Two Inadequate Voices


2IV is a platform for image-makers to recount and reflect textually on their stories of being out in the world whilst photographing.

︎ Info
︎ Contact
︎ Instagram

Sheila Zhao
The East Was Red

All through my childhood, I would hear stories from my Mother and her sister, my Aunt, about the defining years of their youth, which coincided with China’s Cultural Revolution that spanned ten years (1966 to 1977). The Cultural Revolution was a sociopolitical movement that pushed for the political agenda of its charismatic then helmsman, Chairman Mao Zedong.

My Mother was still a child when the revolution began and remembers fondly the jubilation her and friends felt when it was announced that schools would close down. Children all around her would spend joyous days playing together, going to parks and sneaking into movie theatres to watch revolutionary films. My Aunt, a few years older, remembers squeezing into trains already bursting at the seams with people her age and sleeping on luggage racks to go to other cities in China and spread their revolutionary learnings. Later on, when my Mother was 18 years old, she was sent from her Beijing home and along with millions of other urban youths went to rural areas, near and far, in China to participate in the “Up To The Mountains and Down To The Countryside” movement. For four years she worked with local peasants in the outskirts of Beijing planting cotton and rearing pigs. Even though she was only 40 kilometers away from home, my Mother was only allowed to return once a year to see her family, during Chinese New Year. My Aunt, on the other hand, became a dancer in The National Ballet of China, and spent much of the Cultural Revolution touring around China, performing “The Red Detachment of Women”, one of a handful of approved shows citizens around the country were allowed to see.

In many ways, my Mother and Aunt’s experiences were typical of others their age who lived through the Cultural Revolution. They kept a low profile and even when times were hard, it was not particularly harder than most of the other people around them. These mundane experiences during their youth in extraordinary times shaped them and their peers.

One thing that struck me in the photographs that I have collected from the Cultural Revolution was how young most of the subjects in the photographs were. In one picture, three young boys on a train platform wear padded jackets and Mao pins – none of them looked a day over fifteen years old. In another picture, a girl with a big smile, standing straight and in a popular revolutionary stance, holding a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book – literally a child. Most revolutions are carried out by students and young people, and the young faces gazing back at me in these photographs still move me today.

Every generation seem to have a major event that defined the memories of their youth and coming of age. For Americans my age, that event was 9-11. For young people in our current time, it no doubt will be our current pandemic. For Chinese people of my parents’ generation, that event was the Cultural Revolution. My curiousity in the Cultural Revolution stems from the collective memories I inherited from them. I’m interested in the Cultural Revolution not just because its significance as a major event in modern Chinese history, but also how it was an event that shaped the people who have shaped me. In my repurposing of these found photographs, I try to create a stronger link that helps me to better understand my family. However, while I can find new meaning for these found pictures and create my own interpretations of the Cultural Revolution, I will never be able to know the individual stories of how those formative ten years shaped the lives of the people looking back at me through the photographs. But like my family’s memories, I know they enthusiastically joined millions of other young people who gathered at Tiananmen Square to catch a glimpse of Chairman Mao, spent hours upon hours studying from The Little Red Book, and traveled around the country encountering experiences that they would remember for the rest of their lives.

Sheila Zhao is a photographer based in Shanghai, China. She has worked on documentary and reportage projects throughout Asia and currently focuses on making personal photographic projects. Her work has appeared in a variety of online and print media, including the Washington Post, Burn Magazine, GUP Magazine and Invisible Photographers Asia.