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Li Zhengsheng : The Genius who photographed the Cultural Revolution


This is Jean Loh’s tribute in memory of the greatest Chinese documentary photographer Li Zhensheng born in Dalian 18 August 1940 and who passed away in New York on 22 June 2020 at the age of 80 years old.

We can say that Li Zhensheng has “photographed the Cultural Revolution”, as if a revolution that has lasted 10 years (1966-1976) were photographable by one single man. But “photograph” Li did indeed.

A graduate of the Changchun Film Institute, Li Zhensheng started photographing the prelude of the Cultural Revolution, when he was assigned to the Heilongjiang Daily as a photo-reporter to cover the 1964 Movement for Socialist Education in the countryside. By 1980, two years after the official end of the Cultural Revolution, he photographed the execution of a woman, a former Red Guard turned corrupted party official, the pictures of her final moments would become the epilogue of his body of work on the Cultural Revolution (*). From 1964 to 1980 then, Li Zhengsheng did photograph the eruption of violence, the mobilization of mass hysteria and its folly, the vicious teenage rebellion against all fatherly figures, the personal and family tragedies and sometimes the unintentional comical absurdities– at times bordering on  farcical terror. He had also photographed the dreamlike beauty (the winds) of China’s North East snowy landscape, and the horror of a ten-year long nightmare (the clouds). He portrayed himself as the urbane and mundane city newspaper leading photographer, while sharing with us the sweat and tear of his harsh banishment to the countryside labor camp, revealing the grandeur and the pettiness of people immersed in the illusion of a purposeless revolution. In one word he did photograph the “loss of mind” of a whole nation.

He achieved this unimaginable feat, in the manner of a movie director, a cameraman, a scenarist and an actor combining all roles on his single person. Not content to fire away over 30,000 “negative” shots that did record on film the unprecedented event in the history of humanity, he took innumerable self-portraits, completing the news reporting of a country in turmoil at the surface with a personal narrative about his own becoming, deep inside his heart and mind and in-between the lines.

From his modest family background to his rise into a resourceful, inventive and seasoned photo-reporter, we follow his education, his love story, his exhilarating joy and his excruciating despair, his own awakening, and his inebriated celebration of the end of the Cultural Revolution, often with himself posing in front of the camera. His cinema-inspired “panning” and montage with spliced images become his trademark photographic style before panoramic cameras were even available. His obsessive search for the right angle led him to extremes: it took him either an unconscious dare-devil temperament or a precocious historical foresight to get as close as possible – in the true tradition of a Robert Capa – to the event. Risking his career by appearing on stage during the performance of the model opera – the White-Haired Girl, just to take a close look at the climactic pas-de-deux, Li Zhensheng was in the Cultural Revolution.

In 2003 Li’s exhibition opened at the Hotel de Sully in Paris, I immediately ran to see it. I was struck by the un-glassed frames which invited a direct eye contact with the black & white print, with the sheer horror of the documented reality, with panoramic pictures made of spliced-images. Looking at his self-portrait with bare chest, I said to myself: who was this photographer, so boldly conscious of his place in history? I was also amazed by the innumerable self-portraits in the exhibition, what a narcissistic guy in a merciless highly politicized period! Then came the realization, that there was no word to describe the historical value of that memory, this unthinkable act of “stealing and hiding” all his un-publishable negatives under the wooden flooring in his home. Of course, Li was not the only official photographer of the Cultural Revolution, which was taking the whole country by storm, but what he has achieved no one else has been able to come near to. His legacy is both a lesson of history and a lesson of photo-taking. I mean that as a tribute to Li’s ingenuity and creativity, and to his historic significance to his country today stricken with amnesia. My consolation remains to have contributed to his nomination for the Lucie Awards for Lifetime Achievement in Documentary Photography, which Li Zhensheng received at New York Carnegie Hall in 2013, so that generations of young Chinese will no longer be able to ignore this essential chapter of their history.

Jean Loh



  • Li Zhensheng Red-Color News Soldier, the touring exhibition and the wonderful book edited and curated by Robert Pledge, published by Phaidon, won the Olivier Rebbot Award of the Overseas Press Club in 2004. (*) The terrible execution scenes are featured as the closing photos of the book.
  • Li Zhensheng Winds and Clouds, first ever exhibition of Li Zhensheng’s Cultural Revolution photographs in a gallery, at Beaugeste Gallery, Shanghai, from January to April 2012.


