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Cultural Revolution in China Captured by a Harbin Photojournalist Li Zhensheng

Accused of bearing a resemblance to Mao, Heilongjiang province Governor Li Fanwu’s hair is brutally shaved and torn by zealous young Red Guards in Red Guard Square. Harbin, 12 September 1966

On May 16th 1966, a single document was issued in China by Mao Tse-Dong. The document, issued after a discrete meeting of the Politburo, denounced all those who opposed the Communist cause within the Chinese Communist Party. The ensuing chaos brought about by the document plunged China into a decade of what can only be described as insanity, known as the Cultural Revolution.

Within this unstable period, temples were vandalized, prominent colleges and universities were closed, and in what is almost certainly the most absurd scenario to arise from the Cultural Revolution, mangoes were worshiped as symbolism for Mao’s love for the working class. Several ideological debates sprung up among the Chinese Communist Party, one of the most noticeable of which was the reversal of traffic rules (green traffic signals would indicate stop, whilst red would indicate go).

Whilst the release and circulation of the document was the tipping point which began the Cultural Revolution, the conflict itself was a culmination of two decades worth of turmoil following the Communist takeover of China. Within the first decade of Communism in China, five million people lost their lives due to land confiscations and “death quotas.” This short span of time was soon followed by the disastrous Great Leap Forward, a policy affecting the agricultural and industrial sectors which directly led to the deaths of around forty-five million individuals.

Li Zhensheng, a photojournalist working in Harbin in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang, was one of the few to factually document the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Despite being frequently ordered against taking photographs which captured the negative aspects of the Revolution, Zhensheng was an employee of a state-owned newspaper and was frequently able to travel the country. As such, he was able to take photos of various mock-trials, executions, denunciations, and the destruction wrought by this period without being harassed. Li Zhensheng himself was a staunch Maoist, and he served as an eager member of the Red Guard before going on to organize and lead his own group of Red Guards.

During his travels, he was able to record several truly peculiar and outlandish events. For one, the cruel shaving of Governor Li Fanwu, the head of the Heilongjiang province, by the overzealous youth of the Red Guard. The reason for this punishment, shockingly enough, were accusations made by members of the Red Guard that Governor Fanwu’s hairstyle bore a distinct resemblance to Mao’s own hair.

Li Zhensheng was later arrested during an internal power struggle and was sent to the May Seventh Cadre School in Liuhe, a labor camp, where both he and his wife spent nearly two years performing hard labor. However, he was able to hide the negatives for many of his photos beneath the floorboards of his flat before his arrest. Several of these photos were later published in the 2003 book, Red-Color News Soldier, the title of which is a reference to the journalists of Harbin. It thus hints at the complex relationships between journalism and the Communist Party in that tumultuous time.

Photos: Contact Press Images