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Red and black

January 2, 2019

Red-Color News Soldier is a book of text and photographs by Li Zhensheng, who between 1966 and 1980, throughout Mao's Cultural Revolution, took pictures for a provincial Chinese newspaper. First published in 2003, it is now appearing for the first time in China, along with a traveling exhibition.

I was introduced to the book several years ago, in library school: we were talking about political imagery, censorship, and the subterfuge that has so often been required to rescue historical documentation from the flames of autocrats and mobs.
I still have my copy, with its slick and shiny red plastic covers, looking like a 1920s Futurist phone book. Inside are pictures of direct physical violence up to and including execution (it ends on a long, bleak sequence in which a woman is transported by convoy from a crowded arena to a desolate snowy plain, walked out into a field, put on her knees, and shot). But somehow the worst images, the ones that will devil your memory the way images do that introduce you to some new level of human horribleness, are the public shamings: former party officials, teachers, and other "revisionists" wearing signs and grotesque dunce caps, their faces smeared with black ink, bowing or kneeling as they are heckled and cursed by crowds bigger than the Beatles' at Shea Stadium.
The enormity of this mass hatred, twisted and stoked by intellectual and cultural dictatorship, is absolutely chilling. And Li Zhensheng is heroic for having caught and then safeguarded these images, for living through and outlasting this awful time, and sticking around to tell the tale.

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