Behind China's Cultural Revolution: The unseen photos
Fifty years ago today in 1966, five years after the Great Leap Forward claimed the lives of an estimated 20 million or more, Chairman Mao Zedong instated China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution was an effort by Mao to reclaim his grip on the Chinese government – to reaffirm his rule by reviving the Communist spirit of the country. The de facto start of the Cultural Revolution came on May 16, 1966, when Mao released his “May 16 Notification.” The statement revealed his ideals, which rejected the revisionism, capitalism, tradition and culture he felt had crept up within the government in the years since the Great Leap Forward. Instead, he advocated for a revival of Communist thought and the empowerment of the proletariat through the shaming of anyone who was thought to embody the bourgeoisie.
Establishing the Cultural Revolution involved shutting down schools, mobilizing the youth into guerrilla groups, and reorganizing the country into communes dedicated to farming and the study of Mao’s “Little Red Books,” which were filled with his quotations. One of the most notable paramilitary groups was the Red Guard, composed of students and youth committed to Mao’s ideals. The Red Guard, known for their distinguishing red armbands, resisted figures of authority, members of government and religious leaders, targeting the elderly and intellectuals. Those who were young during the Cultural Revolution are thought of as the “lost generation,” as the breakdown of China’s school system meant they never received a real education. The intensity of Maoist propaganda meant that a personality cult grew around Mao – songs were written for him, his portrait became ubiquitous, and millions began traveling to Beijing to try to spot their elusive leader.
Yet throughout this decade of mass worship, millions were tortured, humiliated, interrogated or killed – any figure of authority, save Mao himself, was rejected as corrupt in the name of the movement. “Struggle sessions” were conducted in order to create public spectacles of the condemned, in which they were made to spend hours wearing dunce caps declaring their crimes, parading through towns, their hair ripped out or their faces smeared with ink. By the time Mao died in 1976, some 1.5 million people had died, and another million or so had been wounded.
While China will not officially observe this anniversary, many there can still recall the terror they felt as youth during those “10 years of chaos.” Some have family members who were part of the Red Guard, or know someone who was “struggled against.” Mao’s image can still be seen across the country, overlooking Tiananmen Square and gazing up from China’s renminbi. While China silently remembers this violent decade, evidence of its occurrence still ripple throughout the collective memory.
Li Zhensheng, a photographer for the Heilongjiang Daily newspaper in Harbin, China, became, wholly unintentionally, the foremost chronicler of the Cultural Revolution. Photographers were only allowed to shoot “positive” scenes – scenes that illustrated the people’s enthusiasm for the movement and made it appear successful – and while many photographers destroyed any images that could be viewed as “negative,” Li snipped these images from his film and hid them underneath his floorboards. These images paint a much more complicated and dynamic picture of the Cultural Revolution than anyone was allowed to see at the time. Hidden for years, his photographs were not seen within China until the late 1980s, and they have since become the most comprehensive visual documentation of the period.
More of Li’s work can be found in his book “Red-Color News Soldier.” (Phaidon, 2003)