A photographic dialogue between Jean Loh and Li Zhensheng –尚陸與李振盛談攝影

1- Two brothers playing chess at home in Shandong February 1958

(JL) Professor Li, it is a great pleasure for me to have this exchange with you on some of your amazing pictures. Let us start with this “Two brothers playing chess” of 1958. That is the earliest self-portrait by you at age 18. Was-it shot with the Brownie 120 made in Czechoslovakia that you borrowed from Dalian high school for the New Year or with your first owned camera that you obtained through barter?

(Li) At the Dalian high school a photo club was set up in 1956 and I was appointed head of the club, we were all sharing one single Brownie camera. That is when I started to learn photography. As I loved collecting stamps since my childhood, I usually went to the post office to meet other collectors, one day a middle-aged man offered to barter a set of 200 of my best stamps against a used Japanese 120 camera with bellows. That is how I took ownership of my first camera, which could take 16 snapshots in a roll of 120-film. In 1958 I spent the Lunar New Year at home in Shandong, and saw the winter sunlight pouring into the house, I decided to place the camera on a grinding disk between the stoves. To avoid shading created by my cousin’s hand I directed him to keep his finger pressed on a pawn. As I clicked on the remote self-timer, I also pretended to place a pawn, at that moment my grandfather who was sunbathing in the courtyard turned around to look, making a perfect family self-portrait.

(JL) I am amazed by your capacity in squeezing three persons into this narrow space and showing both in-door and out-door scenes. You already had a great sense of composition.

(Li) Two years later I presented this picture for my entrance exam to the photography section of Changchun’s school of cinema, and I received high marks from my examiners.


2- Gathering of hundred thousands home made portraits of Mao Harbin – June 1968

(JL) There is a picture titled “The General Assembly of Ten Thousand People Struggle against the Enemy” in a stadium of a middle school of Acheng County of May 1965 that was made up of 5 negatives stitched together. Was it your first attempt at hand-made panoramic? Also here is another one combined from three negatives showing in one single panoramic the gathering of hundred thousand of self-made paintings of Chairman Mao portrait (June 1968 in Harbin), what a feat without using a panoramic camera! I can see the influence of Soviet visual school and the marks of your cinema education. (A Chinese old master of photography Lang Jingshan 1892-1995 played with montage and super-imposition but never this sort of horizontal stitching to form a grandiose and epic panorama.)

(LZS) Cinematography is about movement, mainly pushing, pulling, rotating and travelling. The famous Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin”, has two classic sequences: “the Odessa Steps” and “the Killing on the deck”, his astute use of montage and zoom created a striking impression. So, over the years in my photography I often borrowed the “panning” method from cinema, to compose big panoramas out of splicing and stitching up several negatives. This panoramic made with five negatives is one example. But my first spliced image was when I photographed a mass rally against the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Although I shot many composite-images I have never used a tripod. All my combined panoramic were made with hand-held camera. I simply looked into the viewfinder of my twin-lens reflex camera, to locate an imaginary horizontal line in the sky, then using that as a “base line” I would mentally calculate how many negatives would be required to cover the whole panorama. These are the fundamentals for making composite-images with a hand-held camera. On the other hand, in many places where something happened, it was not always practical to deploy a tripod, you know.


3- Cleaning my cameras at the Heilongjiang Daily May 1966

(JL) In May 1966 the Cultural Revolution was officially launched, here you were still elegantly dressed, wearing a pair of nice shoes, like a high ranking official, sitting in the quiet of your office going about the maintenance of your cameras. Was your dress style later criticized?

(LZS) The truth is, I grew up in harsh conditions. At five I followed my father back home in Shandong, as he wanted to flee Dalian’s war and chaos. At ten I started helping my father with the farm work, that explained why I attended school two years late. I was a maniac of neat and clean, even worn-out clothes had to be washed clean. In this picture I might look like elegantly dressed, in fact I was wearing old clothes that were so frequently washed that their color had all faded. I would also press them flat under my mattress. That pair of old shoes that I wore for many years, had thick rubber soles pinned under, they looked shiny thanks to my zealous polishing. During the Cultural Revolution I was criticized indeed as a “new bourgeois”.


