From Anti Four Pest Campaign to Democracy Wall

 The author (center) at the Democracy Wall with crowds (photo by Wang Rui)

As a Hong-Kong born Chinese who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, it’s hard to pinpoint my first trip to China; at least, one that I remember clearly, for my real first trip was as a toddler, in 1953 in the arms of my mother who carried me to her hometown of Fuzhou. Most likely I slept through most of that the trip, or was just too young to take it all in. So I guess, the real instance of a “first trip” in the sense of this series, would be my first trip to China as a professional photojournalist in 1976.

Yet, I would like to think that the first few years of childhood left their mark on me for the good. That experience, however fragmented or vague in my memory, definitely prepared me for my eventual first trip back to the mainland as a photojournalist in a way that was more profound than I first realized. It allowed the perspective of an outsider looking in, whilst still being privy to the many experiences of an insider myself in those trying years.

As a child in Fuzhou, I was enrolled in the Guyizhong Primary School (near Fuzhou PLA Garrison Command). My years there—six in total—helped define the way I came to portray China later in my professional life. I recall going to the school everyday by walking out of the courtyard house, which my grandmother had gifted to my mother as part of her wedding dowry. By early 1955, it had already been appropriated by the State as part of the landmark land reform policy. The head of the neighborhood committee, a Mme Zhou, moved into house where she occupied two rooms; the others taken by local families. Our family was left with the main house and a courtyard garden in the back, which featured a beautiful Dragon Eye (Longyan) fruit tree. I learnt later that we were fortunate to have escaped the fate of many landlords who had simply been shot or disappeared. We were spared because the State classified my family as a “peaceful landlord”. My mother’s uncle, Chen Bi (陳壁), was a Minister of Communication under Emperor Guangxu (光緒) (in 1894) The Chen family’s land had been granted by the emperor, not gained through business dealing or renting it to the peasants, hence the title “peaceful landlord”.

This family background may explain why the PLA children in my class treated me with condescension. According to the prevalent political jargon, they were “red” and I was “black”. I remembered the red slogans on the schoolyard “We must catch up with Britain and surpass America”. Under the highly charged political atmosphere following China’s incursion in Korea, where troops fought the U.S. military to a temporary truce, students were required to perform manual labor every Wednesday to help build a stronger Socialist state. Every week I collected stones for building the railroad. Under the spell for the Anti Four Pests campaign, I was energetically motivated to catching flies at home, which I collected in a matchbox for my teacher. But no matter how many flies filled my matchboxes, semester after semester under the column labeled “Political Behavior”, she would only grant me a “C” in my report card. I felt the effect of apartheid in a classroom full of kids from the families of the nearby army officers. Those kids instinctually felt superior to the sons and daughters of any other social class. I didn’t officially “fit” into any of the social classes.

Many years later, in Beijing, I met the famed PLA writer Bai Hua (白樺), who in early 1980 wrote for the film “Sun and the Man” (《太陽和人》), based on his script originally named “Ku lian” (《苦戀》). Through the film’s main character, he expressed the common feeling of many mainland Chinese and those who were expatriated: “I love my country, but does my country love me?” This open questioning of unrequited love was severely criticized by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and the film was banned. In 1980, Deng launched the Anti-Bourgeois Campaign; Deng had then recently shut down Democracy Wall in Xidan bus depot where petitioners from all over the country put up big character posters to protest the injustices of the Cultural Revolution.

Come 1960, my neighbors who “shared” our house in Fuzhou, were all stricken by malnutrition, their arms and legs swollen. The Great Famine which was the harsh result of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. One day in 1959 a pig was killed in our neighborhood leading hundreds of people to queue to buy a portion. I waited half a day to buy two ounces of pork fat. I was told I was lucky that the butcher gave me the fat as it was deemed more valuable than the meat. One day after school, I saw a man on the street selling tiger meat, a striped tiger pelt dangled from a tree above the vendor. My father ,who was the editor of the international news page for Zheng Wu Bao (《正午報》), who was in Hong Kong knew it was time for me to depart Fuzhou. My father one day came home looking very upset, he said his pro-Beijing newspaper editor had refused to print the news that the Americans had landed on the moon.

Some years later, in the summer of 1968, my mother took me to Guangzhou to visit relatives; I vividly remember being yelled at by a barber in the Overseas Chinese Hotel who forced me to stand and recite one of Mao’s quotation on the wall before he would give me a haircut. At six pm Guangzhou was already dark. We queued for almost an hour to get a table in a restaurant, of which the city had but a few. The waitress threw the chopsticks on the table and walked away. Everybody behaved in a manner that officials like to call “vigilant”. Why vigilant? The Chinese in that era literally seemed to see enemies everywhere. I was glad to return to Hong Kong, feeling utterly exhausted by the hysteria which I absorbed from the people’s body language and facial expressions.

