Dancing for Mao

A photograph of a 5-year-old girl made her famous in China—and haunted the man who took it

The "loyalty dance" was a fixture of China's Cultural Revolution, and Kang Wenjie's performance at a giant Maoist teach-in was boffo. (Li Zhensheng / Contact Press Images)
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Then-Defense Minister Zhang Aiping, who had been imprisoned for years during the Cultural Revolution, greeted the exhibition with the remark, "Let history tell the future." Li's pictures (which did not include "Little Yellow Hair") won the grand prize.

"The authorities were shocked by the violence depicted in Li's images of public humiliations inflicted upon dignitaries and by the photographs of the executions," says Robert Pledge, co-founder of New York City photo agency Contact Press Images, which would collaborate with Li in publishing his life's work in the book Red-Color News Soldier. (Images from the book have been shown in ten countries, with exhibits scheduled for Hungary, Australia and Singapore later this year.)

For his part, Li says he remained haunted by the people in his photographs. He wanted to know what had become of those who had survived; he wanted to connect with the families of those who hadn't. In 1998, he wrote an article for his former newspaper under the headline, "Where Are You, Little Girl Who Performed the Loyalty Dance?"

A week later, he heard from Kang Wenjie.

Kang still lived in Wudalianchi City, not far from the Russian border. She made a living selling wholesale clothes to Russian traders. She was married and had a 12-year-old son.

Kang told Li she had been picked to represent her city those many years ago because she could sing and dance, but she hadn't even known that the dance she performed that day had a name. After Li told her about it, she used the very word in her reaction that he had thought in 1968: ke xiao—absurd. "I was merely a naive child who knew nothing," Kang, now 46, says today. "How could I become that well known after a dance?"

Li says the story reminds him of the fable of the naked emperor's new clothes—here was a child who couldn't even read Mao's writings being held up as a model of Maoist thought. "During the Cultural Revolution," Li says, "no one dared to tell the truth."

Even today, the truth about those dark days remains a delicate subject. Li's book has been published in six languages, but it is not available in China.

Jennifer Lin covered China from 1996 to 1999 for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she remains a reporter.


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