Photos from the Chinese Cultural Revolution suggest that it was not the gun but the spectacle of public shaming that was the Red Guards’ weapon of choice.
June 1, 2004
Jun 1, 2004
37 Min read time
In the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the weapon of choice was not the gun but the spectacle of public shaming.
Red-Color News Soldier
Phaidon, $39.95 (flexi)
Assignment Shanghai: Photographs on the Eve of Revolution
Jack Birns, edited by Carolyn Wakeman and Ken Light
University of California Press, $34.95 (cloth)
Li Zhensheng’s name means “Like a soaring song your fame will touch the four corners of the world.” Li had the luck, and the misfortune, to become a staff photographer for a local newspaper in Harbin, the capital of China’s northernmost province of Heilongjiang, in 1963; three years later the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in which he would participate as both activist and victim, erupted. Li worked at the paper for eighteen years (albeit with a two-year detour to a reeducation camp), during which he shot tens of thousands of photos documenting, and exalting, the wild political upheaval that shook China for a decade. He shot thousands of other photos too; these revealed a far darker side of the revolutionary experiment, and Li hid their paper-wrapped negatives under the floorboards of his apartment. In 1988 twenty of these images were exhibited in Beijing; in the 1990s Li, by then a university professor, began smuggling them to the United States. Now 285 of these photos, along with detailed captions, historic essays, newspaper reproductions, and Li’s reminiscences, have been published in a handsome, distressing book called Red-Color News Soldier.
Scholars of Chinese history will view these photos in ways perhaps different from the rest of us, though it should be said that even the best of them have trouble understanding the Cultural Revolution. With its fanatical cult of personality (Mao must be one of the few leaders “branded” onto household items like buttons and dishes); its seemingly inexhaustable waves of planned chaos; its exultant hordes of students, including teens, mercilessly attacking party officials (and eventually each other) for years on end; its decimation of almost all institutions, from the universities to the factories; its massive public spectacles of shaming and humiliation; its insistence on creating a new world while institutionalizing hereditary guilt; its commitment to Mao’s dictum that “it is right to rebel” combined with the most severe regimentation of daily life—it is not a form of “Orientalism,” but rather of humility, to admit that all this is a challenge to historians and political scientists alike, not to mention those of us simply trying to understand the cataclysmic trajectory of the twentieth century.
Like the student movements of the 1960s in the United States, Mexico, and Europe, the Cultural Revolution was a generational battle—except that in China, the young Red Guards were supported, and in some ways controlled, by the Great Helmsman himself (imagine if Richard Nixon had aligned himself with the Weathermen). Like those other movements, it exhibited the fantastic energy, arrogance, and impatient idealism characteristic of the young; but unlike them, it seemed singularly uninterested in freedom and, instead, adored discipline. It was a fundamentalist communist—certainly not “dissident”—movement, but its main enemy was the Communist Party; it sought not a liberalized, democratic or “humanized” communism but a radically purified one. It was Stalinist, but it was anarchic too, and considered the Soviet Union its deadly antagonist. As Jonathan D. Spence, one of our country’s foremost China scholars, writes in his introductory essay to Red-Color News Soldier, “It is a basic belief of most historians, including myself, that the more time elapses after an event has taken place, the easier it is going to be to interpret that particular event, and to understand it. In the case of the Cultural Revolution in China, . . . that generalization ceases to have any meaning. To the contrary, the more time has passed, the harder it has become to make sense of [it].”
How does the infliction of humiliation develop from a private, personal form of pathology into an organized, public tool of political change?
In any case, photographs are terrible at making sense of history. They are adept, however, at showing us how things looked, and at conveying the feeling of events—or, rather, at clarifying the viewer’s feelings as she contemplates those events. (The feelings of the characters in any photograph are never decisively known.) And the feeling that emerges when I look at Li’s photos is one of almost unbearable discomfort verging on shame: discomfort that I am viewing the humiliation of others, and shame that I belong to the human race that inflicts such cruelty. (This may mark the beginnings of the misanthropy that, the political philosopher Judith Shklar warns, can result from hating cruelty.) The key question, though, that Li’s photos present for me (as opposed to the feelings they evoke) is this: how does it happen that the deliberate infliction of humiliation develops from a private, personal form of pathology into an organized, public tool of political change?
