A record of a lost generation in China

Secret photos of the Cultural Revolution finally come to light

Like a photograph gradually becoming visible in a tray of darkroom solution, the full horror of China's Cultural Revolution is slowly coming into view. During those 10 tumultuous years, which lasted until Mao Zedong's death in September 1976, China was closed to the outside world. We knew little, as the lives of millions of Chinese were ruined or ended, and political madness prevailed.

Li Zhensheng was a photographer for a Communist Party newspaper during this time. The title of a new collection of his photos, "Red-Color News Soldier," is a literal translation of the words on his press armband, which gave him unique access to everything from executions to Mao rallies. Early on, Li decided to go beyond his official duties and record history. He took thousands of unauthorized photographs, and risked his life by hiding them under the floorboard of his home.

This collection of 285 pictures, his account (as told to an interviewer), and a detailed background of the political movement vividly show the human toll in Heilongjiang - a remote province that borders on what was then the Soviet Union.

It's hard to say which photographs are more frightening - the ones in which crowds are angrily denouncing their victims or those in which crowds are smiling and chatting, indifferent to the suffering. Punishment was vicious, humiliating, and often fatal. Li's photos show officials forced to don dunce caps and placards that list their so-called crimes. They had to stand on wobbly folding chairs for hours as thousands denounced them.

Some of the more chilling photos were taken from behind the victims - showing us what it looked like to be on stage before thousands of tormentors. Other photos seem surreal - train passengers shouting Mao slogans; an audience cheering Mao's appearance in a newsreel. "During the Cultural Revolution the whole of China became a theater in which the audience was increasingly part of the play," Li explains.

Friends betrayed friends, people settled personal scores by falsely accusing one another, and children denounced parents. The daughter of the provincial governor was pressured into writing a false statement accusing her father of incest. He was verbally and physically humiliated before a crowd of thousands.

For political crimes, guilt was hereditary. One of the more gruesome photos shows a young man being persecuted for writing an anonymous letter defending his father. His tormentors stuffed a glove in his mouth to prevent outbursts.

Li's girlfriend was labeled the daughter of a "dog landlord" because her mother committed suicide after being tormented. Li married someone else and, like millions of others, he and his wife were sent to the countryside for hard labor. His photos show the bleak, harsh conditions.

Some accusations would be laughable if they weren't so destructive. The governor was accused of lusting for power because he looked like Mao; a newlywed couple was criticized for making love in their bedroom because a picture of Mao adorned the wall.

Anything associated with the old way of thinking became a target. "There was no end to the malicious inventiveness of the Red Guards," notes Li. At the start of the Cultural Revolution, "everywhere people were genuinely excited. Their enthusiasm was real. They believed in Mao." But then the madness began, and no one was spared.

With this startling and unique perspective, Li shows that the Cultural Revolution "was a movement in which people were turned against other people to survive, how all were victims: those beaten and killed as well as those who inflicted suffering on others."

Mike Revzin is a journalist with CNN who has covered China.

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