Seeing Red: China’s Communist Revolution Captured on Camera
After three years of civil war, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949. Since 1927, the CCP had shifted its focus to the countryside, where it mobilized the rural population, developed armaments, and established military bases. As the KMT overstretched itself and was eventually driven out, Communist soldiers — the vast majority of whom were born in the countryside — marched into China’s mysterious, exotic cities for the first time. In the course of my work, I have come across many photos that seem to capture the wonder that ordinary soldiers felt when they arrived.
Yuan Xiqin, the third woman from right in the photo below and a former CCP soldier, once wrote about her experiences of liberation in our journal, “Old Photos.” She described following troops as they took over the city of Jinan, in eastern China’s Shandong province, in the autumn of 1948. Jinan was one of the first provincial capitals captured by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), yet it paled in comparison to the modernity of large cities like Shanghai, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. That said, the new environment left self-styled “country bumpkins” like Yuan, who’d spent all their lives in villages, feeling somewhat overwhelmed.
The PLA set up offices in former KMT army commander Wu Huawen’s mansion. When the soldiers first arrived, Yuan wrote, they didn’t know how to turn on the newfangled electric lights and couldn’t get used to the Western-style toilets. One day, someone accidentally bumped into a switch on the wall; all of a sudden, a round object on the ceiling whirred into action and left the room chilly. “None of us knew what it was,” recalled Yuan. “But eventually, someone rather clever came and informed us it was an electric fan.”
The following two photographs depict scenes from the spring of 1949, when the PLA had just entered Beiping — present-day Beijing. In one of them, trucks laden with PLA soldiers raise dust as they drive along one of Beiping’s main streets. The soldiers in the trucks are handing out leaflets to passersby with upturned faces and outstretched arms, many of them children. One older boy excitedly chases after the military trucks in full stride, completely unfazed by the dust. A middle-aged man in a skullcap looks on intently, one hand supporting his bicycle, the other clasping a flyer. In the foreground, another man sporting a fedora and overcoat drops his head as if deep in thought, despite the army vehicles that rumble past him. Visually, he is at the very heart of the image, yet he does not feel fully present at the scene. I have always wondered what he’s thinking about.
In the other photograph, a crowd of people gaze out into the distance from the street in front of a row of shops. Some smile, some are indifferent, and others seem deep in thought. Ever since the late Qing Dynasty, Beijingers had seen many new rulers march through the gates of the capital. They would have been well-accustomed to such a scene by now, though they could not predict the effect that apparent dynastic change would have on their lives.
This second photo features a five-pointed star affixed to the store facade between two shop signs, a symbol of the country’s new power. In addition, a length of cloth — probably red in color — hangs across the top of the doorway. If this was arranged spontaneously by the shop owners themselves, then it would have indicated that they wished their rulers no ill will.
In a piece he wrote for “Old Photos,” the painter Shen Jiawei included a visual record of Shanghai as documented by the Shanghai-born Canadian photographer Sam Tata. In 1949, when power changed hands, Tata stayed to watch the PLA enter the city. From his perspective as a foreigner, he captured on camera the entire process of the KMT’s defeat and the CCP’s occupation of the city.
One particularly symbolic photograph depicts a young soldier on horseback, a rifle slung over his back as he rides through downtown Shanghai. This may well be the junior soldier’s first time seeing a city, arriving as he did from the CCP’s rural heartland. Now in the bustling center of Shanghai, it would have been impossible not to feel a little nervous passing through the forest of high-rise buildings and crowds of onlookers. One can see this in the expression on his face and the somewhat restrained way he carries his hands. As a form of transportation emblematic of agrarian society, his horse has come to symbolize the unanticipated victory of rural soldiers over China’s sophisticated industrial centers. As the well-known conclusion in Chinese history classes goes, “Millet and rifles conquered airplanes and cannons.”
Some CCP soldiers performed yangge — a type of folk collective dance with origins in China’s rural north and northeast — as their comrades marched into a newly taken city. At the time, CCP yangge troupes frequently performed songs as part of the Party’s propaganda drive, changing the lyrics to words in support of the revolution.
This earthy northern tradition would certainly have seemed out of place to the cosmopolitan Shanghainese. Not long afterward, perhaps some of the crowd would have joined the dancing lines of the yangge procession, getting their first taste of the rural hinterland culture so central to the backgrounds of the city’s new rulers.
Translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: CCP soldiers perform ‘yangge’ as their comrades march into Shanghai, May 1949. Courtesy of ‘Old Photos’)