For the strong suggestion of these photos is that it was not the gun but the spectacle of public shaming that was the Red Guards’ weapon of choice.1 Time and again, photos and text tell of the rituals: the party members, generally middle-aged men who have been denounced as “capitalist- roaders” or “counterrevolutionary revisionists,” are forced to stand (or to balance for long times on a chair without falling) on a public stage as Red Guards heap abuse upon them, surrounded by throngs of what look like very young people. Sometimes the party officials were paraded for days on end, to be condemned hundreds or even thousands of times; some fell asleep at their “trials.” In Li’s pictures, the crowds of spectators are not joyful or mocking but fiercely serious: their brows furrowed, their mouths taut. The name of the accused (crossed out with a large “X”) and a list of his crimes are written on a placard that hangs from his neck; according to Li, these transgressions boiled down to “having power, knowledge, or wealth.” The accused often wear hugely elongated dunce caps—bearing slogans and, weirdly, decorated with confetti—that pull them forward; in any case, their heads are usually bowed. This makes it difficult to see their expressions, though from what I can tell a determined non-expression—a stoic impassivity—is the norm.
There are so many ways to humiliate a person. Sometimes the transgressors are made to smear smelly ink on their faces so that, as Li subsequently wrote when looking at his photos, “I could not distinguish between blood, tears, and ink.” Li’s photos document the specifics: one official, a powerful provincial governor named Li Fanwu—who would be criticized over 2,000 times for his alleged crimes, including false accusations of incest—sported a hairstyle that was similar to Mao’s and, therefore, allegedly symbolized a “lust for power.” We witness one of his hazings—accompanied, Li tells us, by cries of “Shave it into a ghost head!”—in which his hair is yanked out by four very determined guards, one a frowning girl with the smooth, pudgy cheeks of childhood. Special punishments were created for women, such as the wife of one disgraced party official who was paraded on stage wearing high heels, a fancy dress, and a necklace of . . . ping-pong balls. In his nicely low-key manner, Li sums up: “There was no end to the malicious inventiveness of the Red Guards.”2
The desire to create political justice, which is what the Red Guards believed they were doing, is not just distinct from but antithetical to the desire to torment perceived wrongdoers. Punishment can be the ally of justice but cruelty, and specifically the cruelty of humiliation, cannot. (Cruelty without humiliation can exist, but humiliation is always cruel.) Punishment, at least when done right, seeks to reconstruct a moral order that has been disfigured by unjust deeds; humiliation, conversely, attempts to destroy the wrongdoer’s self-worth. And whereas punishment tries to foster a sense of guilt based on an understanding that one has wronged others—suggesting that rehabilitation into an I-thou relation is at least possible—humiliation turns the wrongdoer inward toward self-hatred while solidifying the community on the basis of contempt and disgust. Humiliation is a form of social death, which can give birth to neither a healthy citizen nor a just social order.
Humiliation is a form of social death, which can give birth to neither a healthy citizen nor a just social order.
Li’s photos of humiliation rituals suggest not only a kind of mass psychosis, in which immense portions of an immense society became inured to the suffering of others, but something far worse: the deliberate, energetic infliction of suffering—most often in the form of publicly stripping perceived enemies of their honor and forcing them to abase themselves—as a social good. This is horrific, but certainly not peculiar to the Chinese Revolution in particular nor to Marxism-Leninism in general. For the Cultural Revolution was, if nothing else, a giant purification ritual, an attempt to cleanse the party of what a Marxist ideologue would call counterrevolutionary elements and a religious ideologue heretical ones.
They are not always far apart. As the political theorist Barrington Moore Jr. has written, a great and terrible accomplishment of the French Revolution was to secularize the idea of moral purity, which previously—that is, from the time of the Old Testament through Europe’s bloody wars of religion—had been used to valorize intolerance, persecution, cruelty, and slaughter as expressions of piety. “The French Revolution showed for the first time in history that enormous cruelty can exist without religious monotheism yet with intense concern about moral purity,” Moore writes. “In monotheism’s place we find . . . the concept of revolutionary purity.” To the French revolutionists, legitimate opposition became an oxymoron, for “political differences became moral differences and opponents moral outlaws—lepers and menaces all at once.” Thus Saint-Just, the great theorist of terror, could define moral courage as, Moore writes, “the absence of feelings of guilt, especially guilt that might inhibit the application of revolutionary justice.” And so revolutionary absolutism, and the “good,” untroubled cruelty that accompanies it, were born.3
There is a particularly bitter irony to Li’s photographs of the orgies of shame because the Chinese Revolution—especially as popularized by one of the world’s most influential writers—was inextricably linked to the struggle for dignity. That writer was André Malraux, who set his first novel, The Conquerors, and then his masterpiece, Man’s Fate, in the China of revolutionary ferment.4
These novels—the former takes place during the Cantonese general strike of 1925; the latter in 1927, during the Shanghai insurrection that resulted in Chiang Kai-shek’s massacre of the Communists—are not documentary accounts of the Chinese Revolution, or even historic novels in the typical sense. Despite the romantic notions that Malraux encouraged during his lifetime, subsequent biographers have shown that he almost surely could not have witnessed the events he wrote about, nor did he work as a Comintern agent in China. In fact, he had not yet even been to China, though he had traveled to what was then French Indochina and is now Cambodia and Vietnam.5
The novels in question do engage some explicitly political, topical themes, such as the (presumably outdated) conflict between the individual and the party, the (far from outdated) lure of terrorism, the morality and efficacy of nonviolence, and the debate over torture’s possible justification. But these books are, mainly, works of the philosophic imagination in which Malraux explores the nature of solitude, suffering, and solidarity and the tragic paradoxes to which they lead us all. Still, it was not just by chance that Malraux set these novels in China, whose revolution, he realized even in the 1920s, would be of world-historic import. And it was not by chance that he placed the attainment of dignity at the center of the revolutionary project. Dignity—the sober, unshakable knowledge of self-worth—is the theme that Malraux returns to again and again, the thread that weaves through his tapestry.
