Less antidote to than analog of Chinese Propaganda Posters, Red-Color News Soldier documents the spectacular nitty-gritty of everyday totalitarian fanaticism, with pictures culled from the thousands taken by photojournalist Li Zhensheng in the mid 1960s.
When the Cultural Revolution began in May 1966, Li was 26, a true believer working for the Heilongjiang Daily, a Party newspaper in the country’s northernmost province. His early photos document fist-waving, open-air rallies, accusations before crowds of identically dressed peasants, smiling study groups and brigade meetings, solemn oaths and patriotic performances. (Li’s self-portraits show a personal mastery of the clear-eyed Gaze into the Radiant Future.) The Mao images multiply and the mood grows increasingly delirious in late 1966: Shrines are sacked, ink-smeared former Party officials are paraded in four-foot-high dunce caps, Red Guards delight the masses with impromptu numbers like the Loyalty Dance, demonstrators fill the streets and even the rivers.
By 1967, Li is photographing the battles between rival Red Guard factions, and by 1968 he’s documenting mass executions. Criticized for photographing “beyond assignment,” Li was condemned later that year and sent to the countryside for re-education. Amazingly, he continued to take pictures; the trove of negatives hidden for two decades below the floorboards of his house constitute the single most extensive record of the Cultural Revolution.