Maoism and in particular the Cultural Revolution are surrounded by myth and romanticism. As teenagers in the 1970s we discussed the apparent heroism of the Great March and the determination of the students fighting the teachers and officials. The reality, as Li Zhensheng’s photographs on display at the Photographers’ Gallery reveal, is quite different.
There are two displays running together at the Photographers’ Gallery. Hou Bo and Xu Xiaobing were Mao’s official photographers. Li Zhensheng was a photographer on a local newspaper and documented the Cultural Revolution.
In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, took power. They set about the creation of a state modelled on Stalin’s Russia. In 1958 Mao attempted to break through the backwardness of Chinese society. He declared that China must ‘catch up and surpass Britain in the output of major industrial goods within 15 years’. The breakneck attempt to industrialise China broke an already weak economy.
The photos of Mao are iconic. Formal portraits were designed to show ‘the great helmsman’ in his best light, addressing the masses, posing with children. They are interesting, but not unlike any photos celebrating our rulers.
The photographs of the Cultural Revolution are an important historical record. Li Zhensheng took official photos, but after the Cultural Revolution photographers were told to hand in their pictures. Li Zhensheng hid his under the floorboards and then smuggled them out of China.
Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward Mao turned to the transformation of education to take China forward, appealing outside of the party to the students. Red Guards were formed made up of students and school students. They were turned on all the figures of authority who Mao accused of taking ‘the capitalist road’.
Li Zhensheng’s photographs document what happened and shows the brutality and degradation of the Cultural Revolution. Regional party secretaries, headmasters and teachers were forced to wear placards confessing their crimes as a ‘counter-revolutionary revisionist element’. One was condemned as a careerist for having a similar hairstyle to Mao. Many were beaten as they were dragged through the streets.
The photographs show how the Cultural Revolution turned China upside down. Li Zhensheng has a picture of a ‘struggle session’ in his own news agency, where he is denouncing a colleague. He is later denounced himself.
On 9 October 1966 1 million Red Guards travelled to Tiananmen Square to meet Mao. Li Zhensheng was there with his camera. But he also records the students addressing bemused peasants, now in their second decade of tumultuous events, having ‘the contrast between past misery with present happiness’ explained to them. As the instability continued workers became drawn in, raising their own demands. Mao tried to end the ‘revolution’.
With little actually changing, the Red Guards started fighting each other. A civil war gripped parts of China. Photographs show young Red Guards fighting each other for control of a loudspeaker van, and over the body of the student who died in the fighting.
Mao’s solution was to send the Red Guards back to the countryside. Li Zhensheng’s pictures of this show how poor China remained: thousands of people working on massive irrigation projects with just shovels and wheelbarrows; people bringing in the crops with not a tractor in sight. This is the same year that China successfully tested its own hydrogen bomb!
The exhibition ends with the mass commemorations when Mao died. Particularly striking is a meeting of hundreds of thousands of people, all lined up in straight lines. How did they do that?
This is an excellent exhibition which runs until the end of May.
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