution. This account has remained unseen until now, except for some eight photographs that were released for publication in 1987.
Sure enough, once the story broke in the press, an urgent, express package arrived from the Dalai Lama. The letter, signed by the septuagenarian, took a back seat to the news articles, but it was comforting and reassuring. ‘If she hadn’t heard any boos, then she’d still be in trouble,’ my friend Bobbie Bierman said. Now I don’t know what to think. I hope the next time you are feeling down, I hope you’ll reach out to someone. Because I never thought I’d say this, but I still believe that you can always turn things around.’
in the years leading up to the sino-soviet split, the chinese communist party had taken an aggressive stance against the soviet union, and a patriotic stance against the united states. li zhensheng, a fervent communist, began documenting this period, typically taking pictures of protests against the soviets and pro-american sentiments. li started to develop a reputation in the chinese photography world as a talented street photographer, and he earned a contract with the newspaper the heilongjiang daily. when the cultural revolution began in 1966, the newspaper was shut down. this is when li began to take more prominent roles in documenting the cultural revolution. he began with the red guards, a mass of enthusiastic youth wearing red armbands, who were charged with wiping out the symbols of soviet influence in china.
these pictures, although taken before 1974, were smuggled out of china by li zhensheng and passed to a foreign news agency, which then published them as part of a report on the cultural revolution. red-color news soldier is a visual record of this turbulent period in chinese history, and depicts the repression of political dissidents, the struggle for control of the government, and the bloody purges of people who were labeled as counterrevolutionaries. the images are stark and confrontational, as li zhensheng takes an aggressive stance against the people he had previously idolized as heroes.
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