To Kyo, the revolutionary hero (though he is defeated) of Man’s Fate, the aim of revolution is not solely to “put culottes on the sans-culottes,” as one leader said of the French Revolution.6More than economic justice is demanded: “[Kyo’s] life had a meaning,” Malraux writes, “and he knew what it was: to give to each of these men . . . the sense of his own dignity.” For Kyo, and probably Malraux too, a revolutionary movement must strive not just to end hunger and exploitation, but to foster in each man both an understanding and a refusal of his suffering. Conversely, one of the novel’s least admirable characters, the capitalist Ferral, is inured to the need for dignity and distinguished precisely by his need to humiliate others, especially his mistress.
For Malraux, a perception of one’s own dignity leads, by necessity, to an awareness of others’ pain (which should not, however, be confused with pacifism). In one of the book’s seminal scenes, Kyo, now imprisoned, is driven almost mad by a guard’s beating of an elderly lunatic in a neighboring cell, of which the other prisoners heartily approve. Kyo’s protest leads to his own whipping, but he does succeed in stopping the other man’s torment—though at a price both literal and figurative. And even the terrorist Ch’en, who opens Man’s Fate with a merciless act of murder, feels compelled to aid an injured man in agony, though the two are ideological enemies. Perhaps to his own surprise, Ch’en finds that he cannot turn away from “the sight of that bound and tortured creature, of human powerlessness in suffering.”
But Malraux is cognizant, too, of how fragile dignity is, of how easily—terribly easily—men can be broken, and of how empathy is foreclosed once they are. König, the sadistic chief of police inMan’s Fate, spits out the word “dignity” with hatred. His own dignity, he avows, resides in killing others: only then is he a man. Not surprisingly, it turns out that König, too, knows something—too much—of humiliation. In Russia, where he served the White Army, he was captured, and tortured, by Bolshevik soldiers: “They drove a nail into each shoulder,” he remembers. “Long as a finger. Listen carefully. . . . I wept like a woman, like a calf. . . . I wept before them. You understand, don’t you? Let’s leave it at that.” Malraux understands. With a terrible prescience—he was writing, after all, before the worst horrors of the century had unfurled—he observes that the “wrecks from the civil wars of China and Siberia” will teach us how “a deep humiliation calls for a violent negation of the world.” (Malraux’s foresight, now celebrated, was then rare; he was one of the few intellectuals who, as the journalist Janet Flanner wrote, realized that “the 1920’s were not Europe’s postwar but its prewar period.”)
Man’s Fate was hailed as a work of genius upon publication, and the judgment, though hasty, was right. The key to its power is Malraux’s saturation of all his characters—foreign adventurers, Russian revolutionaries, French capitalists, Chinese terrorists, policemen, scholars, fathers, sons, comrades, enemies, idealists, and opportunists—with a complex, often ambiguous humanity, and his insistence that neither the “good” people nor the “bad” will escape the existential fate of defeat, loneliness, and death.7(This does not mean that how men choose to live is unimportant.) Malraux is aware—and it is an awareness both sad and joyous—of how spontaneity and imperfection, which is to say human-ness, cannot be vanquished; and aware, too, of how this flawed but stubborn humanity intervenes in history, rendering the most perfect plans, including the most horribly perfect plans, impossible.8 This understanding is most clearly shown in a scene in which Katov, a Russian revolutionary now working in China, recalls a White massacre during the Russian Revolution. Captured Bolshevik soldiers have been ordered to dig a pit for their graves and to take off their trousers, which embarrasses them. Malraux describes the scene:
In spite of death, the men were hurrying to get warm. Several had begun to sneeze. . . . Behind them, beyond their comrades, women, children and old men from the village were herded, scarcely clad, wrapped in blankets, mobilized to witness the example. Many were turning their heads, as though they were trying not to look, but they were fascinated by horror. . . . “Take off your trousers!” The wounds appeared. . . . They formed a line again, on the edge of the pit this time, facing the machine-guns, pale on the snow: flesh and shirts. Bitten by the cold, they were now sneezing uncontrollably, one after the other, and those sneezes were so intensely human, in that dawn of execution, that the machine-gunners, instead of firing, waited—waited for life to become less indiscreet. At last they decided to fire. The following evening the Reds recaptured the village: seventeen of the victims who were still alive—among them Katov—were saved. Those pale shadows on the greenish snow at dawn, transparent, shaken by convulsive sneezes in the face of the machine-guns, were here in this rain, in this Chinese night.