4- Self Portrait as cameraman actor scenarist director June 1966

(JL) This self-portrait you took in June 1966 fascinated me when I saw it at your 2003 exhibition in Paris. As if the fervor of the Cultural Revolution has completely conquered you, were you really a rebel then? Flanked by the two walls, your heroic pose was magnified by the two concurring diagonals, the bare chest reminds me of the martyr figure from the Catholic iconography Saint Sebastian, who is usually represented in classic paintings tied to a pole and transpierced by arrows.

(LZS) I had this habit when I set out to cover news, I would always spare a couple of negatives in the camera, just in case on my return journey something unexpected happened. Most of the times nothing happened. In this case before I developed the film I would photograph myself using the leftover negatives to avoid waste. Years after years I ended up accumulating a considerable quantity of self-portraits. At the Film Institute I chose to study by myself “the Art of Cinema” by the master of Soviet cinema Lev Kuleshov. My resolution after graduation was to work as a cameraman for two years before turning into a film director. Alas the three years of great famine had broken our dreams. But I never gave up the secrete desire. Therefore, on the day of June 15, 1966 I had this creative idea: I would play four roles at once: director, scenarist, cameraman and actor, in one single self-portrait. After placing the 120 camera on the windowsill, I bared my chest, looking menacingly into the “gun barrel”, acting like a defying hero, I satisfied my cinema addiction.


5- Two Red Guards doing the Loyalty Dance-Harbin 21 August 1966

(JL) To take this August 1966 picture of the Red Guards Propaganda team performing the Loyalty dance and singing the rebellion song, you had to be at awfully close range, almost standing by their side. Weren’t you excited too?

(LZS) During the Cultural Revolution Chairman Mao claimed: “It is right to rebel”, this directive from the highest instance was set into music to become the rebels’ battle song. The Red Guards added at the end of the lyrics “Marxist principles are a multitude of things, they can be summarized after all in one sentence: it is right to rebel” one line: “revolution is not a crime, it is right to rebel!” and even a curse: “Who is not a revolutionary, then fuck his official’s job, fuck his damned egg!” On August 21, 1966, the Harbin Military Engineering Institute the Red Rebels of Mao Zedong Thought propaganda team performed in the street the song “It is right to rebel.” To capture the gesture and the face of this couple of Red Guard (a boy and a girl), I pressed the shutter just as they sang “fuck his damned egg!” by striking their hands down toward the invisible enemy.

(JL) In the 2007 BBC documentary “The Genius of photography” Li Zhensheng could be seen doing the loyalty dance forty years after! During his exhibition in Shanghai at the Beaugeste Gallery in 2012, a visitor, a Shanghainese grandmother a former Red Guard was so moved by this picture that she started singing and dancing, and Li Zhensheng joined in, and sang and danced with her. It was amazing!


6- Province Party Secretary Ren Zhongyi undergoing struggle-Harbin 26 August 1966

(JL) This August 1966 iconic picture of a “public struggle” I would consider it as the defining image of the Cultural Revolution in the universal history of photography. How many times have you shot these public struggle scenes? It looks like you have carefully chosen the proper angle; your close quarters shot but well-balanced composition visually takes us right into the heat of the action. The oversize dunce hat tracing a diagonal line from the banners of the upper-left-corner down to the hysterical, slogan-shouting crowd of the lower right, whose raised fists seem to be holding the tip of the tall hat. The bent-over subject of the public struggle perched precariously on a shaky chair that threatens to tumble at any moment, his hands seemed tied at the back. The big drum placed in lower left corner as if to let us hear the thunderous roars and furies. The dark clouds gathering above-head appear as a symbol of bad omen.

