Red-Color News Soldier is the literal translation of the Chinese characters printed on the armband given to Li Zhensheng and his rebel group in Beijing at the end of 1966, eight months after the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. There are other, more fluent translations, but none retains the musicality of the character-words brought together.

For a long time in the Western world, Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution were perceived with amazement and fascination; only very rarely were they viewed with horror. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, rioting students around the world were inspired by the finger-pointing, slogan-shouting style of the Red Guards, and Andy Warhol in New York was producing his renowned silk-screen paintings of Chairman Mao. Even today, all the chaos of that period can seem somewhat romantic and idealistic in comparison with contemporary Chinese society.

With this in mind, it was necessary to produce a clearer and more truthful image of the decade of turmoil that turned China upside-down. Li Zhensheng was the one person who, through his unique photographic legacy, could convey this truth on the printed page. A few guidelines were established up-front: none of the photographs would be cropped; the images would be presented in the most accurate chronological order possible so as to best depict the historical process; precise captions would accompany the images, with facts verified through additional research and double-checked against the archives of The Heilongjiang Daily, where the photographer worked for over eighteen years.

Li delivered to the offices of Contact Press Images in New York starting in 1999 approximately thirty-thousand small brown paper envelopes bound together with rubber bands in groups according to chronology, location, type of film, or other criteria. Each envelope contained a single negative inside a glassine pouch. Some of these had not been removed since Li had first cut them from their original negative strips and hidden them away thirty-five years earlier. On each envelope Li had written detailed captions in delicate Chinese calligraphy. Communes and counties, people's names, official titles, and specific events were all carefully noted. Yet as Li's personal account written by Jacques Menasche clearly demonstrates, his memory of the period remains crisp and complete.

For three years, from 2000 to 2003, a small group including Li, translator Rong Jiang, Jacques, and I -- later to be joined by Li's daughter Xiaobing -- met nearly every Sunday to collectively piece together this history of a largely unknown era. In these exhausting and, at times, animated sessions, we pored over a variety of archival and scholarly documents, conducted interviews, reviewed images, and even listened to Li sing revolutionary songs from the time.

During the period of the Cultural Revolution the whole of China became a theater in which the audience was increasingly part of the play˛from the poorest peasant attending a "struggle session" to the "class enemy" forced to bow at the waist in humiliation; from the rarely seen leader waving from a Jeep to the denounced and their denouncers; from the rebels to the counterrevolutionaries; from the Red Guards to the old guard. With armbands and flags, banners and big character posters, and Little Red Books turned into props, the stage was dominated by the presence of an invisible diva, surrounded by millions of extras, some shouting, some silenced.

But thanks to the photographer, seemingly anonymous faces and places take on names and identities. Li shows the surreal events to be all too real. Through his lens, these people and occurrences from so far away are made at once personal and universal, and all too familiar. The Cultural Revolution unleashed the frustration and anger of a new generation eager to change the world, but the force was harnessed and used by those in power for a decidedly different purpose: its own complete domination. In the late 1960s, student riots erupted in other cities on other continents, but they never resulted in the same premeditated violence initiated by those then at the helm of the Chinese State.

We will be forever grateful to Li for having 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. Li Zhensheng was a young man in search of himself -- as his numerous self-portraits clearly indicate -- who wished to leave behind a trace of his own existence as well as his dreams of individuality, elegance, and a better world. But History is the issue here: the need to remember and revisit those strange and terrifying events that shaped China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

2003 © Robert Pledge