It is those sneezes—those uncontrollable, unpredictable bits of quirky human behavior—that characterize the best of Li’s pictures and emerge repeatedly in the story of his life.
From the photos:
• A sneeze: A peasant exhibits a Mao portrait to his comrades. They gather around, enthusiastically intent on the leader’s visage. But wait: one young boy, apparently more fascinated by the presence of the live photographer than by the dead image, whirls around to face Li’s camera. He is caught in the decisive moment, his mouth open, as if excitedly exclaiming to Li that . . . but alas, we don’t know what.
• A sneeze: Amidst a demonstration in Tiananmen Square, a teenage Red Guard, Shi Shouyun, records in her “Little Red Book” the exact time at which Mao’s motorcade passed her. One can disdain the cult of personality, but one cannot dismiss the look of radiant delight on her friends’ faces as they cluster around her. One pig-tailed, slightly buck-toothed girl, a smile lighting up her face, leans shyly toward Shi, trying to catch her newly important friend’s eye, though Shi continues writing. Who could have predicted that revolution and Beatlemania would fuse?
• A (bad) sneeze: Li photographs an extended execution sequence. Seven men and one woman—counterrevolutionaries, common criminals, and an adulterous couple—are paraded through Harbin and then, bound and kneeling, shot in the backs of their heads in a bleak cemetery on the outskirts of town. Just before death, a guard tries to separate the condemned lovers.
Li Zhensheng seems enormously likable. His face, which we see in various self-portraits shot with a timer, suggests a vibrant, friendly young man ready for, and open to, the world. (He has a sense of humor too, and isn’t above mugging for the camera.) Li’s text is even-handed and unsanctimonious: he does not place himself above the events he describes. Nor is he terribly self-serious about the motives behind his work: “I realized that I had to document this tumultuous period,” Li writes. “I didn’t really know whether I was doing it for the sake of the revolution, for myself, or for the future.” He had prosaic reasons too: the older photographers on the newspaper, spooked after an unfortunate run-in with the Red Guards, tended to avoid the mass rallies and parades while Li, as the youngest and least experienced, wanted simply “to take as many pictures as possible.” In short, he knew that something important was happening, which meshed well with his ambitions.
Li, who was born in the Japanese- occupied port city of Dalian in 1940, was part of the last generation to know the old order. His mother died young; his father was a ship’s cook. As a child Li was a movie addict and earned ticket money selling empty toothpaste tubes. (His grandmother was decidedly unamused when she discovered him brushing with mounds of paste.) When he couldn’t afford a ticket, he recalls, “I just stood in front of the theater and listened to the movie, trying to imagine the image of the film. I even took notes. Then, when the film was over, I compared them to what my friends in the audience had really seen.” Li spent a lot of time staring at movie stills, an influence one can detect in his photos, whose stately compositions defy the turbulence of their subject. After studying cinematography at Changchun Film School, he won his newspaper job, though for pretty sneezy reasons: “At that time the paper had four photographers. One was as tall and skinny as a lamppost, one was fat and round like a ball, and the other two were so short they were almost midgets. This irritated Zhao [the editor in chief], who felt that the . . . newspaper . . . needed to have at least one presentable photographer. Apparently having met his criteria, I started at the Heilongjiang Daily in August 1963.”
At the outset, Li was excited by the Cultural Revolution. “Everyone felt the same—that it was a right movement,” he remembers. “[Mao] said we were going to have revolutions like this every seven or eight years, so young men like me were thinking that we were lucky, we . . . would have the chance to experience several of them during our lifetimes.”
He became disturbed by some of the movement’s excesses, and as the whirlwind intensified, “it was all a bit crazy to me.” But Li was a man of his time and his generation. “As a photographer, I was also a participant,” he recalls. “If the crowd chanted, I chanted; if everyone raised their fists, I raised my fist also.” And more than that: noticing that those with red armbands had the best access to events, Li decided to start his own rebel faction, the “Red Group Fighting Team.” Soon, naturally, they ran up against a rival cadre at the paper, and a fight ensued over who exactly was the reddest of them all. (“In the Cultural Revolution everyone tried to be more revolutionary than others, including myself,” Li explains.) Eventually the dispute was taken for adjudication to Beijing’s Chinese Media Association, which had been renamed the National Headquarters of the Red Rebels in News Media. And voila! Li’s group was anointed the most revolutionary and received a new name, “Red-Color News Soldier.”
