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2020-06-29 13:10:44

Li Zhensheng, a photographer renowned for his up-close and gritty pictures of China’s 10-year Cultural Revolution, died from a cerebral hemorrhage, according to a statement last week from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, his former publisher.

The photojournalist, who began his career at state-owned Heilongjiang Daily in 1963 after graduating with a degree in photography, was one of the few artists to amass a comprehensive view of the often bloody time period. 

Donning a red arm band and honorary “Red-Color News Soldier” pin, Li took nearly 100,000 photos in the decade between 1966 and 1976. Those deemed politically usable by his editors, such as images of smiling youngsters pumping their fists in the air or state-sponsored ballet performances for the underprivileged, he handed off to be published in the newspaper. Those considered unusable for the publication’s purposes, such as photos of burials and overturned bookshelves, he kept secret. 

For nearly two decades, Li hid his most contentious negatives under the floorboards of his home in the northeastern city of Harbin. It wasn’t until 1987 that Li displayed his stashed images in an exhibition titled, “Let History Tell the Future.” In 2003, he published them in English in the photobook “Red-Color News Soldier,” though it would be another 15 years before a Chinese version hit the shelves.

“The aim of looking back is to look forward,” Li wrote in the introduction of his book. “To record suffering is to try and prevent suffering from recurring; to record history is to prevent historical tragedies from replaying.”

Li Zhensheng poses for a photo in front of a self-portrait he took in 1966 during an exhibition in Jinan, Shandong province, Oct. 12, 2012. Wu Hong/People Visual

Li Zhensheng poses for a photo in front of a self-portrait he took in 1966 during an exhibition in Jinan, Shandong province, Oct. 12, 2012. Wu Hong/People Visual

Five-year-old Kang Wenjie (left) and devoted soldier Wang Guoxiang (right) were both lauded “active members learning from Mao’s works,” in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 1968. According to Li, these two photos represent “the adultification of children and infantilization of adults” during that period. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Five-year-old Kang Wenjie (left) and devoted soldier Wang Guoxiang (right) were both lauded “active members learning from Mao’s works,” in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 1968. According to Li, these two photos represent “the adultification of children and infantilization of adults” during that period. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Ballet dancers perform “The White Haired Girl” to 50,000 rural residents in A’cheng County (now a district of Harbin City), Heilongjiang province, July 23, 1975. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Ballet dancers perform “The White Haired Girl” to 50,000 rural residents in A’cheng County (now a district of Harbin City), Heilongjiang province, July 23, 1975. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Dancers perform the Chinese ballet “The Red Detachment of Women” to oil workers in Daqing Oil Field, Heilongjiang province, July 20, 1975. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Dancers perform the Chinese ballet “The Red Detachment of Women” to oil workers in Daqing Oil Field, Heilongjiang province, July 20, 1975. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

People swim to commemorate the anniversary of Chairman Mao’s journey across the Yangtze River in the Songhua River, Harbin, Heilongjiang province, July 16, 1967. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

People swim to commemorate the anniversary of Chairman Mao’s journey across the Yangtze River in the Songhua River, Harbin, Heilongjiang province, July 16, 1967. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Swimmers read “The Little Red Book” of Chairman Mao quotations before beginning their journey in the Songhua River during the second anniversary of Chairman Mao’s swim across the Yangtze River, in Heilongjiang province, June 16, 1968. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Swimmers read “The Little Red Book” of Chairman Mao quotations before beginning their journey in the Songhua River during the second anniversary of Chairman Mao’s swim across the Yangtze River, in Heilongjiang province, June 16, 1968. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Patients holds “The Little Red Book” in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait at a hospital in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 1968. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Patients holds “The Little Red Book” in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait at a hospital in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 1968. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

A woman sings “Red Sun” in Beijing, Oct. 18, 1966. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

A woman sings “Red Sun” in Beijing, Oct. 18, 1966. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Young people sing “It is Right to Rebel” on a street in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, August 1968. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Young people sing “It is Right to Rebel” on a street in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, August 1968. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

People record the time they saw Chairman Mao passing by on a jeep in Beijing, Oct. 18, 1966. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

People record the time they saw Chairman Mao passing by on a jeep in Beijing, Oct. 18, 1966. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

A conference for “recalling suffering in the old society to contrasting with happiness in the new,” in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, April 5, 1968. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

A conference for “recalling suffering in the old society to contrasting with happiness in the new,” in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, April 5, 1968. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Teenagers buy Chairman Mao’s works at a bookshop in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, Feb. 7, 1967. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Teenagers buy Chairman Mao’s works at a bookshop in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, Feb. 7, 1967. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

A view of a college’s damaged library in June 28, 1967. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

A view of a college’s damaged library in June 28, 1967. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Composer Wang Shuangyin sings “We Will Always Cherish Your Memory, Chairman Mao” to workers in Harbin, Sept. 16, 1976. Chairman Mao died on Sept. 9 that same year. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Composer Wang Shuangyin sings “We Will Always Cherish Your Memory, Chairman Mao” to workers in Harbin, Sept. 16, 1976. Chairman Mao died on Sept. 9 that same year. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

A view of people holding Chairman Mao’s portraits in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, June 21, 1968. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

A view of people holding Chairman Mao’s portraits in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, June 21, 1968. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press

Contributions: Shi Yangkun; editor: Hannah Lund.

(Header image: Dancers perform “Militia Women” in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, April 25, 1966. Li Zhensheng/The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press)