(LZS) I will never forget photographing the tragic scene of the public struggle of Heilongjiang’s Provincial Party Secretary Ren Zhongyi. As hundreds of thousands of people rallied in the People’s Stadium, the Red Guards marched and denounced “those in-power but taking the capitalist road” on the stage to expose their alleged crimes. Ren Zhongyi was pulled by two big guys in front of the crowd; the audience roaring “Down with Ren Zhongyi!” with angry cries. They have prepared a large poster and a paper dunce hat with “Black Element Ren Zhongyi” written on them. Then they tried to put on his head the one meter high paper hat, but the too small opening was torn off, so the Red Guards attached a string to the tall hat, and forced Ren to hold the string with his hands tied behind his back. Some other Red Guards fetched a basin of stinky black ink and threw the liquid right at his face. The ink ran down his mouth and nose, dripping down onto the concrete floor. Another one took out a brush and wrote on his white shirt “Down with black element Ren!” In the end someone picked up the remaining pot of ink and poured it all down Ren’s neck, I saw the ink run down his waist, his legs and feet, seeping through the gray-blue trousers leaving a visible track from inside out. I was using a black and white film, on the printed picture it was impossible to tell whether it was ink, blood, or tears.

(JL) Twenty years later this provincial party boss told his family to safeguard this picture because it was “a family treasure”, didn’t he?

(LI) When Ren became the first secretary of the Guangdong Provincial Party Committee some twenty years after the event, he invited me over to Guangzhou, and he signed his name on the picture for me.


7- Temple Jilesi Monks forced humiliation in public Harbin 24 August 1966

(JL) On August 1966 the Red Guards ransacked Harbin’s Jilesi Temple (Temple of Extreme Happiness). Here is one of the most iconic, yet unbearable pictures. For people who do not read Chinese, it is still a great picture of protest and demonstration. The picture is composed of three layers: the first one and the third one are all these posters with handwritten curses in the background, and in the middle, a row of Buddhist monks dressed in their dark uniforms with their shaved heads, one of them, who led the Red Guards in – was now holding his cap with an embarrassed expression on his face; which reminds me of the French expression “eating one’s hat” which means “I regret what I‘ve done”. The whole scene looks like a teenage prank. In that moment you had a little incident with another photo-reporter, who insisted that the monks bow their heads in submission while you wanted to show their faces。

(Li) In the early days of the Cultural Revolution there was the “Four Olds” movement”. On the 24th of August 1966, the Red Guards were determined to destroy Harbin’s Jilesi Temple. They forced the monks to hoist a self-degrading banner with “Buddhist sutras are nothing but dog farts” written across. Among the photographers there, one veteran reporter wanted the monks to bow their head as if they confessed their guilt. He even tried to knock down the poster from their hands. I managed to convince him to let me take a couple of shots while they were holding up the poster. I who had studied cinema knew only too well how expressive a human face could be. So, when the monks were looking straight ahead, I pressed the shutter.


8- Destruction of Jilesi Temple by Red Guards 24 August 1966

(JL) One of my favorite pictures is this “still life” taken during the ransacking of the Jilesi Temple. In French still-life is called “nature morte”, literally “dead nature”. In Chinese this one is called “Smash the Old World”. The caption of this picture is right there pinned on the wall. A Buddha with a broken neck, like so many other decapitated religious statues in the history of wars and revolutions, a perfect representation of the collective “loss of mind”, and in here it signifies the loss of Chinese traditional spirit, the loss of direction from the leadership and the death of the human nature. This sort of negative image was certainly not publishable at the time?

(Li) On the day of August 24, in the name of destroying the “Four Olds” the Red Guards ransacked the temple of Jilesi, smashing statues and burning the Buddhist scriptures. The gold-gilt statues of Buddha were dismembered and mutilated. Although the newspaper would never publish this sort of politically incorrect images, I still painstakingly made a complete record. And following the cinematographic structure I made close-up shots, medium format and panoramic shots. To let the picture talk, you must pay attention to details. So, I deliberately included in the viewfinder the slogans of “smash the old world”, “swept away the devils and gods”, to add a finishing touch.


