Birthday Gift – The Cultural Revolution in Pictures


Finally, after reading and posting about the book Red-color News Soldier by Li Zhengsheng for nearly a year, I have my very own copy. And it’s exquisite.

The photojournalist Li was charged with taking pictures throughout the Cultural Revolution, and in his black and white images he somehow managed to capture the essence of Mao’s insanity in all of its brute horror.

Li’s photos, kept hidden for 40 years, seem to put you right there, whether it’s a struggle session, a public execution, a beaming crowd greeting the Great Helmsman, or an open-air denunciation. And while I’ve just started to read the text, it looks like he is a sharp observer and a good storyteller.

There are certain historical phenomena that I constantly wonder at, like the inanities of the first world war, the rise of Hitler and Stalin, Vietnam, the Holocaust, the death of JFK and what it meant, and the difference in American life since 9/11. But the Cultural Revoution may take the prize for sheer inexplicableness on all levels. Meaning, there’s no way to rationally comprehend what was in the minds of the leaders and the followers. You can study it and talk to people who lived through it, but there doesn’t seem to ever come that moment when you can say, “Oh yes, now I get it.”

I can tell from what I’ve seen already that Red-color News Soldier will help, at least in terms of making me a more intimate witness to the tragedy. But nothing, I suspect, will ever really give me an understanding of how and why it could have been allowed to happen.

I’ll report back on the book as I make my way through it. To the friend who sent it to me, Thank you. It’s wonderful.

Earlier posts on Red-color News Soldier can be found here and here.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

Yes, That book has some very intersting pictures. As for what was going through the people’s minds… I think most of them were trying to get even with the people they hated or envied.

July 1, 2004 @ 7:59 pm | Comment

Red-color News Soldier

I’ve been meaning to get my hands on this. The Peking Duck has more on it…

July 1, 2004 @ 8:27 pm | Comment

The culture revolution was a huge catastrophe to Chinese people in all levels. During that dark ages, everything you said could be the proof of your guilt. Most people chose to keep silence, and even then, they were possiblly charged with crime they had never heard of before. The whole country was in chaos.

My mum was young and just started working at that time. She and two friends of hers were closely charged with trying to dig a hole leading to Taiwan(ridiculous). One horrible colleague of hers found a deep hole in the back mountain of their factory and found my mum and her friends always went there for fun. So, he made up the story and my mun was took into custody. It is still hard to believe to me untill now, I was wondering why people at that time could believe it, digging a big hole to Taiwan from southern China by hand would even win the Nobel Prize for architecture if possible. Fortunately, one governmental friend who had conscience help my mum out, otherwise, trying to collaborate with Taiwan was a kind of high treason at that age and I would never come to this world.

And there are still many many insane facts like this. Every time I listen the story of the culture revolution, I will feel sad. But, we will never make it happen again!!!

July 1, 2004 @ 9:42 pm | Comment

I dedicated most of the last four years to studying the Cultural Revolution, until I ended up living in China, a place where people are less than excited about a foreigner studying the Cultural Revolution (the line of thought i often see in peoples’ comments is, after all, I “will never be able to understand China,” so how could I ever be able to understand this complicated period of history). Well, studying something doesn’t mean that you will necessarily understand it, does it? Nowadays, I spend most of my time translating, but of course in my spare time I like to think about how people here view the Cultural Revolution (“a crazy moment from the past that could happen again,”) and this has slowly expanded into thinking about how Mainland China views itself, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the world, everyone’s actions, etc. Anyway, I realize that a Maoist Cultural Revolution would never happen in China again, but does anyone think that such madness and passion could ever take over China again? I tend to think so, over something like Taiwan or Hong Kong… nationalism seems to have replaced Maoism as the rallying call of the Party. Ummm, well, I didn’t get much sleep last night, so this is probably not going anywhere, but just tossing it out to talk about: is the view of the Cultural Revolution as something of the “crazy past” valid, or is there the possibility that such fervor could return for new causes?

July 1, 2004 @ 9:54 pm | Comment

And also, I never heard of this book till now. Interested in getting it, but probably not finding it around Shanghai anytime soon… So, any of you guys ever tried ordering books by Amazon to be delivered in China? I heard a rumor amazon orders get stolen and their owners recieve an empty package… my faith in things here is not low enough yet to believe that, although slowly approaching that point, so wondering if any of you guys have experience ordering books? And… um… books that are not exactly promoted here?

