1976, A Year in Chinese Photography ‘s History

Essay by YINING He


The talk of China as unique, and to describe it as the world’s oldest and most distinctive continuous civilization, is to impose synthetic cultural cum racial wholeness upon a highly factionalized entity. This tense and uncertain society, riven by a hotchpotch of warring groups and cabals seething with envy and ambition, struggling for power, was held together by force of will, by military strength, and by the propaganda of ideas, beliefs and codes of behavior which evolved into a highly acute sense of Chinese civilization (Hodder, 2000, pp19-20).

Photography reached China as soon as Britain broke its door during the First Opium War (1839 – 42). It has played an important role in different socio-culture and historical aspects over the last 150 years. Once led by Empress Dowager Cixi, the first amateur photography club was established in China in the late 1900s. Soon after the declining of the Qing Empire, a group of intellectuals, educators and social reformers realized the power and image from the 1920s onwards. Then during the Sino-Japanese War, the true power of photography to document the state of the nation and its society was fully demonstrated (Gentz, 2008, p20). However, after Chairman Mao founded the PRC in 1949, photography played an important role in the party’s propaganda in order to win minds and hearts across China. It wasn’t until 1976, the year when Mao passed away, “the individualized and self-conscious form of documentary photography found its way to being accepted as a legitimate form of photographic expression” (Gentz, 2008, p20).

While many books have referenced Chinese photography in 1976, there is no integrated available research that emphasizes the cultural and political contexts of such topic. Although the aim of the research is primarily to illustrate China documentary photography in the year 1976, the first chapter gives the reader a basic idea of photography under Mao, ‘a propaganda tool for recording news of great political significance that one is duty bound to report’, according to Sha Fei, one of the most famous photojournalists in Mao’s time. For that same reason, I will extend the research from 1976 to 1986, which I will present at the end of the article.

Propaganda: Photography under Mao

Propaganda, according to Harold Lasswell, a leading American political scientist and communications theorist: “is the manipulation of collective attitudes by the use of significant symbols (words, pictures, thinks) rather than violence, bribery or boycott.” Propaganda, Power and Persuasion is the latest exhibition to take place at The British Library in London St Pancras. Co-curated by Jude England and Ian Cooke, this is the first exhibition to explore international state propaganda from the 20th and 21st centuries. Governments control education, currency, national symbols and sometimes mass media and can use these powerful tools to shape national identity. At times, a leader may come to personify a nation both at home and abroad (British Library, 2013). Mao Zedong’s portrait, one of the most extraordinary world known images is hanging at the exhibition hall along with Lenin and Stalin.

After Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, the concept of reality dictating purpose permeated all aspects of the arts (Gentz, 2008). Writers, photographers, filmmakers and people from all propaganda departments work together to create the arts that served to promulgate the image of Maoism, of New China, of revolution and modernization. There is a photograph taken by Hou Bo in 1959, a female photographer in charge of photography at Zhongnaihai (the central headquarters for the Communist Party of China and Central government of the PRC since 1949). This photograph, with Mao Zedong smiling standing at the center of a group of foreign delegates, was labeled “We have friends all over the world”.  Hou Bo used a flash to make the photograph lighter and ensuring that Mao’s smile stands out from the center of the image, appearing larger, and more prominent than the others. In spite of that, the photo was actually taken during China’s great famine, believed to have killed between 15 million and 43 million people. As Art Historian, Claire Roberts noticed:  “Photography gives us the appearance of truth, and yet what we see in a photograph can never be the truth.”

Documentary photography was reduced to presenting a simplified version of life: the happiness of peasants and the working people; the development of national industry; the people’s love for the Party; and the unhappy fate of former exploiters and class enemies. Instead of documenting social situations, most of the images produced worked to create romantic myths about a socialist paradise: people tempering steel, cotton pickers dancing gracefully between the cotton bushes, etc. In short, the subjects in front of the cameras had become actors and performers (Gentz, 2008).

For those assigned to take photographs – they were trained to use either medium format or 135 mm camera to produce the same type of photographs. Even though there were a few successful photographers standing out from the crowd, photographs are often difficult to distinguish from one another. As Karen Smith criticized Hou Bo’s photography career, “There were no concept of the ‘I’ behind the lens, they did not seek to present their own vision but to give vision to the reinvention of China”. (Smith, 2004)

Journalistic photography, taken during the Cultural Revolution, was increasingly paralyzed by ongoing battles between rival political factions. “China Pictorial was one of the few illustrated magazines to publish continuously during these years, its covers graced by artfully doctored portraits of a vivacious and rosy-cheeked Mao,” according to Christopher Phillips, curator at International Center of Photography.

