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Catching China on film.


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Red-Color News Soldier by Li Zhensheng, Phaidon, 316 pages, $39.95

“A single death,” said Joseph Stalin, who knew a thing or two about such matters, is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” In trying to understand the holocausts of the last century, it seems to be the individual stories that move us the most. Enormity is best described in miniature. We are aware of the nightmares of Auschwitz, Treblinka, or Belsen, of the crematoria, of the bodies heaped into pits, but to grasp the full horror we turn elsewhere, perhaps to a young girl hidden in Amsterdam, scribbling, scribbling, scribbling as if words would shield her from the doom to come.

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As with Nazi slaughter, so it is with the massacres of Communism. In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn chronicled the dungeons and killing fields of the Soviet charnel-house, but it is not so much the history as the man we remember, Alexander Isayevich, old Russia’s last hero, the prophet raging at Brezhnev’s squalor, the convict in the camp photo, the alter ego, Ivan Denisovitch, and his quiet day in hell, “a day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.”

But if in the West we are, too late and too little, finally coming to grips with the reality of the USSR, its eastern cousin has usually escaped such scrutiny. Oh yes, there will be some who tell tales of Red China’s first ten years (six, seven, eight million dead, maybe more, no one was keeping score) and others, almost certainly specialists in this field, who will whisper (careful, careful, there’s that chance of tenure to consider) about the hecatombs of the Great Leap Forward (twenty-five, thirty million perished, at this point the numbers blur). There are even a few dedicated souls who try to count the cost of the murderous carnival that was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (perhaps one million gone, all on an old man’s whim), an episode of mass psychosis that destroyed the hopes of a generation, and, appallingly, found a wicked echo in the West in the self-indulgent spasm we now call ‘1968′.

But for the most part there is silence, a shrug of the shoulders, indifference, even denial. After all, these awkward events took place so far away, so long ago. Who knows what happened? Who cares? Besides, it is claimed, after warlords and emperors, Mao’s rule was progress of a sort. As for those teeming Chinese, well, their concepts of the individual bear no relation to our own, do they? They were happy, we are told, ecstatic even, in their primitive, but noble, communes, content to be coolies for Communism, wanting nothing more than rice, a little red book and a collective canteen.

Of course, when it comes to the crimes of Communism, we’ve heard similar excuses before, but in the way they are applied to China, it’s difficult not to think that there is something else at play, something racist, an old prejudice dressed up in new progressive clothing.

And there’s no better answer to it than a collection of photographs published late last year. In image after image Red-Color News Soldier reminds us that, beneath the red stars and the blue drab, there were individuals, tormented, tormenting, weeping, cheering, or perhaps just simply numb, staring impassively as some fresh victim is broken before them. This is the Cultural Revolution seen through the eye, and the lens, of one man, Li Zhenseng. It is this personal focus that will give readers greater insight into that time than many more conventional histories filled with the statistics that Stalin so despised.

Li was born, as the Communists liked to say, “in the old society,” the chaotic, war-torn China of 1940, but came of age “under the Red Flag.” Blessed with talent and an appropriately proletarian background, he made his way to film school and a job as the photographer for the principal newspaper in China’s far Northeast. It was 1964, the era of the Socialist Education Movement, Li’s camera records the rallies, military maneuvers, and, with grim inevitability, and in images reminiscent of the Soviet destruction of the kulaks, the persecution of enemies of the people, in this case, “rich peasants.” Two supposed plutocrats are forced to stand for hours, grubby and exhausted in their worn, tired farmer’s clothing, their worn, tired farmers’ heads bowed before a sullen crowd, denounced by a local woman who has managed to whip up tears and indignation for the occasion. There’s a photograph of one of their “mansions,” a rundown house in a rundown village surrounded by a rundown crowd shipped in for the spectacle. Inside, a gorgeous hoard is on display: some shoes, a radio, a leather jacket, and a watch, more than enough to condemn a man.

Less than two years later, Mao launched his cultural revolution. “It is right,” he said, “to rebel,” and that’s what the Chinese did. But this was a curious, twisted rebellion, spontaneous and orchestrated, out of control and carefully directed, grotesque political theater with a cast of millions, inspired, enflamed, and managed by the old monster as a device to destroy his rivals and once more secure his grip over the nation that he had wrecked again, and again and again.

