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When Self-Criticism Was an Order, These Portraits Were Revolutionary

Mr. Wang’s emphasis on individuality, said Bao Pu, co-founder of New Century Press, is what makes his photos unique.

“At a time in which people were expected to sacrifice themselves for society, that act of turning the camera and focusing on the individual, the self, was perhaps the ultimate act of subversion,” Mr. Bao said. “In light of how prevalent selfies are in China today, it really shows how people’s ideas have changed tremendously.”

Born in 1949, the year the People’s Republic was founded, Mr. Wang grew up in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou. The son of two high-ranking officials, he had, by his own account, a fortunate childhood. As a boy, he was selected to greet Premier Kim Il-sung of North Korea with flowers at the airport during an official visit.


Mr. Wang, center, and other members of a military construction squad in 1970, enacting a fictitious battle scene inspired by the film “Battle on Shangganling Mountain.”

Wang Qiuhang/New Century Press

Soon after, the family’s fortunes took a turn. In 1959, when Mr. Wang was in elementary school, his father was sent to a labor camp as part of Mao’s campaign to purge counterrevolutionary intellectuals.

That same year, Mr. Wang’s father was accused of being a “traitor of the Party” and killed himself.

As the son of a traitor, Mr. Wang was blacklisted. In 1966, as Mao launched the campaign to destroy China’s “four olds” — ideas, customs, culture and habits — Mr. Wang was barred from his high school’s Red Guards, the paramilitary youth group that carried out the chairman’s purge.

Because of his “bad family background,” Mr. Wang was denied jobs and, for years as a result, the opportunity to find a wife.

“All the doors to love were completely closed to me, even my first crush,” Mr. Wang wrote in the book’s foreword. “After having gone through total despair, I discovered another kind of love: the love of oneself.”

“I recorded this love with my camera,” he added.

At the time, owning a camera was considered a luxury that few families could afford. But when he was 17, Mr. Wang bought a basic secondhand camera for 5 yuan, almost a month’s salary for the average worker.

“We were mischievous youth back then” Mr. Wang said.“We always had ways to get money.”

After showing a friend how to use the camera, the 17-year-old Mr. Wang asked the boy to take his picture. That photo, the earliest picture of Mr. Wang in the collection, shows a beaming teenager swinging on a pair of parallel bars on a school sports field.


Mr. Wang posing with items deemed bourgeois and confiscated by Red Guards. At a time when even the hint of capitalistic sympathies could invite trouble from the authorities, the photos were taboo.

Wang Qiuhang/New Century Press

By 1968, the Cultural Revolution was convulsing the country. Millions of young people were shipped from cities to the countryside to work on farms. In Hangzhou, Mr. Wang’s hometown, political struggles, demonstrations and house raids roiled the city.

“To be honest, I really wanted to be part of it,” Mr. Wang wrote, but his family’s status kept him from participating in party activities.

Instead, he and his peers became part of a lost generation, virtually written out of official histories that jump from the glories of independence to China’s ascension as an economic powerhouse.

“For me and my generational peers, this period of history is unforgettable, almost beyond belief,” Mr. Wang, now 67, said in an interview. “Our entire youth was taken away. We didn’t fight a war, we didn’t learn anything, and when we came home, many of us couldn’t find jobs. We had nothing to show for ourselves.”

When conflict broke out on the Soviet border in 1969, Mr. Wang saw an opportunity to pursue his dream of fighting for the People’s Liberation Army. He begged to join the military, and soon found himself in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, leading a squad of men assigned to build tunnels.

While the work was difficult, Mr. Wang’s platoon finished the tunnels, ahead of schedule, in the summer of 1970. By then, tensions with the Soviet Union had diminished and Mr. Wang’s company was dismissed.

Before returning their guns, Mr. Wang had one request of his companions: Let’s take some photos.

Mr. Wang coordinated a photo shoot, directing the soldiers in a fictitious battle scene inspired by the film “Battle on Shangganling Mountain.”


Mr. Wang in Hangzhou in 1973.

Wang Qiuhang/New Century Press

“I prepared for that photo shoot for so long,” Mr. Wang said. “They let me take red medicine to use as fake blood but I wasn’t allowed to start any fires.”

Unable to join the military as a regular soldier, Mr. Wang set his sights on becoming a photojournalist. He soon learned the blacklist extended to the nation’s newspapers as well.

He was unable to find a job because of his father’s political history, and unable to find a girlfriend because he did not have a job.

For fun, Mr. Wang and his friends — many of them also sons of purged officials — would drink baijiu, gamble and dress up for photos.

As props, they used wine glasses and Western-style neckties, which Red Guards had confiscated during house raids of the bourgeoisie. Posing with the items was dangerous; even the slightest hint of capitalistic sympathies could invite trouble from the authorities.

“We didn’t dare show them to anyone,” Mr. Wang said.

In 1976, the last year of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Wang finally found a job at the Zhejiang Provincial Museum, where his stepfather had worked. In 1981 he married, and in 1989 he made photography his full-time profession, becoming secretary general of the Hangzhou Photographers Association.

For decades, he kept his photo collection in storage, hidden from public view. It was only when he retired in 2009 that he started thinking about publishing the photos.

“I did it for the young Wang Qiuhang,” Mr. Wang said. “That Wang Qiuhang didn’t have a single penny in his pocket but he had film in his camera. And now his dream has finally been realized.”

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