July 1, 2004 @ 9:58 pm | Comment

I think I’ve made this comment before, but I think it is worth repeating … Whenever you hear talk about the cultural revolution, it is always in context of how everyone was a victim. There were far more perpetrators than there were victims. The “it was all Mao’s fault” line is just a convenient excuse to shelter all his accomplices from blame … it’s really not all that different from the myths about how all French were in the resistance, and how Germans were innocent dupes of Hitler.

As for your comment Kevin about how a Maoist Cultural Revolution could never happen again in China … I disgree completely. I think that it is altogether possible. Perhaps the new urban middle-classes would not rush to join red-guards … but in the end, they would be the target, not the participants, in a new cultural revolution. The “cult of Mao” may one day come back to bite the leadership of China … I can see a future where his revolutionary writings become the manifesto of a new revolutionary movement among the rural and vagrant poor. In China they dismiss the middle-class which existed prior to the communist victory as “comprodors” and class enemies … but really they’re not much different from the populations of the coastal cities of China today. The current government of China so closely resembles that of former dynaties in its attitudes and style of government that I’d say that it’s also perfectly possible that it will one day fall in the same way that a good number of those former regimes passed away … in peasant revolution. Consider, for example, how the first (Qin) Dynasty fell … consider also how the last Chinese dynasty came to power. (I am excluding the Qing as a foreign Manchu dynasty who came to power by invasion … but anyway, in that case the peasant Taipings came damn close to unseating them too.) In the situation that would exist after such a real (as opposed to cultural) revolution, there would be every possibility of another period bearing a tragic resemblance to China of the 1960s.

And the obligatory “please don’t jump down my throat” comment at the end: I am NOT saying I think this will definately happen in China’s future. I am saying that the potential for it exists in China, and that those who fail to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to forever repeat them. If the Cultural Revolution is simply written off as a product of one man, and as an abberation which could never occur again … then I think you’re one step closer to allowing something similar to occur again.

July 1, 2004 @ 10:45 pm | Comment

I agree with what you are saying, I meant to say that something like this certainly could happen again… and I certainly do agree with the subversive potential of Maoism. All discussion on The Survey of Chinese Peasants was ended recently, there was concern about the content: just think about how much concern there must be about some of Mao’s writings such as the Hunan Peasant Movement essay. But it is interesting how Mao has been co-opted in the reform era as the “strong nationalist who stood up to the Japanese, and founded the country,” while also being portrayed as the out-of-touch leader who orchestrated the Cultural Revolution with four or five other people (this is ridiculous, Mao was powerful, but there was a lot more going on that Mao simply starting this, a lot of triggers). Of course, Mao is 72% right and 28% wrong, or whatever ridiculous figure they came up with… But anyway, this concept that this was completely Mao’s fault, and that now China is different and could never have something like this happen again is, in my opinion, hard to argue, and I think a movement like this could occur again, just in a different form with a different motto/ target.

July 1, 2004 @ 11:44 pm | Comment

It’s the shadow of the Cultural Revolution that always comes up when discussing Chinese politics. Like, the people I talk to say that there can’t be Democracy in Hong Kong because there is no system for it, and if there is no system in place, something like the Cultural Revolution would happen again.

I wish to add that there is a system in place, but something like China’s current stranglehold on power keeps it from generating the type of democracy it is meant to enable.

July 2, 2004 @ 12:51 am | Comment

Also, richard, I offered to give you the book, but you turned it down. I guess you didn’t go and find it yourself anyway. lol 🙂

July 2, 2004 @ 12:52 am | Comment

Yeah, one of the reasons for avoiding democracy is so-called “instability,” which the current regime seems to view as the most lethal of all things. Instability seems to always refer back to the Cultural Revolution, which was a very paradoxical and narrow-minded democratic movement (people did express quite a few rebellious ideas, and brought down a lot of officials, but they were trapped within fundamentalist constraints about what they could express, you couldn’t criticize an official for being too “Maoist,” but could of course say they were KMT spies, etc.) This “instability-democracy” parallel is then strengthened through reports on Florida 2000, Taiwan 2004, protests, etc.: the dialogue and protests that happened in these places are in fact signs that something in the system is working, that people are participating and voicing their opinions, yet here it is portrayed as “instability”… and of course don’t forget the sad effect that it has on traffic, which seems to be a bizarre obsesssion in a number of Chinese news reports on such things, as was shown again with the very amusing Xinhua report on the Hong Kong marches. Democrats… marches… instability… redirected bus routes… traffic jams… Oh please rescue us from the dangers of voting or even expressing our own opinions in protests! Really, none of us want the traffic in Shanghai to get any worse!