9- Three Party Leaders wearing dunce hat-Harbin November 1966

(JL) Another of my favorite is this picture of September 1966 -” Three men with dunce hat”-, a highly contrasted black & white image. Its surrealism reminds me of Roger Ballen’s portraits of the white people in South Africa in the 1990’s. I also remember that before May 1968 in the French primary schools, teachers would punish mischievous kids with the wearing of a pointed paper hat called the dunce hat (donkey hat in French) and the kids would stand in a corner of the classroom for public humiliation. And also in the 1950’s something of a totally different nature still happened in the Deep South of the USA where racial tension reached its height, the Ku Klux Klan wearing white robe and white pointed hat to terrorize the Black people. In your picture these dunce hats were even decorated with long tassels, like those pointed hats worn by people at New Year’s Eve party in the West. In this classic B&W portrait the names of the three subjects are ostensibly displayed. Although we can imagine the underlining terror, we cannot help but notice the comical expressions of the three grown-up men victim of some teenage pranks. The one in the middle looks as if he were trying to hide his face, the face he has “lost”. The one on the left raises his hand to the hat as if to salute. The one on the right just stands there, hands by his side, totally helpless in resignation.

(Li) This is indeed a funny but historical picture. When the Red Guards placed the tall hats on the heads of the three Provincial Party Secretaries, they did not have them tailor-made. Often the sizes did not fit and that would result in comical situations. That is the case here: the man on the right, Li Fanwu, was Heilongjiang’s Second Secretary and Provincial Governor. He was lucky to have a tall hat with the right size, it could sit perfectly on his head, so that he could relax his hands and stand still while listening to criticism. The man in the center, Wang Yilun, was the Party Secretary in charge of culture and education, his heavy and over-sized hat has slipped down to his neck, and in order to breathe he had to raise the hat with his hand a little higher. The man on the left, Chen Lei, was the Party Secretary and vice-governor, his hat was too small, forcing him to hold it with his hand to prevent it from falling off his head.


10- Seven party secretaries in public struggle Harbin April 1967

(JL) The “Seven men struggle” in April 1967 is another terrifying picture. On a performance stage seven party secretaries lined up with their head down bowing to an audience of tens of thousands of people, with the peculiar detail that they were all perched on chairs turned backwards. Shot from backstage the left to right arrow shaped composition under a low sky produces a feeling of tension and oppression. It is another nightmarish picture, from which viewpoint did you photograph that one, geographically or psychologically speaking?

(Li) This picture is shot during the mass rally for the public struggle of Heilongjiang’s Party Secretaries by the Rebels Faction from Harbin. I was positioned on the platform of the Northern building, using high angle shot and shooting against the light, I chose to photograph the dark silhouettes and the back of these Party Secretaries. With one precision, I have to say: people thought they were holding paper boards or wooden boards hanging around their necks, in reality those were heavy iron boards with a simple layer of paper glued on the surface, attached with an iron wire that was cutting into the flesh of these seven-men’s necks, with the intention to make them pay the price of their crime. Since the iron board was heavy, each culprit was secretly holding the edges of the iron board, to alleviate the weight.

(JL) You were the only one who could have seen these details.


11- Injured Red Guard after fight with rival faction to control a propaganda truck Harbin June 1967

(JL) This Red Guard was one of the wounded from the incident of the bus fight between rival factions in June 1967, his right hand wrapped up in a bandage gives him the look of a boxer. This is another iconic portrait. It reminds me of Liu Zheng’s The Chinese” published in May 2003, and the New York street photographer Weegee (1899-1968). Looking dazed and confused under the flashlight, his face still covered with acne, this middle school student turned hooligan, with his torn uniform, represents the social chaos of the time.

(LZS) On the 5th of June, 1967, a fierce battle broke out between two rival factions, over ten thousand people gathered in front of the building of the Provincial Revolutionary Committee and took part in a brawl, each faction wanted to lay hands on a truck equipped with a broadcasting loudspeaker. Both resorted to violence in order to occupy the base from where they could propagate Mao’s Thought. The battle resulted in a number of casualties for both factions. This student from a technical school was injured in the fight; his clothes were torn to pieces and his bandaged hand was still bleeding.


12- Reading the Mao quotes before swim Songhua River Harbin 16 July 1967

(JL) I would call this July 1968 great picture “The Bible reading swimmers.” The paradox is in the combination of the sacred spirit and the naked body. Under the stormy winds and clouds this line-up of athletes reciting Mao quotes; on another level what we see is the wasted youth of millions of young people who sacrificed their best years in vain for a surreal ideology brought about by what the official doctrine calls “a decade-long calamity. ” The beauty of the picture and its hidden meaning are entirely two different things.

