The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, more commonly known as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, lasted for a decade from 1966 to 1976. The revolution was started over, “… a struggle for power within the Communist Party of China, in which at least half a million people died and the People’s Republic of China was brought to the brink of civil war” (New World Encyclopedia). Party Leader, Mao Zedong, started the revolution by creating the Red Guard, a youth militia put together by different groups of university students, for the purpose of overthrowing his enemies and capitalists. The youth were easily influenced through Zedong’s propaganda and seemingly positive messages conveyed to the public. Police were not allowed to interfere with any action by the Red Guard, so the Red Guard felt that they had great power in China. The power struggles led to dehumanizing behaviors and unnecessary brutalities. However, the only images and information made available to the public were uplifting and positive about the revolution and “… were perceived with amazement and fascination” (Pledge).

Through the revolution emerged a group of photojournalists that rebelled against the revolution. They knew that, “the ability of photographs of suffering to conjure great emotion… is their great strength” (23, Linfield). They discovered that the only way to take honest photographs of the corruption happening in their country was to join the Red Guard. By obtaining the red armbands representative of the Red Guard, this group of photojournalists could take photographs of anything they wanted without being questioned. Any photograph seen to be “negative” of the revolution had to be destroyed. Yet one photographer, “risked so much to doggedly preserve his images at a time when most of his colleagues agreed to allow their politically ‘negative negatives’ to be destroyed” (Pledge).

This brave man, Li Zhensheng, is a Chinese photographer who documented a part of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that the world did not see for years. Zhensheng was hired to take photographs during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution of pleasant images to only add to the propaganda campaign. Then he and other rebels got together to document the truth by joining the Red Guard and obtaining red armbands. The Chinese characters on their armbands read “Red-Color News Soldier” and were given to them in 1966. Zhensheng took photographs documenting the “negative” side of the revolution and now provides us with some of the best documentation of that time in history through his unedited photographs (Pledge).

The photograph I find most compelling was taken on April 5, 1968 in Huang Shan cemetery. The photograph shows seven men and one woman being executed by the Red Guard. The photograph was taken in the outskirts of Harbin in the Heilongjiang Province. Zhensheng’s photographs “… bring to life the fanatical joy of rampaging Red Guards, many of them teenagers, and the coldblooded humiliation and even execution of ‘enemies of the people’” (Riding). Zhensheng’s secret photographs were not seen by anyone until 1988 after Mao Zedong was twelve-years deceased. By wearing the red armband and appearing as a loyal soldier to Zedong’s Revolution, Zhensheng was able to take 30,000 detailed photographs of the brutality and corruption behind the revolution. The photographs were hidden under the floorboards in his apartment.

Zhensheng’s photographs show us the suffering and pain people experienced during the revolution. Images like these confront us, “with the particular, individual experience of suffering, and therefore the aloneless, the lostness, that defines us all” (17, Linfield). Where written documents need translation and descriptive adjectives to make you feel what people are going through, a photograph shows you every feeling and action happening to a person. Photographs provide knowledge for people and, “media can, and sometimes does, help provide citizens with what they need to be active participants in social and political life” (29, Croteau and Hoynes).  Zhensheng’s documentary photographs made the ugly side of the revolution real for the people who did not experience it first hand and gave them more information than Zedong’s propaganda could provide.

After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, Zhensheng began to organize his hidden photographs and he said, “At that moment, I believed that the politically negative images would one day be presented in public” (Riding). Presentation of his images was essential to being able to fully understand the history of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Where words can only tell so much, “Pictures ordinarily contain enough information that we can use them to give us evidence about more than one topic” (275, Becker). Through Zedong’s power and control, the public at the time only had access to a certain amount of knowledge, delegated by him. Michel Foucault states that localized, Foucauldian, power is the physical organization of space that shapes the knowledge and power that is possible and can be harnessed (Smith). Zedong used his localized power in China to control what the people could see. When Zhensheng showed his photographs for the first time, that knowledge that could not be attained during Zedong’s rule was now available to the public.

When the media is under control by a biased opinion, one cannot gain honest information about a topic at hand. Like the newspapers during the revolution in China, “The low esteem held for newspaper coverage of Hispanics can be attributed in large part to the fact that there simply aren’t enough Latino reporters, editors, and media managers on staff to gain the insight necessary for an accurate portrayal of the community” (97, Chavez). A culture, historic event, or even person cannot be honestly represented to the public when the power of what is shown belongs to one person. Zhensheng’s photographs could not even be displayed until Zedong had been long deceased. Zedong used his power to control the media and have himself and his revolution represented in a way that made the public admire him.

A lack of representation of an entire people is a lack of knowledge. Many times we are not even aware of the knowledge we are lacking, for example, “Once a year, about mid-March, newspaper discover an otherwise neglected segment of their communities: Irish Americans” (131, Ross). Li Zhensheng gave the world what Mao Zedong wanted to hide, honest history. Zhensheng’s photographs are the perfect example of what social injustice and power can do to history and what is taught to the public.