Be careful what you wish for: after a subsequent power struggle, Li’s group was thrust into the paper’s leadership (its first act was to denounce Zhao Yang, the editor who had hired Li, as a “revisionist”). At this point the revolution definitely became farce as Li, whose ambitions were primarily photographic rather than political, suddenly found himself in charge: “I had changed from an ordinary journalist to someone with power—and I was filled with a sense of self-contentment.” Though he oversaw criticism campaigns and purges, “I tried to conduct my duties without cruelty. . . . I’m not saying I’m very noble. Only I had some compassion. . . . I never hit anybody. . . . I didn’t search anyone’s home.”
It was not long, of course, before Li himself was suspected of counterrevolutionary crimes. For the very nature of revolutionary purity—as of all absolutes—is impossibility: the dream can exist only so long as it suppresses its inherent hopelessness, which requires constantly searching out new sources of nourishment. At the end of 1968, a group of student rebels accused Li of being a “newly born bourgeois.” He underwent the humiliation hazing, his apartment was searched, he was stripped of his cameras; nine months later, he and his wife were sent to a reeducation camp in the countryside, separating them from their infant son. Li labored all day in the icy cold, subsisted on watery soup, and spent the evenings in exhausting self-criticism sessions or on even more exhausting forced marches. (Against regulations, he smuggled in two cameras, and we see a self-portrait: bundled up in the snowy woods, arm propped against a tree, he stares somewhat heroically into the distant sun. He does not look too miserable, though I believe he was.) After two years, a power struggle in the provincial Central Committee led to the disintegration of the reeducation camp, and the prisoners essentially picked up and left. Li and his wife returned to Harbin and, after meeting with his former enemies at the paper (Mao had instituted a new “unity campaign”), Li was rehired by Zhao, the editor he had previously attacked. His first big assignment was to cover the state visit of Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk.
It is tempting, from our vantage point—rational, skeptical, and indisputably wise—to laugh at the ideological extremism and fundamentalist certainties of the Cultural Revolution. There was the robotic memorization of Mao’s apparently infallible dictums. There was the belief that the minutest aspects of life can be understood and, therefore, controlled: “Once an old lady fell between the rails,” Li remembers of his time in the work camp. “Instead of being brought to the clinic, she was forced to analyze why she had fallen.” There was the public regimentation of privacy: Li shows us a smiling newlywed couple as they decorate their apartment with Mao portraits, which was presumably a good thing to do. But it turned out to be a bad thing to do: “Later criticized for making love under the eyes of their leader,” Li reports, “they asserted that they always first turned out the lights.” There was the infantilism (this was, after all, a children’s crusade): a group of disgraced monks holds a banner proclaiming: “To hell with the Buddhist scriptures. They are full of dog farts.” There was the bizarre symbolism: we see a flag-festooned parade of demonstrators holding large Mao portraits, a plaster Mao statue, and glass cases bearing . . . mangos. Li’s caption explains: “Heilongjiang’s revolutionary committee is greeted . . . with gifts of wax mangos, emulating the seven real mangos given to Mao by a delegation from Pakistan the previous August. Mao presented these mangos to seven worker-peasant propaganda teams. . . . The bestowal of mangos came to symbolize Mao’s trust in the workers.” There was the denial of mortality, expressed in the motto, “May Mao live a long life without end!” There was, most of all, the refusal to acknowledge that we are flawed and incomplete creatures who occasionally stumble toward the light (the basis, I think, of Malraux’s existential Marxism) and the insistence, instead, that we can create an earthly paradise—and fast—if we are only strong and good and hard enough.
But the laughter would be too easy, and wrong. The Cultural Revolution may have been a demented solution, but the problem that it sought, at least in part, to address—how to create a more participatory society—is a real one that challenges revolutionary and liberal-democratic countries alike. Though it was vastly coercive, there is no doubt that millions of its early adherents were, like Li, motivated by a genuine belief that they were creating a more just and egalitarian nation. Though it was repressive, it was not only that: One simply cannot fake the sense of solidarity, of joy, of excitement and engagement that infuse many of Li’s photos and much of his text. He shows us eager schoolchildren on their way to a “Little Red Book” study session; smiling college students painting their bright, dramatic revolutionary posters; the intensity of a group of peasants as they gather together, straining over each others’ shoulders to read the latest revolutionary missive from the Central Committee; the passengers—men and women, young and old—on a crowded train to Beijing, fists raised in unison as they sing revolutionary slogans. The Cultural Revolution pitted Chinese citizens against each other, and viciously so, but it created comrades too.
Today, when China is the economic powerhouse of the East and apermanent member of the Security Council, it may be hard to remember that, only 40 years ago, it was one of the most isolated and impoverished countries on Earth: barred from the United Nations, embargoed by the United States, and fighting a bitter Cold War with both superpowers. Moreover, it is perhaps no surprise that the immensity of its poverty and its problems—of a scale and a kind almost unknown in the West—have inspired the most extreme solutions time and again.