At the beginning, Li was an enthusiast, “excited,” at the prospect of revolutionary renewal, but it isn’t too long before his photographs begin to reveal his doubts. There’s something off-kilter about many of these pictures, a strangeness that goes beyond their bizarre subject matter. Li says now that this was a sign that he was beginning to have his own opinions about what was going on. Even when photographing relatively benign events, of workers, say, singing songs based on the chairman’s slogans, “I frequently tried to choose angles or compositions that showed it was all a bit crazy to me.”

But Li’s resistance, if that’s the word for the actions of a man who even now sometimes seems curiously conflicted about the events of those days, did not stop there. During the Cultural Revolution, “negative images” were prohibited. Photographers might be allowed to attend the festivals of cruelty that defined those years, but they were required to hand over their negatives. “Most followed this order, and in the end their negatives were all set on fire and destroyed.” Li followed a different course. After he had processed his films, he held back some of the negatives, “all those images “beyond the assignment” – the condemnations and the executions” and stashed them away, first in his office, later in a hiding place at his home. Remarkably, over 30,000 of them survived and, excluding whatever may be in China’s official archives, they may be the best remaining record of that terrible time.

Inevitably, the most striking photographs are also the most horrific. We are shown picture after picture of victim after victim, head bowed before the mob or crowned with a dunce’s cap, face and clothes spattered with ink and worse. Li remembers how it was:

The first Red Guard stepped in front of [Ren Zhongyi] with the basin of black ink. He asked Ren to put his hands in the basin and to smear the smelly ink over his own face. But the guard thought he hadn’t smeared it enough, that he didn’t look monstrous enough, so he held up the whole basin and splashed the ink over Ren’s face, his eyes, his nostrils all the way down to the cement floor…As if this was not enough, the first guard then poured half the basin all the way down his neck, the ink dripping down from his waist, along his legs to his feet, and coming out of his blue trousers. I was using black-and-white film, so afterward I could not distinguish between blood, tears, and ink.
In other appalling images, we see prisoners standing silent and shattered as they are denounced for hours before immense crowds. Many bear placards setting out their names and their “crimes.” The names are often crossed out. The implication is clear. These are unpersons. They no longer exist.

However, while it is no justification for the baroque savagery with which he was treated, Ren Zhongyi was a high party official, a man who probably clambered over a mountain of corpses to hold the position he did. More typical, and more tragic, was Wu Bingyuan, a technician accused of counterrevolutionary activities (a pamphlet). Li recalls that when Wu heard his sentence, death, “he looked into the sky and murmured, “this world is too dark”; then he closed his eyes and never in this life reopened them.” The photographs show Wu being paraded through the streets of the city. Later, shackled and bound, he’s pictured at his place of execution. His eyes are still shut. We see him kneeling, back turned to the firing squad. His eyes are still shut. The final image is of Wu’s corpse. His eyes are still shut.

Revolutions devour the best and the brightest, and, for all the lip service–and sometimes more–that Li paid to the spirit of the time, a quick glance at photographs of his likeable, intelligent face, and occasional daring attempts at more stylish dressing, leaves little doubt that he was someone for whom the revolution would eventually come calling. And so it did. By the bleak standards of Mao’s China, he got off quite lightly. He lost his job, and he and his wife were separated from their infant son and exiled to the countryside for “rectification” and an indefinite term of hard labor. Two years later, the death of Lin Biao heralded a slight relaxation in conditions. “The worst of the red storm was over.” Li came home, picked up his life and, once again, his camera.

Towards the end of the book, there are photographs of the ceremonies with which Li’s city marked Mao’s death. Hundreds of thousands gather in a stadium, and there, right in the front row, is Ren Zhongyi, rehabilitated, in charge, and unlike so many of those that his party had condemned, a survivor. Li searches for signs of genuine grief in the crowd but succeeds only in finding one woman “with a few teardrops on her coat.”

Shortly thereafter the party started to deal with the legacy of those years (they were “an error,” it later explained). The new leadership jailed Mao’s widow (and a handful of other ultra-leftists), but the motive for doing so was power politics, not justice. For the millions of victims, there was no recompense, just silence and the occasional scapegoat. The book closes with photographs of the sentencing and execution of an official who rose to prominence during the Cultural Revolution. There’s a shot of her standing surrounded by guards. They are dislocating her jaw.

That way, she couldn’t proclaim her innocence.



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