July 2, 2004 @ 1:34 am | Comment

Doug, my mother taught me not to accept gifts from strangers. Seriously, I much appreciated your offer. I thought I’d be able to get it at the Borders bookstore when i returned to the States but thtey didn’t have it. A friend got it for me from Amazon.

July 2, 2004 @ 9:00 am | Comment

Kevin I ordered a few books through Amazon while in China and had no problems. Interestingly enough, a classmate ordered this book through Amazon while we were in Shijiazhuang. It came through the mail with no problems; however, after borrowing and reading it in one marathon evening session, I definitely had some problems with getting a restful nights sleep. The book was brilliant and although it did not bring me any closer to understanding the cultural revolution, it definitely helped me know the revolution better.

July 2, 2004 @ 9:12 am | Comment

I was just playing, Richard.

And don’t use my real name. It’s very frightening, what if they’re reading this? ????? j/k

Quite a good read, and it really prompted me to do some personal writing and reflection.

July 2, 2004 @ 9:23 am | Comment

Kevin … some very interesting comments … hope to hear more from you. Do you have a website of your own?

About the chaos/disorder/”luan” fixation … this isn’t something that was sporned by the Cultural Revolution … in fact it’s a long standing principle fixation of pretty much every Chinese government in recorded history. When I’m teaching Chinese history to westerners, it’s one of the first things I try to get across to them as an initial tool for understanding actions by the Chinese government that seem alien … the image that good order is a thin shell of ice over a raging sea of chaos … and that if you relax your vigilance for even a moment, the shell can be broken …

Isn’t it ironic that the Cultural Revolution is used as an excuse to avoid democracy? Since it can hardly be argued that it was a product of any kind of democratic institution … unless you’re speaking in Marxist/Orwell language in which people’s democracies are communist dictatorships.

July 2, 2004 @ 10:15 am | Comment

Hmmm … maybe I should change my nickname to “Filthy Stinking No.9”

Do you think enough people would get the reference?

July 2, 2004 @ 10:17 am | Comment

Let’s try it on for size …
hmmm … yes, I like that.

July 2, 2004 @ 10:18 am | Comment

Li En, very funny. I guess all of us here are part of the “stinking 9th.”

This is a fascinating thread. Sean, your story of your mother’s suffering is particularly poignant and seems to encapsulate just how monstrously idiotic this long, sad episode was.

The chicken-and-egg question is one of the most interesting when it comes to episodes of mass hypnosis like this. (When I say mass hypnosis, I mean when a huge number of citizens seem to surrender their critical faculties and go along with a cult movement, even playing an active role, despite its irrationality and, from a distance, insanity.) Did Mao make it possible, or did his followers? Did Germany create Hitler, or did Hitler create Nazi Germany? Historians engage in bitter battles over such questions (the most famous being between Jonah Goldberg, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and Christopher Browning, author of Ordinary Men, on whether it was Hitler or the German people who made the Holocaust happen).

It’s easy to find Mao’s blame; he architected the C. R. for very specific purposes, being the pshyco-egoist-sociopath he was. But as for people who followed, the issue is much more complex. Reading Grass Soup and other books on the C. R., one fact stands out vividly: Many of those charged with crimes really were convinced they had done something wrong. They took their “re-education” very seriously and strove to understand where they failed and how they could improve. While they were going through the madness, they saw it as acceptable, and even appropriate.

We have to remember, many had been through nearly 20 years of Mao’s totalitarianism, so it’s no small wonder their critical reasoning was compromised, if not wiped out altogether. And reading Wild Swans, we see that informing on your neighbor or relatives is nothing new in Chinese history. So while Mao was unquestionably the father of the C.R., the catalyst and the direct cause, I don’t think he could have done it had the Chinese psyche not been conditioned to accept it and even welcome it.

Those are just some impressions; the issue is way more complicated, and the movement took all sorts of twists and turns. That’s why it is such a rich historical study and a topic of endless debate and curiosity.

July 2, 2004 @ 11:05 am | Comment

Good to hear from you Zhang Lei En, but nope, I don’t have a website, I am too disorganized, and wouldn’t really know how to set one up. My laptop is broken, so I just check things out at work, and write when I have the time/ idea (as vague as the ideas may be….)

July 5, 2004 @ 12:56 am | Comment

[…] enjoyed the description of the Red-Color News Soldier exhibit; the book by the same name is one of my all-time favorites. Please read the entire post. Baked by Richard @ 8:01 am, Filed under: China Tags: Edgar […]

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