For decades if not centuries, China’s immiseration had awed and repelled outsiders, even sympathetic ones. Here is the narrator of Malraux’s The Conquerors:
Nothing in Europe can even suggest the misery of these masses, the misery of animals ravaged by some universal mange, gazing dimly out of dull, vacant eyes empty of appeal or even hate. At the sight of them a rude, equally animal resentment rises in me, compounded of shame, fear, and ignoble joy not to be one of them. Pity wells only when I’m out of sight of that emaciation, those mandrake’s limbs, tatters, scabs big as a hand on that greenish skin, and those eyes already glassy and vague, scarcely human—when they aren’t shut.
Fiction, perhaps. But the journalist Martha Gellhorn, who reported from China in 1941 during its war with Japan, had similar thoughts. She wrote:
I felt that it was pure doom to be Chinese; no worse luck could befall a human being than to be born and live there, unless by some golden chance you happened to be born one of the .00000099 per cent who had power, money, privilege (and even then, even then). I pitied them all, I saw no tolerable future for them, and I longed to escape away from what I had escaped into: the age-old misery, filth, hopelessness.
China’s poverty is not Li’s subject, yet it is impossible to view his photos without repeatedly confronting the country’s startling underdevelopment. The “rich peasants” forced to grovel before the crowds would pass for impoverished proletarians anywhere else, bundled in their shapeless tattered jackets, dirty wrinkled pants and work boots. In a rare still-life—a sort of reverse Walker Evans image—Li displays the evidence against a man accused of “hoarding riches”: three watches (one apparently bandless), two brooches, three fake-leather handbags. The photos of farm labor are daunting, as peasants work the sometimes arid, sometimes frozen, always bleak land with the most primitive manual instruments; in one particularly dismal photo, a pregnant woman lugs frozen soil. (Only one photograph of rural life is beautiful; not coincidentally, it was taken from afar. It shows a stately procession of peasants bent over their scythes as they till the fields, their small figures silhouetted in clear black. Rather than the ultra-heroism of most socialist realist art, this photo is imbued with a certain gentleness, perhaps because a cloud-filled, milky-gray sky fills much of the frame.) And while life in the cities was certainly better than that in the countryside, here is Li almost off-handedly describing his apartment, whose former owner had been denounced for lavishness: “There was no heat or gas or sewage system, and everyone shared a single makeshift toilet with wooden walls and a pit in the ground.” Li’s book reveals, perhaps inadvertently, a “socialism” that redistributed poverty rather than created wealth, and that concealed its race to the bottom behind the cloak of supposed equality.
The Communists won their revolution in 1949, which falls approximately halfway between the events of Malraux’s books and those of Li’s. A recently published collection of photographs, Assignment Shanghai: Photographs on the Eve of Revolution (University of California Press)—taken during the Communist-Nationalist war of 1947–49—documents the political violence, cultural dislocations, and staggering poverty that preceded, and laid the ground for, the revolution. The photographs were taken by Jack Birns, an American photographer for Life magazine during the glory days (that is, the pre-television days) of mass-market documentary photography in the United States, as practiced by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, and the Capa brothers. Like Li, Birns was young (28) and ambitious: “I was hungry, and I worked hard,” he recalls in the book’s preface. “What drove us was the prospect of an exclusive story, a ‘scoop’ that beat all media competition in the area and, even better, beat the other Life staffers jostling for space in the magazine.”
Like Li’s, Birns’s negatives lay fallow for decades—in the latter case, half a century. The vast majority were never published, some almost certainly because they failed to please Life publisher Henry Luce, a staunch anti-Communist and avid supporter of Chiang Kai-shek. Birns is pretty sanguine, though not entirely happy, about this:
Life editors made no comment in turning down my stories. My goal was to record the grim daily lives of a people who had endured a half century of warfare, from the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to the civil war in 1947, but these everyday scenes were simply not considered newsworthy. I was irked that my photographs weren’t published, but the view from Rockefeller Center was different from my view in Shanghai. I figured it was their magazine. I got to take the pictures, and they got to choose.