Perhaps it was these bitter, sour memories of childhood that led me to develop an avid interest in newspaper reports about China during my studies in New York. I followed the Toronto Globe and Mail’s dispatches in the New York Times—the Canadian newspaper was the only North American newspaper to have an accredited journalist in Beijing at that time. At the university library, I read the little weekly pamphlet China News Analysis published by Jesuits who monitored radio broadcast from the mainland. Among the Jesuits were the few westerners specialized in Chinese dialects; including those who could understand Mao’s strong Hunan accent. As I later discovered on my travels through China, Hunan, the birthplace of my father, was the only place I required the services of an interpreter.

By 1976, after nine months of apprenticeship with Gjon Mili at Life Magazine who had earlier taught me at Hunter College [under New York’s City University], I went to Europe and photographed post-Franco Spain; to Portugal where Communist presidential candidates were campaigning in the countryside with peasants driving tractors, but who stopped to listen and enjoyed a picnic as they did so. In Paris, I went to Hotel Matignon to photograph newly appointed French Prime Minister Raymond Barre. As I came out of the metro near St Germaine des Pres, I saw Mao’s photograph on the front page of every Parisian newspaper on the newsstand. It was September1976: Mao had died. I was on the first plane to Hong Kong thence to the mainland on assignment for Time Magazine. Before I left for the border at Lowu, my uncle introduced me to Lo Fu (羅孚), editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s New Evening Post (《新晚報》). Lo, a respected Communist newspaper editor, well liked by senior Chinese leader Liao Chenzhi (廖承志), provided me with a letter of introduction to the border authorities. In those days, one needs an introduction letter from an organization just to check into a hotel.

I walked across Lowu bridge past the PLA guards, before boarding the train bound for Guangzhou I was stopped at customs. The guard inspected my camera bag; three cameras and assorted lens, forty rolls of Kodakchrome film. I didn’t have a journalist visa; he asked me what I planned to do. I said I was a traveler and presented him with the letter of introduction from Lo Fu. He disappeared for a while and came back with another more senior custom official. I gave him the same answer. They asked me to sit and wait. Just minutes before the train departed, the junior man returned and told me to hurry up if I didn’t want to miss the train.

The army-green train was staffed by young attendants who were friendly by the standards of the Cultural Revolution: at least they smiled at me as they poured hot water over a bag of green tea that cost five fen (cents). The seats were covered with white cotton covers. The train roared through the rural areas towards Guangzhou. The scenes outside the window were familiar, but what was missing were the announcements from the omnipresent loudspeakers mounted on every telegraph pole. I was not sure if this was in order to mourn the death of Mao, or for other reasons. Few missed the streaming exhortations to keep up the revolutionary vanguard or the recital of the day’s editorial from the People’s Daily.

In Guangzhou I checked into the Overseas Chinese Hotel, where the portrait of Mao in the lobby was now adorned with the appropriate black trimmings. It was still warm in September, but outside I was struck by how quiet it was on the streets as I rushed from the hotel to stroll the embankment of the Pearl River. People wore black armbands of mourning. Some silently read the newspapers posted on the road side propaganda boards. Elderly people were doing taiqi. It dawned on me; something had changed in the people’s body language. They lost that “vigilant look.” Even though overseas Chinese and foreigners usually attracted inquisitive stares they seemed to have no interest in me. I sensed China was going through a profound but as yet undefined transition. The death of Mao did not seem to sadden the residents in the streets of Guangzhou, unlike those seen in the official propaganda photographs which showed youths crying with crocodile tears while holding a small printed portrait of Mao. On the contrary, I felt people, clearly more relaxed now, were behaving as if they had been relieved of a huge mental burden that had been hanging over them. Perhaps it was my childhood experience that prepped me to observe these unusually calm faces. As I continued to photograph daily life on the streets, I decided that if given an opportunity, I would photograph China after Mao.

But immediately I became caught up with my attempts to get a flight to Beijing to photograph Mao’s funeral. My repeated requests to the China Travel Service were denied. I learnt later that few people were allowed to travel to Beijing as the authorities were poised to arrest the Gang of Four (Jiang Qing [江青], Zhang Chunqiao [張春橋], Wang Hongwen [王洪文] and Yao Wenyuan [姚文元]). The death of Mao was world news and I missed it: I would not let that happen again.

