Sunday, Jun 25, 2017, 3:13 AM CST – China

History

Cultural Revolution

THE LOST WORLD

A collection of amateur photographs taken by a former attaché with the French embassy in Beijing gives a previously unseen view of China’s Cultural Revolution from an outsider’s lens

Red Guards in Beijing wait to join a parade Photo by Solange Brand

Dancer wearing a “big head” mask performs during May Day celebrations. Such traditional performances were outlawed later that year, Beijing, 1966 Photo by Solange Brand

Red Guards leave Beijing to return to their hometowns on foot, 1967 Photo by Solange Brand

Solange Brand was aged only 19 when she arrived in Beijing in 1965 to work as a secretary at the French embassy. Just one year later, Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a mass movement that would devastate a nation.

On October 1, 1966, China’s National Day, Mao Zedong appeared on the rostrum in Tiananmen Square to greet Red Guards from all over China – the Great Helmsman’s fourth such “inspection” since August 18. Over 1.5 million students and citizens joined the parade. Brand, in her official capacity as an attaché of the French Embassy, was invited with other foreign guests to a formal reception in celebration of the event in the restaurant of the Beijing Hotel.

Instead of sitting down to dine, however, Brand joined the crowd in the streets of the capital, camera in hand. An amateur photographer, she documented what it was like to be part of the biggest mass mobilization in China since the Revolution.

Hobbyist

In 1964, France was one of the few Western counties to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Brand was recruited by the embassy in Beijing right out of secretarial school. Her daily routine involved cataloging documents and undertaking various administrative tasks in the embassy compound. Though she had little knowledge of Mandarin, Brand was curious about everyday life in Beijing. “I had a great interest in observing people on the street. I tried to understand them,” she told NewsChina.

Before arriving in China proper, Brand had used up her savings and bought a Pentax camera in Hong Kong. She had previously experimented with photography in France, using her father’s camera, describing the experience as discovering a “way to communicate with the outside world.” Though Brand had little formal training, she quickly became an inveterate street photographer.

Shortly after she started working in China, she was invited to the May Day celebrations in a cultural center and a park. The exotic performances of Chinese acrobats and masked dancers were utterly alien to her. Brand was especially fascinated by the dance performed by young women wielding replica rifles and swords, capturing all these sights through the lens of her camera.

Brand’s early impression of Chinese people was that they were mostly friendly and kind-hearted, if rather introverted. She was horrified at the turn things took barely a year later, when she would see the masks formerly worn by traditional dancers smashed as replicas of a feudal society, and witness the same young women raise real guns and machetes to attack one another.

“I was totally amazed that there were such photos of the Cultural Revolution,” Yang Lang, a historian and media professional, told NewsChina. In April 2014, Yang attended a photographic exhibition held by the French Embassy to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral ties. While many of the photographs on display were familiar to him, Yang told NewsChina that Brand’s took his breath away. “They were so different,” he said.

Chinese photojournalists Li Zhensheng and Weng Naiqiang produced work relating to the Cultural Revolution that remains iconic today. Brand’s photography, said Yang, was in a completely different category. While technically rudimentary, their casual and natural style, even to the point of being romantically naive, set them apart from other documentation of the period.

Most photographic records of the Cultural Revolution were posed according to strict propaganda regulations vigorously enforced by the authorities. Few ordinary Chinese families could afford a camera, and even those with access to one were mostly in the pay of the Communist Party’s propaganda departments.

Brand was in a special category. She was not tied to regulations limiting the activities of Western journalists, nor was she strictly beholden to the sociopolitical pressures that restricted her Chinese peers. Instead, she was an amateur able to follow her instinct and her passion, elements strengthened by her unfamiliarity with the local language and culture.

“I was just shooting for the sake of interest; trying my best to understand people and what was happening,” Brand told NewsChina. By the time of her departure from Beijing in 1968, she had taken some 400 photographs. Yang Lang believes that Brand’s output constitutes a more vivid and authentic photographic record of the Cultural Revolution than any material that made it past the Party’s censorship apparatus.

Thus, when Yang’s publisher friend Shang Hongke asked for recommendations for new subjects, Yang immediately brought up Brand’s work, and soon Shang had approached her with a view to publishing a selection of her Cultural Revolution pictures. Early this year, China Memory, 1966, a collection of nearly 100 color photos taken by Brand, was published in China, with the captions written by Yang.

Yang told NewsChina that some of Brand’s more sensitive photos were excluded from the collection, but stands by the book as a valuable documentary of China’s political past, especially those details missed in the mainstream historical record. “The arcane truths of history often lie in its less preserved aspects,” said Yang.

Politics

Brand used her camera to document the social transformation undergone by China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, peaking with the festivities in Tiananmen Square on National Day, 1966. She told NewsChina that in 1965, though she did occasionally see posters calling for “revolutionary acts,” some of which appear in her photos, it was a shock to see them blanket the city at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Even the people, she recalled, seemed to change.

“It seemed that they had not enough clothes and food,” she told NewsChina. “But everyone looked so excited.”

Such “excitement” finally arrived at the gates of the French Embassy. In early February 1967, the embassy was surrounded by a mob protesting the arrest of some Chinese students in Paris who had surrounded the embassy of the Soviet Union – China’s arch enemy at the time. Brand captured the slogans on their banners with her camera. Written in Chinese and English, they read: “Down with French imperialism!”

The protest lasted for days, with even elementary school and kindergarten students joining the crowds by its end. Brand made sure she captured their faces on camera for posterity.

But Brand’s vision was not restricted to political upheaval. Indeed, she showed a distinct preference for scenes from daily life. Discarded shoes, streetside sewing machines, and the soon-to-be-demolished gates of Beijing’s ancient city walls were all notable subjects. As an embassy staff member, she also had the opportunity to capture scenes in cities like Nanjing and Datong, which were generally off-limits to other foreigners. The photographs she took on her trips outside the capital, such as a portrait of an elderly man selling wontons in a narrow Nanjing alleyway on a sunny day, serve as a reminder that even as virtual civil war raged elsewhere, in some corners of China, life continued very much as normal.

Photography critic Chen Xiaobo told NewsChina that when he first saw Brand’s photos, he didn’t think much of them – they just didn’t meet his standards. However, the more he studied Brand’s work, the more value he found in their seemingly trivial details. In his foreword to China Memory, 1966, Chen writes: “Brand’s photos are speaking. They tell the world a story that happened in China not so long ago. They disclose some of the secret scenes that history doesn’t want to or couldn’t talk about – the weariness and absurdity that an extreme era brought to China.”

 

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