“The east is red, the sun is rising.
From China comes Mao Zedong.
He strives for the people’s happiness,
Hurrah, he is the people’s great savior!
Chairman Mao loves the people,
He is our guide
to building a new China
Hurrah, lead us forward!
The Communist Party is like the sun,
Wherever it shines, it is bright
Wherever the Communist Party is
Hurrah, the people are liberated!”
These are the lyrics of “The East is Red,” a song praising Mao Zedong that became China’s unofficial national anthem during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). These are also the words that inspired the title of photographer Sheila Zhao’s latest project “The East was Red,” which examines the power and prevalence of political messaging in photography from that time.
The project features poignant and charming found images taken by ordinary people in everyday life. But, for every pin, statue, poster or other aspect of political messaging, Zhao has replaced the content with the color red — a color intrinsically connected to the party and time period. By both highlighting and hiding the Mao memorabilia, Zhao says her goal was “to focus one’s attention on the impact a political agenda can have on the everyday lives of a population and how much it altered the vernacular visual language of China’s history.”
Zhao, whose father is an avid antique collector, began collecting images from China’s past about two years ago. From flea markets to Beijing and Shanghai’s ‘antique cities’ — large buildings where many vendors sell all sorts of antiques –Zhao sifts through photo albums or lost single images taken by unknown photographers to find compelling slices of life from China’s past. Soon after she began collecting these moments, she started @ChinaLostAndFound, an Instagram account that serves as a virtual album for these treasured mementos.
As her collection grew, Zhao began to notice patterns of symbols in the images she gathered from the Cultural Revolution period. From posters to busts of Mao, she realized the ideology of the revolution was visibly tangible. “Photography at that time was not only a form of recreation and memory-making for the common person but also a way for them to show everyone else that they aligned with what Chairman Mao and the communist party was promoting,” she told In Sight.
“The East was Red” investigates and questions this behavior. It’s not just simply that a woman is wearing a pin or that a child is posing with a statue; it is that they are doing it in front of the camera. Much like when people add a filter in support of a cause to their Facebook profile photos, the motive and sentiment are the same. It not only reflects one’s identity and passions but also what they wish others to perceive.
After all, as Zhao believes, her project’s aim is not to show her opinion toward any government but to “make the audience aware of the power of a political party and how much its messaging can infiltrate into our lives.”