There are many dramatic, and disturbing, photographs here, such as the unpublished series Birns shot in February 1948 in Sonjiang. We see about a dozen executed Communist guerrillas, their corpses trussed and disemboweled, lining a riverbank. This is followed by a shot of wild dogs in the distance, primed to attack the bodies as a uniformed Nationalist soldier stands before a wall; he holds a severed head dangling from what looks like a string. Then we see the results of his handiwork: the head, which had previously belonged to the leader of this Communist cell, has been mounted on the wall; a small crowed, defined in the caption as “sullen,” has gathered for a viewing. (The revolution did not introduce barbarism to China.) But it is the first image in this series that I found most haunting: the Communist partisans, after their capture and before what they surely know will be their deaths, stare out at us, the uncondemned. One prisoner crouches, one sits cross-legged, some stand; one man, his pants rolled up to reveal a blasted knee, casually drapes his arm around a comrade. The men are dressed in shabby, quilted jackets; they are bareheaded and barefoot. Their faces are broad and flat and bony, but their cheeks seem to almost sag. It is their expressions that arrest us: while some gaze straight at the camera and others slightly off to the side, all look utterly bereft; they ask for and expect nothing. It is impossible to know the misery that was not just this moment, but their lives.
The most chilling photograph here, though, does not depict actual violence and is all the scarier for it. In a double spread, we see 15 young women standing in five straight lines of three before a brick wall painted with white letters; most stare straight at the camera. Some seem to be teenagers. A creepy sense of regimentation pervades this photo: all the women (girls, really) are of the same height; each sports the same haircut (chopped off bluntly just below the ears); each wears a thick, quilted, double-breasted coat, pants, and work boots. A few have mittens; all are bareheaded. In the foreground of the frame stands a uniformed soldier wearing glasses and a fur-lined hat; he surveys his charges with a slight smile. This is an extremely ominous photograph—from the militaristic formation in which the girls stand, to the severity and uniformity of their haircuts, to the hurt, bewildered expressions on their faces (though one girl in the front row casts down her eyes and, oddly, smiles—has the guard called out to her?); it is no exaggeration to say I felt terror the moment I saw it, and feared it could reach out and harm me. Birns’s caption doesn’t tell much, yet enough to suggest a bottomless anguish: “A Nationalist officer guards women prisoners said to be ‘comfort girls’ used by the Communists. Mukden, January 1948.”
In another series, dated May 1949, we see an arrested Communist prisoner on a flatbed, surrounded by a half dozen policemen whose bright white helmets seem to mock the equal whiteness of his shirt. In what might be a foretelling of the events in Li’s book, the prisoner’s hands are lashed behind him to a tall white paddle illustrated with black letters that elucidate his crimes. In the next photo, he is shot in the head from behind—the weapon of choice, Birns tells us, is a Colt automatic—and the force of the bullet makes his hair whiz upward. The following photograph shows a second Communist prisoner being executed, this time with a machine gun; we can just make out the grimace of his face in profile at the moment the bullet hits. In the foreground, a policeman with a pistol bends over the bloody-faced corpse of the first man. But what’s left to shoot, other than the paddle?
Much of the violence that Birns depicts is directed against civilians. Three striking cotton-mill workers sit in a police van, each holding a towel to his bloodied head. A crowd of dance-hall hostesses storm a municipal agency to protest rising license fees. A young woman in a long sweater and a neat curly hairdo stands, both arms raised, as two policemen frisk her; we see other raised hands behind her. (They belong to striking textile-mill workers.) In a far shot from above, a crowd of women and children rush down a broad avenue, chasing a loaded cotton truck: they are desperate to catch stray tufts they might sell. Then we see one such woman—a “cotton thief”—as she crouches on the street, warding off a policeman’s blows. In the next shot, another thief—a woman with a gaunt, stony face and hacked-off hair—is apprehended by a husky policeman with nice puffy cheeks. The woman, who clutches a small cloth bag, is tied to her panic-stricken young daughter with a piece of twine. The two wear ragged clothes and tattered slippers.
Everyday life was not always grim. There is the outdoor housewares shop manned by a smiling couple and their grinning son; its magical mélange of wooden brushes, twine, and who knows what—some objects stored behind glass cases, others cascading from the roof—reminds us of the quiet beauty of everyday things. There is the courtly, elderly entrepreneur, sporting round wire glasses and a long wispy beard, who stands before his photography studio, and a sidewalk vendor of snakes and patent medicines whose prospective customers eye his offerings dubiously. Shanghai was, of course, the most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities, and so we see the bar girls with their callow, grinning American customers (one clasps his “date” on the buttock) and a tough, wildly tattooed bartender. In one lounge, a heavily made-up Chinese hostess with robustly arched eyebrows sits calmly at a table, playing solitaire as she puffs on a cigarette. Business, we are told, was bad.
But much of the everyday was utterly wretched. Here is a man with a stout hat and a cigarette pulling something from his bicycle cart. The something is an elongated, emaciated child’s corpse—every rib is visible—being delivered to a morgue. The next shot shows a small coffin stuffed with children’s corpses awaiting cremation (this taken on Christmas Eve, 1947); several well-bundled children and their mothers stare at it.9 Rag-covered lumps line a street; they are homeless people. An ancient, wrinkled woman, her head covered with a black scarf, sits beside the tracks of a train station in Pukou; bent from the waist, she sweeps the platform with a straw brush. A cleaner? Not quite: she is searching, Birns’s caption tells us, for a few “grains of rice or bits of coal.” Another photo shows a dismal, thatch-covered shantytown on the banks of the Huangpu River; it looks about to topple. And then, a sneeze: in the midst of this slum a woman in a long, quilted black coat stands before a sparkling, immaculately white shirt that hangs proudly from her clothesline, a hint of a smile on her face.
