At Large  October 28, 2019  Caterina Bellinetti

Life in a Sea of Red: 40 Years Photographing Communism

Courtesy Steidl

A painter naps at a craft art store specializing in ideological portraits, Chengdu, Sichuan province, 1980.

The title of the new book by the Chinese photographer Liu Heung Shing, A Life in a Sea of Red, published by Steidl, is an adaptation of the Chinese phrase “alive in the bitter sea” (苦海余生 kǔ hǎi yú shēng). The original phrase means to survive life’s hard circumstances and for Liu Heung Shing it aptly describes the life of people under the Communist rule in the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union.

Courtesy Steidl

The photographs in this volume, all taken between 1976 and 2016, show the transition of China from the death of Mao Zedong (1976) to the violence of Tian’anmen Square (1989) and the emergence of a socialist-capitalist society. The images of the Soviet Union, instead, portray the collapse of the Communist state through moments like the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan (1989), the hardships of the common people hit by inflation during the early 1990s, and the return of old, once banned practices such as the celebration of Easter or Christmas. 

Liu Heung Shing was born in Hong Kong in 1951 and spent his childhood years in Fuzhou. There, Liu experienced the tense socio-political situation of the early 1960s as he got bullied and harassed for being the son of a landlord family. In 1967, Liu left China to study in the United States where he enrolled at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. While studying, he did an apprenticeship in New York at Life magazine. After graduating, Liu became a reporter for Time and worked as a foreign correspondent and photojournalist in Beijing, New Dehli, Los Angeles, Moscow, and Seoul. Liu ended his career as a photojournalist in 1993, but since the early 2000s, he has been dedicating his time to the creation of books that narrate the visual history of China through historical photographs.

Courtesy Steidl

Georgians hold a midnight vigil in memory of victims of a massacre by the Soviet army. The republic unilaterally declared independence on the second anniversary of the massacre. Tbilisi, 1990.

A Life in a Sea of Red consists of six chapters that present six different political and social eras in China and the Soviet Union. The first chapter, Moving Out of Mao’s Shadow, looks at life after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. From orchestras allowed to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony after twenty years to the appearance of Democracy Walls in Beijing, Liu documented the people’s return to normal life after decades of isolation and prohibitions.

"Coca-Cola Feel the Taste!" A young man proffers the iconic glass bottle which symbolizes Coca-Cola around the world. The Coca-Cola Company had just resumed production in China. Forbidden City, Beijing, 1981.
Courtesy Steidl

"Coca-Cola Feel the Taste!" A young man proffers the iconic glass bottle which symbolizes Coca-Cola around the world. The Coca-Cola Company had just resumed production in China. Forbidden City, Beijing, 1981. 

Zhang Xin, CEO of the extraordinarily successful real estate company SOHO China, poses on the roof of her architectural project Galaxy, designed by Zaha Hadid. Beijing 2014.
Courtesy Steidl

Zhang Xin, CEO of the extraordinarily successful real estate company SOHO China, poses on the roof of her architectural project Galaxy, designed by Zaha Hadid. Beijing 2014.

Posing for a beach portrait in China's Beidaihe resort, 1982
Courtesy Steidl

Posing for a beach portrait in China's Beidaihe resort, 1982.

Daily life under the declaration of martial law.
Courtesy Steidl

Daily life under the declaration of martial law.

One of the most well-known images of this period is one of a young man drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The man, wrapped in a thick coat, smiles while offering the bottle to the viewer. Behind him, the Forbidden City stands immobile, a symbol of the past. But this window into modernity, American products, Western-style modeling, and tourism was brief and ended in blood in 1989 with the Tian’anmen Incident.

Courtesy Steidl

A young ballerina has a fitting for her costume, Moscow, 1993.

Chapters three and four, The U.S.S.R. Collapses and States Regain Independence, show the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the consequences that this collapse had on common people. Markets didn’t have food in their stalls, homeless families from various Soviet republics camped in the Red Square, and political prisoners filled the state penitentiaries. It was for his photograph of Mikhail Gorbachev announcing the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Liu won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. About that image, Liu recalled that he was determined to capture the moment that would sign the end of the Soviet Union as well as the end of the Cold War. “In order to capture this milestone in 20th-century history,” Liu wrote, “I decided to focus on the moment when, at the end of his speech, Mikhail Gorbachev signed his resignation paper.”

Courtesy Steidl

On his way to a session of the parliament, a wary deputy encounters a group whose banners call for "Democracy—Yes!", 1991. 

When asked what makes a strong photograph by Dr. Marine Cabos of Photography of China, Liu replied: “I think a strong photograph should evoke a sort of mutual intellectual reckoning, while triggering emotional responses from the viewers.” In A Life in a Sea of Red, there is this intellectual reckoning as well as the identification of the viewers with the photographed subjects. This is because this book tells us a story, our story, the story of the people who lived through some of the major political and social moments of the past century. Liu Heung Shing was there and he saw them all. And thanks to his photographs, we saw them with him.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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