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Jun 26 2020

Obituary: Li Zhensheng (1940–2020)

by Fion Tse

Portrait of LI ZHENSHENG. Image via Photography of China’s Facebook page.

On June 22, The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press (CUHK Press) announced via WeChat that photojournalist Li Zhensheng had passed away, aged 80, due to a cerebral hemorrhage. 

Born on September 22, 1940, in Dalian, Liaoning, Li grew up tilling fields alongside his father, a farmer. Li graduated from the department of photography at Changchun Film School in 1963, and subsequently joined the Heilongjiang Daily as a photojournalist. During his time with the newspaper, Li illegally took over 100,000 photographs that portrayed the harrowing realities of the Cultural Revolution. In order to preserve these images, he hid the film negatives under the floorboards of his house. In September 1969, Li and his wife were sent to the May 7 Cadre School in Liuhe to perform manual labor and study party ideology as part of the national re-education policy. 

Among Li’s best-known works is a 1966 photograph documenting the public humiliation of Heilongjiang governor Li Fanwu. The black-and-white image shows the governor bowing onstage with half his head shaved and a sign around his neck proclaiming him as a “gangster”; behind him hangs a large portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong. Another famous photograph depicts rows of straight-backed swimmers with their eyes trained on copies of Quotations from Chairman Mao (1964) before they plunge into the Songhua River as part of a yearly ritual commemorating Mao’s swim in the Yangtze. 

Twenty of Li’s images of the Cultural Revolution were first exhibited under the title “Let History Tell the Future” as part of the Chinese Press Association’s photography competition in Beijing in 1988, over a decade after Mao’s death. In 1996, after being invited to lecture at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research (later renamed the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies), he moved to New York and took up a post as editor of the Chinese-language publication Universal Chinese. His relocation to the United States allowed his photographs to reach a wider, international audience, and in 2003, his images were finally collated in the book Red-Color News Soldier, published by Phaidon in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. It was released to global acclaim, with American Photo magazine naming it “Book of the Year.” Li was presented with the Olivier Rebbot Award by the Overseas Press Club of America in 2003, and ten years later became the first Chinese winner of the Lucie Award for his achievement in documentary photography. 

A Chinese version of Li’s seminal volume was published by CUHK Press in 2018. In his introduction, Li wrote, “We record suffering to prevent it from happening again; we record history to prevent it from repeating itself.” As one of the largest collections documenting the Cultural Revolution, Li’s photographs have served as a crucial resource for understanding this significant period of Chinese history.

In the WeChat post, CUHK shared a final message from Li on behalf of his family: “All my life I have sought to witness and recording history; now I rest in history.” 

Fion Tse is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

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