The Photographer of the Crazy Red Era, Li Zhensheng: The Photos I Took During the Mad Cultural Revolution

Zhou Wei; BBC Chinese Reporter; November 19, 2018

Li Zhensheng delivering a lecture about his photos.
The 78-year-old Li Zhensheng remains energetic and spirited. During the busy intervals of his lectures, he is almost always signing books for readers. His memory is still very sharp, allowing him to clearly recount the story behind each photo he took.

Li Zhensheng is a former photographer for the Heilongjiang Daily. During the Cultural Revolution, he took tens of thousands of photos, some of which have never been seen in newspapers or other public venues. To preserve these high-risk photos, he sawed a hole in the wooden floor of his residence during the Cultural Revolution and hid the negatives inside. When his home was raided, these photos narrowly escaped confiscation.

A book about these photos, “Red-Color News Soldier,” was published in 2003 and has been translated into six languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. However, a Chinese edition had not been released. In 2018, the Chinese University of Hong Kong published the traditional Chinese edition of the book. At the end of October, Li Zhensheng was interviewed by BBC Chinese in Hong Kong.

The Zealous Red Guards

A scene of Red Guards persecuting a victim in the Cultural Revolution.


In May 1966, Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and the Central Cultural Revolution Group launched the Cultural Revolution, which swept across the country and lasted for ten years. The government encouraged people to criticize and denounce each other, raid homes, and even betray family members. Tens of thousands of people were persecuted, and China’s economy fell into severe stagnation. During this catastrophe, countless cultural relics were ravaged and irreversibly destroyed.

Like millions of Chinese people at that time, Li Zhensheng was very excited at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and he also worshipped Mao Zedong. “Chairman Mao said that such a Cultural Revolution should occur every seven or eight years. I was in my twenties back then, and like other young people, I felt very fortunate because I could experience such a grand revolution several times in my life,” said Li Zhensheng.

It was a crazy summer for the Red Guards. Since Mao Zedong stated that “the essence of Marxism is summed up in one phrase: rebellion is justified,” the Red Guards called themselves the “rebels.” There were different factions among the Red Guards, and each faction wanted to prove that they were the most revolutionary rebels.

A scene of men holding up a sign.


As a photographer with a camera, taking photos at rebel meetings made Li Zhensheng particularly conspicuous. Red Guards often questioned him, asking what he was doing. “If I showed them my press card, they would say I was a ‘spy sent by the Black Provincial Party Committee’ and that I was taking photos to use against them later. At best, they would pull out the film to expose it; at worst, they would smash or confiscate the camera,” Li Zhensheng said.

Li noticed that those wearing Red Guard armbands could freely take photos, so he decided to get one of those armbands. On August 28, 1966, he organized several colleagues from the newspaper to form a rebel group named the “Red Youth Combat Team” and went to the streets to print armbands with the words “Red Guard.”

Li Zhensheng told BBC Chinese that during the Cultural Revolution, he took nearly 100,000 negatives. Most were photos needed for the newspaper, which he called “useful photos,” but he also took many photos that would never be published, which he called “useless photos.” He secretly hid these “useless photos,” which eventually formed the photography collection published today.

Li Zhensheng, his wife, and their two children
Li Zhensheng, his wife, and their two children

In that frenzied era, Red Guards could travel to Beijing for free by train and enjoy free accommodations. “They wore green military uniforms, red armbands, and carried the Little Red Book. They danced the ‘Loyalty Dance’ in Tiananmen Square and sang revolutionary songs. Sometimes, they waited for weeks just to catch a glimpse of the ‘Great Leader.'”

“I realized that I had to document this chaotic era. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was doing it for the revolution, for myself, or for the future,” Li Zhensheng said.

Altering Photos for Publication

There are numerous examples online of the astonishing Photoshop-like techniques used during the Cultural Revolution, with many before-and-after comparison photos. Li Zhensheng admits that he also modified photos.

Li once took a photo of a young woman studying Mao’s works with an female elderly poor peasant. The background wall featured a portrait of Chairman Mao, but it was blurry. At the time, photos with blurry images of Chairman Mao were not allowed to be published. So, Li edited the original photo, replacing the blurry portrait with a clear one.

In addition, he had to ensure that all slogans and banners were visible in the photos or edit out fists that appeared to be hitting Mao’s face when people were shouting “Long live Chairman Mao” with raised fists.

A smiling young woman reading from a book to an elderly woman. The blurred portrait of Mao behind them had to be retouched.

Due to the blurred background portrait of Mao in the left image, Li Zhensheng had to modify the photo by adding a clear image of Mao in the right one. “When I wasn’t taking photos, if the crowd was shouting slogans, I would shout along. If everyone raised their fists, I would raise mine too. The revolutionary fervor was so high that if you didn’t go along with it, they might think you weren’t revolutionary enough,” Li Zhensheng said.

Staging Photos

In addition to modifying photos, staging often occurred. Li told BBC Chinese that many times when he went to factories to take photos, he had a specific theme in mind. For example, if he needed to capture a scene of a master working with an apprentice, the subjects might have to adjust their shifts or even change their actions.

