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    Remembering China’s ‘Red-Color News Soldier’

    Li Zhensheng, a photographer known for his images of Cultural Revolution-era China, has died.

    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.”

    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)