(Li) In mid-July 1966, Chairman Mao who just lit up the fire of the Cultural Revolution decided to take a dive into the Yangtze River, in order to show that he was healthy enough to lead this unprecedented revolution. Since then each year at the anniversary of “July 16”, all over the country people would commemorate Chairman Mao’s Yangtze swim by organizing events on rivers and lakes. This is July 16, 1968, on Harbin’s Songhua River, swimmers before jumping into the water piously read the “Little Red Book.” It was a common belief that if you study Chairman Mao’s Quotes before you swim across the river, you can never get lost.


13- Sing and dance literature and arts workers going to the fields to educate poor peasants in Mao thought Heilongjiang August 1968

(JL) In August 1968 the Song & Dance Troupe carried the Red Flag to the countryside. A beautiful typical propaganda picture. Perfect dynamic structural composition, with reflections in the roadside water pond, shot from low angle view to create an aspirational religious zeal. Leading the procession were three portraits of the “Saint”, but underneath there was the wasteland, symbolical of the state of paralysis of China’s economy at the time. You were shooting like a cinematographer, setting up the camera and choosing the angle, waiting for the “emergence”?

(LZS) On August 18, 1968, I was reporting on the Heilongjiang “Song and Dance Revolution Soldiers carrying the Red Flag to the farmland”. They carried a big portrait of Chairman Mao and two small ones as route opener. Behind, fluttering in the wind, on both sides were two large flags with “Red Guards” and “Red Rebel Group” written on them. Most of them wearing self-made camouflage military uniforms, dashing high spirits and singing Red songs on the dirt road, they were going to propagate to the masses of farmers the invincible Mao’s Thought. “To add some beauty to the wilderness, I used the water reflection of the roadside and chose to shoot from low angle.


14- Performance of the White Hair Girl Ballet before 50 million farmers in Acheng County HeilongJiang 23 July 1975

(JL) in 1975 in order to photograph the White-Haired Girl you went so close as to appear on the stage which angered Jiang Qing (Madam Mao) so much that you were almost fired from your job. In this picture, you were shooting from a high angle, from backstage, we can see both performers and the crowd, the dancer seems to fly in the air. . . But her leap could not overcome the row of motionless soldiers and the oppression of the thick masses.

(Lee) During the Cultural Revolution, its “standard-bearer” Jiang Qing has ordered the Chinese dance troupe to tour the country to perform the revolutionary model operas. In July 1975, the newspaper sent me to cover the Heilongjiang Tour, in Daqing, in factories, and other rural areas where they held revolutionary ballet performances. This picture shows the 100,000 workers from the Daqing Oil Field watching the ballet “Red Detachment of Women”, basically people sitting faraway in the back could not see the little figures on the stage, yet they had to sit there and watch it through. Watching model operas was a serious political task.


15- Women militia patrolling the Sino-Russian border – Heilongjiang June 1976

(JL) In February 1976, you went to photograph the women militia patrolling at the Sino-Soviet border. By October, the end of the Cultural Revolution would be officially declared with the crushing of the Gang of Four. This classic landscape photography, very much in the geometric style that Cartier-Bresson loved, combines rows of vertical trees (YANG) with a horizontal line of women militia fanning out in the snow (YIN), the trees marking the show white fields forming with the dark silhouettes a musical score sheet, creating a classic black and white picture.

(Li) In February 1976, I went to the Soviet border area to photograph the women militia formed by the educated youth (Zhi Qing), I used the row of trees as foreground and the white woodlands as background, with gun-toting women militia patrolling in the snow, to make a beautiful landscape photography. This is a common scene in cinematography, the characters in action in-between the foreground and the background, using panning to enhance the feeling of movement. In July 2003, the Master of Photography Henry Cartier-Bresson after having read my book “Red Color News Soldiers” invited me to meet him in Arles. He said that he liked the way the pictures in the book were printed with the black frames, as he had done all his life to show the viewers his original un-cropped composition. He also talked about this very picture of women militia in the snowy forest presented as a double page spread in my book.

© Jean Loh Dec 2011 Shanghai


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