Indiana University

Indiana University School of Journalism

Li Zhensheng describes work during Cultural Revolution

Shannon McEnerney | Oct. 7, 2009
Li Zhensheng
Photo by James Brosher
Photojournalist Li Zhensheng talked to a packed auditorium Tuesday night about his work documenting China’s Cultural Revolution. He talked through an interpreter, journalism doctoral student Li Shi.
A crowd of students, faculty and area residents filled the Ernie Pyle Hall auditorium Tuesday evening to hear photojournalist Li Zhensheng describe his documentation of controversial events during the People’s Republic of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Latecomers ended up sitting on the aisle steps to hear Li talk about his work as a party-approved photographer at the Heilongjiang Daily. At personal risk, Li hid more than 30,000 negatives, a collection believed to be the only such documentation from this period in China’s history, 1966 to 1976, when Mao Zedong rose to power and relied on intimidation and persecution to curb dissent.

The talk was co-sponsored by the School of Journalism and the East Asian Studies Center, and Li’s work has been on display in the Ernie Pyle Hall lobby for several weeks.

Robert Pledge, the co-author of Li’s book, Red-Color News Soldier: A Chinese Photographer’s Odyssey through the Cultural Revolution, accompanied Li and gave some details about Li ’s background. Li’s career began in cinematography when he studied at the Changchun Film Institute in Jilin. When the institute converted to photojournalism, he became a photographer to complete his studies.

After graduation, Li began working at the Heilongjiang Daily newspaper. In 1966, when the first signs of the Cultural Revolution began to show, Li started photographing everything, Pledge said, staying for the duration of all of the events instead of leaving early like other photographers.

“What is unique is that he realized very early on how important this event would be and how profoundly it would transform society,” Pledge said. “And it did.” Pledge is also the president and editorial director for Contact Press Images, the company that has been representing Li and his photographs since 1999.

Journalism doctoral student Li Shi served as Li’s translator. Li explained that he is comfortable giving lectures only in his native Chinese language.

Li said when he landed his job at the Heilongjiang Daily newspaper, he made two determinations. The first was never to die in Harbin, and the second was to never learn English and still be able travel around the world. He said at the time, these were “totally crazy determinations, like mission impossible.”

But during the Cultural Revolution, government operatives found his diary and Li was criticized because his comment to not die in Harbin was seen as being rebellious to the Chinese nation. That was not the case, Li said.

“But my heart is still a China heart,” he said through Li Shi’s translation. “Everyone loves his own country. But in those days it was seen as rebellion….But who’d really like to betray his own country?”

li zhensheng
Photo by James Brosher
Ever the photojournalist, Zhensheng shot video of his audience. During the talk, he showed many images of his own work.
Li showed pictures depicting Chinese class struggles between peasants and officials, and he showed photos of people being publicly criticized, among many others.

Versions of Chinese newspapers, shown throughout different stages of the Cultural Revolution, showed images of Mao Zedong. In the beginning of the revolution, Mao’s picture was seen on the front page surrounded by various news stories. By the end of the revolution, the entire front page was a full-length picture of Mao with no news stories, Li said.

One of the pictures Li showed was of a man being publicly condemned for having a similar hairstyle to Mao’s, and the man was given a new haircut.

During the Cultural Revolution, to be a journalist in China meant to say good things about the people in power, Li said.

One of Li’s pictures shows a large poster of Mao being held in a river, and Li said this is because Mao swam in the Yangtze River in 1966. Every year, people would celebrate the anniversary of Mao’s swim by holding Mao’s image above the water in various rivers.

Li showed pictures of the execution of seven men and one woman, an event he went to on his own because he was curious. Li said it was there that he learned “what bloody really meant.” He also showed pictures of the little red books that were printed during the revolution and filled with quotes from Mao’s speeches.

As a journalist and photographer, Li said he wants to capture the moment where people cry. When Mao died in 1976, marking the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li said he tried to capture the moments of the Chinese people’s sorrow. He captured it in an image of a woman crying, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Now, years after the Cultural Revolution, Li said the Chinese people have a better life.

“No matter what ‘ism’, as long as people have a good life, that is important,” Li said. “Now history is proving that.”

At the end of the speech, Li encouraged everyone to “never give up and believe in yourself.”

Lucia Li said she left the speech with questions. The Cultural Revolution is a sensitive topic, and she said she wonders what inspired Zhensheng to reveal his photographs and exhibit. But even with these questions, Li said the event was interesting in its photographed revelations and insight into a different perspective on the Cultural Revolution.

Li Zhensheng
Photo by James Brosher
After the lecture, Zhensheng met with audience members and signed copies of his book of photos, Red-Color News Soldier: A Chinese Photographer’s Odyssey through the Cultural Revolution, in the journalism library.
Sophomore Sara Murray said she knew a little bit about the revolution before Li’s speech.

“He was a really good speaker,” Murray said. “I was curious in learning more about the Cultural Revolution.”

Sophomore Paulina Kim said hearing Li Zhensheng’s perspective was “cool because he experienced the revolution through personal experience.”

Li Zhensheng gives a second talk today in the University Club at the Indiana Memorial Union. This talk is titled “Sex and the Revolution: China in the Sixties.”

The East Asian Studies Center and the School of Journalism, with additional funding by the Office of the Vice President for International Affairs, the Robert and Avis Burke Lecture Series, Department of the History of Art and the Department of Communication and Culture, sponsored Li’s visit and lectures.

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