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Mao's madness -- in photos

May 21, 2006|Li Zhensheng | LI ZHENSHENG, who has chronicled and lectured on the Cultural Revolution, is the author of "Red Color News Soldier." An exhibition of his photos is coming to Los Angeles next year. This article was written with the assistance of journalist Jacques Menasche.

FORTY YEARS AGO, on May 16, 1966, Chairman Mao Tse-tung unleashed the Cultural Revolution on China. At the time, I was a 25-year-old photographer living in Harbin, the capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. Only a few months earlier I had returned from the countryside, where I had been sent for a year and a half during the Socialist Education Movement to share the hardship of the peasants and to spread revolutionary fervor.

When Mao made his famous declaration to "destroy the old and establish the new," everyone was thrilled at the prospect of a revolution, including myself. "Born in the old society but grown up under the Red Flag," my generation was too young to have shared in the excitement of the country's founding in 1949. But now Chairman Mao said that we would have a revolution every seven or eight years, so I thought myself lucky, calculating that I could experience several of them during my lifetime.

I was assigned by my newspaper, the Heilongjiang Daily, to cover the demonstrations and mass rallies that followed the May 16 declaration. Within several months, however, the true nature of the revolution revealed itself. Books were being burned, temples and churches sacked, and anyone not chanting with the crowd instantly became suspect. Despite the posters condemning "counterrevolutionaries" and "capitalists," the main aim of the rallies was to humiliate and demean anyone with wealth, power or knowledge.

Because I knew that I was recording history, as the events of the revolution began to spiral out of control I took steps to protect my images, first cutting out all the "negative" negatives -- those that recorded the destruction, torment and bloodshed -- and placing them in a secret compartment in my desk; then, after being denounced myself, cutting out a hole in the floorboards of my house and placing the wrapped negatives inside before being sent to what was known as a "May 7 School" in the country, where I spent two years being reeducated through hard labor.

By 1971, the main chaos of the revolution had subsided, and I returned to my home and my family. My negatives, far luckier than the hundreds of thousands of people who were killed, wounded, driven to suicide or made mad during the upheaval, survived. Several years ago, I finally brought these negatives to New York. Many I had not seen since I first packed them away during the 1960s. Looking at them today brings back the feverish emotions of that period, which started with such great expectations but only led to death and disillusion.

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