Birns’s book ends with a family in flight from Shanghai one month before the city fell to the Communists. A mother and her three children sit aboard a wheelbarrow. Their possessions, including rolls of bedding, a cord of firewood, a basket, and an upside-down chair, tumble in all directions. The cart is pushed by a man—hired hand or father—whose face we cannot see. But we do see the pretty, frowning young mother with her hair in a bun; she clutches a pile of blankets, a worried expression on her face. (A sister, she must be, of Dorothea Lange’s iconic migrant Madonna.) And we see her children—two girls and a boy—who have turned around to face the camera, and who would have been called adorable in another time and place. Their clothes are torn, but there is nothing abject about them; they look alert and wary—do they understand what’s happening?—yet not quite afraid. The oldest girl, in pigtails and a ragged white dress, gazes intently at us; she seems to be about six. These three would be ready—too ready?—for the Cultural Revolution when it came.
1. The number of those killed during the Cultural Revolution is in vast dispute; almost any figure will be questioned not by thousands or tens of thousands, but by millions.
2. At this point some readers may be thinking of the scandalous, hideous photographs of U.S. soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison. Yet in my view these photographs, and their political context, share few similarities with either Li’s photos in particular or the Cultural Revolution in general. I am making no normative claim as to which set of photos, or which set of events, is “worse” than the other, nor can I see any point in doing so. But I would argue that there is a fundamental politicaldifference between being forced to admit to “counterrevolutionary crimes” and being forced to masturbate, and that the U.S.’s invasion and occupation of Iraq is a vastly different political phenomenon than China’s Cultural Revolution, an organic political upheaval. Furthermore, a major aim of the Abu Ghraib photos, at least if Seymour Hersh is right, was to blackmail prisoners into becoming informers—not, certainly, to regenerate or revolutionize Iraqi politics. And whereas Susan Sontag recently wrote that the Abu Ghraib photos reveal contemporary America’s “culture of shamelessness,” the same cannot be said of Li’s photos of China during the Cultural Revolution. There is much more to be written on this, but I would caution, in short, against a too-easy equation of these sets of photographs, which would encourage a misleading equation of the political events of which each forms a part.
3. There are times, of course, when revolutionary movements (and even liberal democracies) must be fierce, for their opponents often are—times when, as Brecht wrote during the grimmest days of fascist ascendency, “Alas, we / who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness / could not ourselves be kind.” This should not be confused, however, with the adulation of cruelty, the conflation of revenge and justice, or the bifurcation of mankind into sinners who are less than human and saints to whom everything is allowed.
4. The Conquerors was banned in Stalin’s Russia for being anti-Communist and in Mussolini’s Italy for being pro-Communist.
5. The brief Malraux biography in the back of my paperback copy of Man’s Fate, copyrighted by Vintage in 1990, reads: “Between 1923 and 1927 he participated in the revolutionary movements then taking place in China.” Various other sources disagree; Jean Lacouture’s eponymous 1973 biography, for instance, claims that Malraux first visited mainland China in 1931. No matter: Lacouture adds that Malraux’s force of imagination enabled him to “extrapolate a China in turmoil” from an “Indo-China in disarray,” at least for Western readers.
6. Though most historians of the French Revolution would no doubt say that its goals were, certainly, not solely economic.
7. Though Malraux’s women characters, of whom there are few, are noticeably wooden. As Janet Flanner wrote, “His novels are built on a world scale, achieved in part by the omission of women, since his male characters, depicted in fatal international, martial or political crises, are elevated above the domestic, . . . and thus above the interferences of love.” But if Malraux fails to comprehend women’s full humanity, he begins, at least, to grasp men’s misogyny; thus the character Ch’en proclaims that he does not take pride in being a man but, rather, in “not being a woman.”
8. As Hannah Arendt wrote of the Nazis’ desperate efforts to leave no traces of, or witnesses to, the camps: “The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect.” On an obviously somewhat lighter but not entirely dissimilar note, Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” suggests: “Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.”
9. Dead children weren’t a problem only of the crisis years of the late forties. In Red Star Over China, Edgar Snow reported: “I remembered that during 1935 more than 29,000 bodies were picked up from the streets and rivers and canals of Shanghai—bodies of the destitute poor, of the starved or drowned babies or children they could not feed.
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
June 01, 2004
37 Min read time