Behind China's Cultural Revolution: The unseen photos

  • Early dawn in the countryside of Heilongjiang province, Dec. 21, 1964.
  • A local peasant activist leads the crowd in chanting slogans during a “fight against the enemies” rally before rich peasants and other anti-Party elements are brought forth to be criticized. Ashihe commune, Acheng county, April 12, 1965.
  • Production brigade members are trained in militia techniques. Ashihe commune, Acheng county, Heilongjiang province, April 16, 1965.
  • Denounced as a rich peasant, Deng Guoxing bows before a sea of accusers during a three-hour “struggle session.” Ashihe commune, Acheng county, May 12, 1965.
  • Organized in production brigades, peasants are assigned backbreaking farm work such as constructing pigsties and tilling fields. Liaodian commune, Acheng county, May 16, 1965.
  • As part of the national defense against “imperialism abroad and revisionists at home,” schoolchildren of the “Little Red Militia” and workers from an electrical-component factory participate in militia drills. Acheng county, June 27, 1965.
  • The staff of the Heilongjiang Daily accuses Luo Zicheng, head of the work group designated by the provincial Party committee, of following the capitalist line and opposing mass movement. His dunce cap announces his crimes. Harbin, Aug. 25, 1966.
  • At a rally in Red Guard Square, provincial Party secretary and first Party secretary of Harbin Ren Zhongyi, after having his face smeared with black ink, is forced to wear a dunce cap and a placard around his neck with the accusatory label “black gang element” while standing on an unstable chair with his hands behind his back holding a string attached to the ill-fitting hat. Harbin, Aug. 26, 1966.
  • On National Day, schoolchildren carrying red-tasseled spears and wearing Red Guard armbands parade through the streets past a Russian-style department store. Harbin, Oct. 1, 1966.
  • A young Red Guard performs the “Loyalty Dance” while awaiting Mao’s appearance in Tiananmen Square. Beijing, Oct. 18, 1966.
  • Fights between rebel factions often escalated into combat, leading to injury and even death. This victim was photographed four days after the clash over the control of a broadcasting bus, which injured scores and killed several. Harbin, June 9, 1967.
  • The Harbin Construction Institute is destroyed following a battle between rebel factions. Only softcover books are left behind on the library floor, because all hardcover books had been used by the rival groups as projectile weapons. Harbin, June 28, 1967.
  • Bodies of the eight criminals and counter-revolutionaries after their execution. Outskirts of Harbin, April 5, 1968.
  • Kang Wenjie, a 5-year-old prodigy selected as champion of “learning and applying Mao Zedong Thought,” dances the “loyalty” dance for the representatives of the Provincial Conference of Learning and Applying Chairman Mao’s Works at Red Guard Square. Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, April 28, 1968.
  • Swimmers read “Mao Zedong’s thoughts” as they prepare to plunge into the Songhua River to commemorate the second anniversary of Mao’s swim in the Yangtze. Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, July 16, 1968.
  • Writers and artists from Harbin march in the countryside south of Harbin to participate in manual labor. Wuchang County, Heilongjiang Province, Aug. 18, 1968.
  • Schoolgirls in Red Guard Stadium during the National Day celebration. Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, Oct. 1, 1968.
  • Economic reconstruction involved both traditional agriculture and modern industry. Here, peasants of China’s Korean minority sow rice seedlings. Hedong commune, Shangzhi county, June 18, 1976.
  • Hundreds of thousands gather in People’s Stadium for a memorial service to mourn Chairman Mao, who died on Sept. 9, 1976. Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, Sept. 18, 1976.
  • A guard hands a single bullet to Wang Shouxin’s executioner. Outskirts of Harbin, Feb. 8, 1980.



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)

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