Character assassination

Red-Color News Soldier
February 20, 2004

Delia Davin is roused by photographs of China's cultural revolution.

It is more than 40 years since the socialist education movement was launched in China. For the sake of their political education, millions of young urban people were sent to the countryside for weeks or months at a time, to live with, and learn from, poor peasants. This "deep-going revolution on the socialist front" was necessary, we were assured, because without it the socialist revolution might be abandoned and all its achievements lost as a generation grew up knowing nothing of the bitter past. I was then a teacher in China and I remember the reaction of my students when they returned from their village sojourn. They were indeed shocked by the still-considerable poverty of the peasants, and by the dirt and backwardness of life without electricity or running water. They hated the maggots in the latrines, where the sharp sting of ammonia made it unpleasant to draw breath. As city college students, they were disturbed that such conditions still existed in socialist China and humbled to realise that their own austere living standards were luxurious in comparison. The experience was supposed to be "education in class struggle", but one of them confided in me that the ex-landlords, whose homes they were taken to inspect, seemed as poor as everyone else. The politicisation of schooling and society was pursued with increasing intensity in the years that followed. Slogans reflected Mao's growing fear that China might abandon its revolutionary values. Young people were constantly urged to "follow the revolution through to the end", "to hold high the three red banners" and "never to forget class struggle".

Addressing a student audience in 1950, Mao had seemed to acknowledge the mortal limits to his own power, saying: "The future is yours as well as ours, but in the last analysis it is yours." But in 1966 he launched the cultural revolution in an attempt to shape the future during his lifetime and beyond.

Convinced that many of his erstwhile comrades had abandoned their socialist ideals in favour of revisionism or even capitalism, Mao used this new movement to mobilise China's young people for an attack on party leaders, managers, administrators and leading intellectuals. Most of the victims of earlier movements had been former landlords, capitalists, intellectuals and officials from pre-communist regimes. Now it was the establishment figures of the young People's Republic and the party itself that came under attack. Mao's supposed enemies in the party leadership were criticised, disgraced and often imprisoned, as were the people in authority in almost every office, enterprise, commune or school. In the end, no one was safe. One cohort of leaders replaced another and would, for a time, be acclaimed as new, red and revolutionary, but later it too would be purged.

Li Zhensheng, who was born in 1940, was a newspaper photographer in Heilongjiang in the far northeast of China. After only two months in the job, he was sent to the countryside in the socialist education movement of 1964. Eighteen months later, just before the start of the cultural revolution, he was recalled. At first he greeted the new movement with enthusiasm and donned a red armband like all his colleagues. He even rose to a position of authority on the Heilongjiang Daily when the editorial group was overthrown. But his prominence soon brought personal unhappiness.

Criticised for her alleged landlord origins, his girlfriend's mother committed suicide. A suicide placed a political question mark over all family members. Li's girlfriend was investigated and demoted. Determined not to drag her successful boyfriend down, she broke off their relationship. Li married someone else six months later. Ironically, his wife's father, a country doctor, also committed suicide within the year.

Red Guards had denounced him as a "reactionary academic authority" and forced him to stand outdoors in the snow stripped to his underclothes. He hanged himself the next day. His daughter had to accuse him of betraying the cultural revolution and to insist that she would "draw a line" between herself and him.

As a newspaper photographer, Li was equipped with a Leica camera. (Later, he was also issued with a Shanghai-made imitation that he was supposed to use if there was a danger of Red Guards damaging his equipment.) In his official capacity, he photographed Red Guard rallies, mass assemblies, criticism meetings and even executions. But by late 1968, he was himself in trouble. Knowing that his house was likely to be raided for evidence of "crimes", he concealed his collection of negatives under the floor, along with his collection of foreign stamps and pre-communist coins, which also could have got him into trouble. With his wife, he was sent to the countryside again, this time to one of the May Fourth cadre schools, where intellectuals and officials were sent for political re-education. The hoard survived the searches and he recovered it three years later.

Red-Color News Soldier offers a selection of photographs, many from this hoard, reflecting political life in Heilongjiang province and its capital, Harbin, from 1964 to 1980. Close to the border, Harbin was once strongly Russian influenced, indeed its Russian orthodox cathedral was the target of the city's Red Guards. Even during the daytime, its temperatures are subzero for at least four months a year.

Some of the shots, especially those of excited young people early in the cultural revolution, convey the fervour, idealism and even happiness felt by many of the faithful. But revolution, as Mao famously observed, is not a dinner party. Other shots are painful to look at. Men and women, many of them former high officials, are paraded before mass meetings, criticised, ill treated and humiliated. The victims wear absurd dunce's caps and stand in uncomfortable positions, their faces smeared with ink and sometimes their hands tied. Then there are images of people about to be shot.

Placards bearing their names hang around their necks. Each character is crossed out in heavy black. The symbolism is horrifying. The stark winter scenery provides an all-too-appropriate setting for these bleak photographs.

The book contains, somewhat confusingly, two different texts. A historical account of the cultural revolution printed on photographic paper accompanies the pictures and their captions. On cream paper, interleaved with the photographic sections, is Li's personal memoir of these eventful years, with a sometimes repetitive explanation of events.

Many people - participants, victims and observers - have written memoirs of the cultural revolution. Some, no doubt, were inspired by the extraordinary success of Wild Swans , but others seem to be motivated by a wish to explain and come to terms with a past that now seems almost incomprehensible. Li's writing is more honest than most. Though he claims his choices of compositions show that consciously or unconsciously he felt "it was all a bit crazy", they also show that he was a participant. He admits he was pleased when he became a member of the revolutionary committee of his paper, someone with power. Even after his disgrace, the dominant political values still determined his ideas and behaviour. On his return to Harbin from the cadre school, he felt that he had been the victim of a power struggle among factions. He launched an anonymous attack on the editors of the Heilongjiang Daily who had thrown him out, accusing them of implementing a capitalist line and suppressing true revolutionaries. Like others who went through similar experiences, he could only use the language, ideas and strategies of the time to fight for rehabilitation.

Li's memoirs recall the absurdity of many accusations made against people during the cultural revolution and how serious the consequences could be. He had at one time exchanged stamps with a pen friend in Indonesia, wrapping them in newspapers to keep them safe. As the export of Chinese local newspapers was illegal, this later led to allegations from a rival faction that Li was a spy. An incident in which he accidentally brushed a colleague's cheek with his sleeve provoked an accusation of sexual assault. A newly married couple decorated their room with pictures of Mao. They were later criticised for making love under the leader's eyes and only escaped sentencing by saying that they had always turned out the light. People did not always get off so lightly. A colleague of mine, who wrapped her sanitary towel in a piece of the People's Daily that happened to bear a picture of Mao, was sent to prison. Such lèse-majestés were all too easily committed. The chairman's image and his handwriting were everywhere. Li routinely doctored pictures before publication so that posters of Mao appeared clear and in focus, and pointing fingers that might appear to be striking the Great Leader's face were brushed out.

Red-Color News Soldier , introduced by the historian Jonathan Spence, documents an era that seems distant now. Yesterday's Red Guards are often successful professionals and business people. Their children benefit from China's new prosperity and enjoy computers, mobile phones, DVDs, brand-name clothes and the other accoutrements of modern living. It is good to know that there are still people in China who believe that it is important to remember the past.

Delia Davin lived and worked in China from 1963-65 and 1975-76. She is professor of Chinese social studies, University of Leeds.

Red-Color News Soldier

Author - Li Zhensheng
Publisher - Phaidon
Pages - 316
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 0 7148 4308 3

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