At a struggle session, Li wanted to capture the intense emotions of the event, but the lead Red Guard on stage would lower his hand after each slogan shout, and then the crowd below would raise their hands and shout in unison. “If the photo showed the lead Red Guard with his hand down, readers would think he was the target of the struggle and that the crowd was shaking their fists at him. So, I told him not to lower his hand after shouting the slogan. He said, ‘How can that be?’ I suggested he shout the slogan twice. By shouting twice, he wouldn’t lower his hand in between, and I was able to capture the scene where everyone had their hands raised shouting slogans,” Li Zhensheng said.

A man at a podium and a crowd of people chanting slogans at a struggle session.
Slogan Chanting at Struggle Sessions

From Persecutor to Persecuted

As a Red Guard, Li Zhensheng also participated in the struggle sessions within the newspaper office. These internal struggle sessions typically involved more than 300 people, sometimes reaching up to 400.

“The unluckiest was the editor-in-chief. Every time a new organization was formed within the newspaper, he would be dragged out and criticized. The difference was that some groups were extremely leftist, making him suffer more, while others, although appearing harsh, were more humane. Some even beat him, but we never did. However, we had to express our revolutionary fervor,” Li Zhensheng said.

“When the masses faced these people, personal feelings came into play. Those who were usually bureaucratic or pretentious were severely criticized. There was a deputy editor who had returned from the Soviet Union and liked to drink yogurt. He taught the chef how to make it, so we criticized him as a revisionist, accusing him of the crime of turning good milk into sour milk to serve him. This was seen as a crime: you refuse to drink good milk and insist on making it sour,” Li told BBC Chinese.

After being criticized, some people were “knocked down” and sent to “cowsheds.” The term “cowshed” didn’t refer to actual barns but was used because the persecuted were labeled as “ox-demons and snake-spirits.” Cowsheds could be set up anywhere: classrooms, auditoriums, basements, or isolated farms. After the Cultural Revolution, renowned scholar Ji Xianlin from Peking University wrote the book “Memories of the Cowshed,” reflecting on the persecution of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution.

Li Zhensheng told BBC Chinese that once someone was sent to a cowshed, they were not allowed to return home. Some were kept there for years, and some fragile individuals committed suicide.

After April 1968, the political struggle’s direction changed, and Li Zhensheng himself was targeted during the Cultural Revolution, accused of “establishing an independent kingdom and attempting to dominate the newspaper.” In May 1969, Li Zhensheng was sent to the Liuhé “May 7th Cadre School” for labor reform.

“I was a member of the rebels, but I never hit anyone; instead, I was beaten by others. I never raided anyone’s home, but my own home was eventually raided.”

“In my life, I encountered two women: one was my first girlfriend’s mother, who committed suicide after being falsely labeled as a ‘landlord’s wife,’ and the other was my wife’s father, who also committed suicide after being persecuted. How could I passionately participate in the revolution after that?” Li Zhensheng said.

Hidden Scars of the Cultural Revolution

A man wearing a conical hat and standing on a folding chair being humiliated.

Li Zhensheng mentioned that even before he was targeted, he started transferring the film negatives from the newspaper office to his home. He sawed a magazine-sized hole in the wooden floor under his desk. Every day after work, he would go home and saw the wooden floor in the corner of the room while his wife kept watch at the window.

In 1972, Li Zhensheng returned to Harbin from the “May 7th Cadre School” labor camp. By this time, the scenes of rebel gatherings and struggle sessions with dunce caps were no longer visible, and the streets were quiet from the sounds of parades and rallies. The hidden photos remained silently beneath the floorboards.

“Although the political winds may have changed, people’s hearts could not completely recover. After the meetings to overcome the past at the newspaper, people became friendly again, but this was only a surface change. The resentments and grudges between former adversaries, and even among allies, persisted and extended to their children. Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, people could not fully trust each other,” Li Zhensheng said.

“Mao Zedong’s ability to control the entire country was closely linked to unprecedented propaganda efforts. The walls of streets in towns and cities, and every newspaper page, were filled with the Great Leader’s supreme instructions. Despite Mao’s omnipresent glorious image, it was difficult for people to approach him in person. This contradiction further enhanced the people’s personal worship of Mao Zedong,” Li Zhensheng said.

A group of children in uniforms marching with spears and chanting.
“Red Little Soldiers”

Psychologist Shi Qijia conducted numerous interviews in 2010, attempting to understand how the Cultural Revolution, which ended over forty years ago, continues to invisibly affect the minds and lives of the Chinese people.

Chinese media outlet Southern Weekly reported that Chinese and German scholars have tried to apply psychoanalytic theory to study the Cultural Revolution. This research, which has lasted nearly twenty years, found that the psychological trauma of the Cultural Revolution not only continues to affect those who experienced it directly but also has a generational impact, affecting their children and even subsequent generations.

Li Zhensheng deeply agrees with this. When he was sent to the “May 7th Cadre School” labor camp, his son was only two months old. “The Cultural Revolution not only affected children but also us. Many terms we use today are from the Cultural Revolution era, such as slogans, ‘several focal points,’ ‘vigorous grasp,’ ‘highlight,’ and so on,” he said.