During the years of Cultural Revolution (1966 -76), there was an    environment in which all visual materials, especially the photographic output of the propaganda bureaus attached to work units and state organs across China, were entirely formulaic: without exception, everything followed the exacting standards of an absolute proscription concerning gesture, expression, and vision that left little room for individual interpretation. (Smith, 2004, p14)

Many photographs were left mysterious to outsiders and even the Chinese themselves. Thousands of photographs and negatives were destroyed during the catastrophe. Nevertheless, Li Zhensheng, who was a press photographer from Heilongjiang Daily, hid thousands of negatives under the floor of his house. Lately Zhensheng has published his extraordinary book Red-color news soldier: a Chinese photographer’s odyssey through the Cultural Revolution, which includes the only complete set of surviving photographs to document the entire period.

Despite the highly censored press environment during that period, “the ordinary person had as little awareness of the métier of a “photographer” as they had exposure to what photography was or the role it played in other, developed nations, in terms of art, life, and furthering human understanding” (Smith, 2004).

As the Chinese always say, “man proposes but god disposes’, 1976, a dramatic year in the history of PRC, witnessed the fall of the Gang of Four and an end of “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. It was a year that changed the history of modern China, and also marked the beginning of ‘the people’s photography.’


1976: Beginning of People’s Photography

 China has had a sorrowful year, staring with the death of Premier Chou Enlai on 8 January. A meteorite shower was followed by the violence of the Tiananmen Incident. A massive earthquake devastated Tangshan in Hebei province that resulted in 655,000 deaths. Tremors continued as Chairman Mao died on September 9, which brought the fall of the Gang of Four and an end to the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution.

The year that witnessed China’s social transition, 1976, also saw the beginning of the People’s Photography. It was a year that most incredible historical photographs were made in order to record the memories of modern China by both official and individual photographers.

First of all, official photographers, who all had good access, courtesy of their work unit, captured some of the historical moments in 1976. Du Xiuxian was in born 1926, he studied photography in the People’s Liberation Army’s Art Troupe headed by the photographer Wu Yinxian. He joined the Xinhua News Agency in 1956, where he was appointed chief photographer of the team that covered Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese leaders in 1960. Du, who produced hundreds of thousands of photographs during his career, captured the most sorrowful moment of China in 1976 among other authorized photographers. Du and his camera covers all the big events in 1976, which include the meeting of former U.S President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao, the Tangshan earthquake, the death of Mao and so.

Although Du’s photographs served strict propagandist purposes, it gives a spectacular view of the most stunning moments in Chinese history. A photograph taken by Du at the funeral of Mao, captured the sorrow of thousands who attended the funeral and it became a symbol of collective memories. Undoubtedly, images taken by official photographers form a large part of archive in the history of Chinese photography. Liu Heung Shing is a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist who was born in Hong Kong originally. In 2008, he completed a comprehensive book China, Portrait of a Country, which presents China as seen by 88 leading Chinese photographers. Many of Du’s fantastic photographs, which are layed out as a double page in this book, express its deep grief of China over 1976.

Secondly, 1976 marked the beginning of ‘people’s photography’, photography by individuals – many of them from families of political or cultural influence – who had experienced the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and, no longer content merely to witness history, wanted to record their own perspectives and life experience (Roberts, 2013). Those individual photographers, who took personal risk to record the mass demonstration for posterity, captured the images that would not appear in official archives.

Despite the heavy political censorship followed by all sorts of disasters during the Cultural Revolution, there were individuals who started to learn western theories in art, literature and other fields secretly. Underground poetry groups, such as a nation-wide Enlightenment Society with branches in Beijing, Guangzhou and Guiyang, played a very important role during that time. Unlike poetry, photography was not a domain for the amateur or non-specialist. Chinese made camera were not cheap and develop services were not readily available during that time. Take the Seagull 4A camera for example, a Shanghai made twin lens reflex camera cost 250 RMB (£25) in the early 70s, when the average income of the Chinese was 40 RMB per month. Nevertheless, people who lived in big city still got the chance to buy a camera in large department stores at incredibly high prices. Since 1976, amateur photographers began using cameras to capture moments that they believed should be engraved in history.

In April 1976, after the death of Zhou Enlai, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Tiananmen Square to memorize him and soon the first demonstrations were took place. A symbolic photograph taken by Luo Xiaoyun, photographed Li Tiehua, a director at the Beijing Red Flag Peking Opera troupe, giving a speech to the crowd. Luo Xiaoyun was born in 1953, she took this photograph at grave personal risk on the day when the authorities suppress the crowds, beating and arresting people.

Li was later arrested for his criticism of the Gang of Four and Luo Xiaoyun hid many negatives in the next few years. Meanwhile, Wu Peng, a railway worker and a self-taught photographer is among those who recorded the mass outpouring of emotion. Wu Peng’s ironic image of the power of the people, which was given the caption ‘Unity is Strength that will Lead us to Tomorrow’ shows a group of young people marching arm in arm from the east side of the National People’s Congress towards the center of Tiananmen Square. Working individually, each of them took hundreds of photos in the square throughout the April Fifth Movement and preserved the negatives during the subsequent political persecution (Wu, 2004, p15).