The opportunity would eventually come again two years later in 1978 when Time Magazine decide to send Richard Bernstein to open the Time-Life News Service bureau in Beijing, ahead of the resumption of Sino-U.S. Diplomatic Normalization in 1979. I would be Time’s first contract photographer in China after 1949, and fulfill my wish to document "China After Mao."(1)

In Beijing I joined Richard Bernstein (白禮博), Fox Butterfield (包德甫), Melinda Liu (劉美源), John Roderick, Victoria Graham, Irene Mosby, Jay and Linda Mathew, Michael Parks and Frank Ching (秦家驄); the first wave of American foreign correspondents to be stationed in new China, six years after President Richard Nixon opened the door. The rest, as they say, is history.

(1) "China After Mao"《毛以後的中國》was published by Penguin in 1983. Twenty-eight years later the Chinese edition was published in the mainland by Shitu (世界圖書出版社). Release in September, 2010, it is currently in its third printing.

(All photos taken by the author except the first two.)
 The crowd is clamouring to buy dissient magazines, Beijing 1979.
 The author (right) at the Democracy Wall (photo by Wang Rui)


Liu Heung Shing - 2011年09月12日 12:20

Photos taken by the author.

In the post-Mao era, modern gashions began to influence China's youth. Yunnan, 1980.
High school students studying under the lights in Tiananmen Square, 1981.
"Coca-Cola -- Feel the taste!" The Forbidden City, 1981.

Liu Heung Shing - 2011年09月12日 12:31

Photos taken by the author.

Artist Ma Desheng (馬德升) calls for artistic freedom outside the City Hall in Beijing, 1979.
Four Beijing youths watch the trial of the Gang of Four.  On the screen is Jiang Qing (江青).
Party cadres study documents in the Great Hall of the People on the centenary of Karl Marx's death, 1983.

Liu Heung Shing - 2011年09月12日 12:38

Photos taken by the author.

A peasant eating rice below a portrait of Mao, Sichuan, 1980.
Close friends in Moon Alter Park, Beijing, 1981.
Members of China's new fashionable generation hang out near Beihai Park, Beijing, 1981.

Liu Heung Shing - 2011年09月12日 12:49

Photos taken by the author.

Poet Ai Qing (艾青), 73, writing at home, 1980.
Factory militia target practice by the moat of the Forbidden City, Beijing.
A woman sings socialist love songs at a mass wedding at the Workers' Cultural Palace, Beijing, 1980.

網站編輯 - 2011年09月12日 12:53

This is part of the "My First Trip to China" series. All previous and future contributions can be viewed here.
"My First Trip to China" series

網站編輯 - 2011年09月16日 15:42

The “1911” exhibition, a programme to mark the centenary of The University of Hong Kong, features an extraordinary selection of 86 photographs brought together for the first time from collections worldwide by Liu Heung Shing, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo-journalist.

The photographs, which date from the 1860s to the early 1920s, provide an insight into the origins of modern China, in which Hong Kong played a key role. They illustrate the social conditions and attitudes of the era, the atmosphere inside the imperial court in the dying days of the Qing Dynasty, the lives of the mighty and the poor, and various events that helped shape the transition of China from the empire to the republic era.

The exhibit is jointly presented by two arms of HKU, the Journalism and Media Studies Centre and the University Museum and Art Gallery, in collaboration with the Beijing World Art Museum, and is sponsored by HKU Culture and Humanities Fund. The exhibition is guest curated by Karen Smith, a British critic and curator who lives in Beijing.

Exhibition Details

30 August–4 October 2011

University Museum and Art Gallery, 90 Bonham Road, Hong Kong


展覽由普立茲新聞攝影獎得獎人、國際著名攝影家及《壹玖壹壹-從鴉片戰爭到軍閥混戰的百年影像史》主編劉香成任總顧問,及現居北京的知名英國藝評人Karen Smith策展。劉先生獲中華世紀壇世界藝術館支持,歷時一年從世界各地知名檔案及個人收藏中搜羅具歷史價值的珍貴圖片,以視覺影像的方式客觀尋找我們共同的記憶,編寫辛亥革命史。



大道之行 : 紀念辛亥革命一百周年影像展
The Road to 1911: A Visual History
Hong Kong University Museum and Art Gallery

《壹玖壹壹——從鴉片戰爭到軍閥混戰的百年影像史》劉香成編著 (商務印書館)
"China in Revolution: The Road to 1911" edited by Liu Heung Shing (HKU Press)

Bill Fung - 2011年09月17日 14:20

Sensational photos. These photos, added up with your personal experience and possible interviews with elites of that era, will be a great chronicle and historic journey for all. Best wishes, and gratitude, for your contribution.

Daniel - 2011年09月17日 15:41

...Geeze there came the picture of 艾青. Now it is the turn of his son being oppressed. Do they have a spell on the family name '艾' then?



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