Li Zhensheng heard singing followed by a burst of applause. Following the sounds led the photojournalist to a young girl with unusually fair hair tied in ponytails, dancing with her arms upraised and surrounded by smiling, clapping soldiers.
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They were at the Red Guard Stadium in Harbin, in northern China, along with hundreds of thousands of Communist Party cadres, workers, peasants and other soldiers who had gathered for a marathon conference on the teachings of Chairman Mao Zedong. This was 1968, nearly two years into the Cultural Revolution, Mao's attempt to purge Chinese society of supposed bourgeois elements and escalate his own cult of personality. The conferees seemed to be trying to outdo one another in their professions of love for their nation's leader.
On April 28, the last day of the 23-day gathering, a 5-year-old kindergartner was performing the "loyalty dance," as it was known. In front of the soldiers in the stadium stands, she skipped in place and sang:
No matter how close our parents are to us, they are
not as close as our relationship with Mao
How absurd, thought Li, who was then a photographer for the Heilongjiang Daily, a party newspaper. The girl certainly was lovely and eager to please, but the photojournalist found the excess of zeal discomforting. "They had to love him to the extreme," says Li, now 68 and retired.
In the cult of Mao, everyone was expected to perform the loyalty dance—from miners to office workers to toddlers to old ladies whose feet had been bound. "The movements were always toward the sky—that way you could show how respectful you were to Mao," Li says. "Everyone knew how to dance it."
Li shot six photographs of the scene, of which the Heilongjiang Daily published two. When the girl—instantly known as "Little Yellow Hair"—returned home to Dedu County (now Wudalianchi City), people came to the roadside to cheer her for bringing fame and honor to their town.
Li kept on taking pictures—including those he called his "negative negatives": Red Guards shaving the head of a provincial governor because his hairline was too similar to Mao's; security forces shooting, point-blank, two accused counterrevolutionaries for publishing a flier the government deemed too pro-Soviet. These were scenes that China did not want the rest of the world—or, for that matter, its own people—to see.
In the darkroom, Li would separate potentially dangerous negatives and hide them in his desk. When the time seemed right he would take them home for safer keeping, having cut a hiding space the size of a book in the floorboards of his one-room apartment.
Even after the Cultural Revolution effectively ended with Mao's death, at age 82, in 1976, Li was wary about showing his more incendiary work. In 1980 he left the newspaper to teach at Beijing University's International Political Science Institute. In 1988, the organizers of a nationwide photography competition—what Li says was China's first such undertaking as it opened up to the outside world—encouraged him to enter some of his pictures.