Chinese documentary photography, thus stands on the threshold of an exciting historical moment, begins to extricate itself from cultural and political opposition. Those unauthorized photographers, distinct for being independent of any official photography bureau are the exception to the rule in becoming a photographer of both their own volition and means. Some of them, such as Li Xiaobin, Wang Wenlan, Wang Zhiping, would later become the leaders of the New Wave Movement in the 1980s.

Last but not least, a few photographic groups, which were formed in order to share the knowledge and art of photography, marked the beginning of a “Cultural Renaissance” in the history of Chinese photography. “Chinese artists, who were effectively isolated from the Western art world from 1949-1979, have felt compelled to assimilate as rapidly as possible the key lessons of international modern and contemporary art, as Christopher Phillips discussed in Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China (Philips, 2004, p41).

During 1976 to 1979, two individual photography groups in Beijing formed, latterly became the core of the April Photo Society. One group, which known as “Friday Salon”, formed as early as the winter of 1976, and had thirty to forty members who gathered every Friday evening in the dorm of the young photographer, Chi Xiaoning in the western part of the city. Meanwhile, another group met regularly in Wang Zhiping’s small apartment in the eastern part of the city.

Organized by the April Photo Society, the Nature, Society, and Man exhibition opened in Beijing on April 1st, 1976, which exhibited 280 works by 52 photographers. As Claire Robert noted in her latest book Photography and China: “the exhibition was the first such event staged by an independent community arts organization since 1949 and attracted large crowds (Roberts, 2013, pp129). The appearance of the first unofficial photo club and exhibition in Beijing in 1979 turned away from reportage and explored forms of photography.

As Wang Zhiping wrote for the exhibition preface, the focus was Natural, Society, and Man.

News photos cannot replace the art of photography. Content cannot be equaled with form. Photograph, as an art should have its own language. It is now time to explore art with the language of art, just as economic matters should be dealt with by using the methods of economics. The beauty of photography lies not necessarily in “important subject matter” or in official ideology, but should be found in nature’s rhythms, in social reality, and in emotions and ideas (Wang, 1979).

To conclude, it is no exaggeration to say that 1976 has played a vital part in the history of Chinese photography. The Chinese experience of photography in 1976 stands apart from the West, followed by a documentary turn. Documentary photography came to dominate the new wave moment in a decade’s time, which went on to influence many generations.

Ten Years in a Moment: A Radical Shift

The photography exhibition Ten Years in a Moment from which images were exhibited at the National Art Museum of China on April 5th, 1986, a decade after the Tiananmen Incident, presented an unparalleled look at changing lifestyles in China through the lens of Chinese photographers.  The exhibition’s preface, made the focus of Ten Years in a Moment explicit:

A decade ago, we used our camera for shooting April Fifth Movement.  During the last ten years, we still use cameras to memorize, to know and understand the great transition of our society. We are approach to discovering truth from a new angle and using new methods…

After Mao died and the Gang of Four fell from power, the April demonstration was “rehabilitated” as a positive event, and the photos by Luo Xiaoyun and others were exhibited and published in a book designed to promote the new regime. “Photographs that were dissident reportage were co-opted as official images of commemoration,” said by Claire Roberts.

As China started opening up economically from 1978, it also opened up intellectually. By the late 1980s, the process of reform had also begun to influence and change the media. As time passed, there were more and more magazines, and there were more and more magazines and there were also increasing opportunities to publish photographs in the public arena – and as an aesthetic rather than a visual missive (Smith, 2004, p15).

At last, as Mark Riboud wrote for his book Vision of China: “In 1980, the last image of China I took away with me: in the heart of   the Forbidden City, the Chinese no longer pose in front of Mao’s portrait but beside a car, symbol of the consumer society’s ideal all over the world. This is a stunning turn. “


Research Report

British Library (2013) Propaganda, Power and Persuasion. London: British Library

Fessler, L. (1976) China 1976: Year of Sorrow. American Universities Field staff Reports. Vol. XXIII, no. 4.

Gentz, N. (2008) Documentary Photography in China. Edinburgh Review. Vol. 124, pp20-21.

Hodder, R (2000) In China’s Image: Chinese Self-Perception in Western Thought. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Liu, H.S (2008) China: Portrait of a Country. London: Thames and Hudson

Li, Z (2003) Red-color news soldier: a Chinese photographer’s odyssey through the Cultural Revolution. London: Phaidon

Riboud, M. (1981) Vision of China: Photography by Marc Riboud, 1957 -1980.  London: Traveling Light.

Roberts, C (2013) Photography and ChinaThe True Record. London: Reaktion Books

Smith, K (2004) Photography in China from 1949 to the Present. In: Kohler, S., Lutgens A. & Westermann, A. The Chinese: Photography and Video from China.  Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz.

 Wu, H. Phillips, C (2004) Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China. Göttingen: Steidl Publishers