The Broader Picture: The Chairman's private album

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The Independent Culture
FEW photographers can claim that the general-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party helped them upgrade their camera equipment. But in July 1983, when Zhang Dexiang pulled out his ancient second-hand Rolleiflex to photograph the party chief, Hu Yaobang, the chief is supposed to have laughed out: 'What a fancy camera] Where did you get this cultural relic from?'

From 1968, Mr Zhang's official task had been to photograph the VIP visitors to the Revolutionary Museum in Yan'an, the mountain base in northern Shaanxi province that from 1935-47 was the headquarters of Mao Tse-tung and the Eighth Route Army (later the People's Liberation Army). Senior party cadres, ever keen to re-establish their own revolutionary credentials, were regular visitors to the museum, and over the decades Mr Zhang took thousands of pictures of many of China's top leaders including Mr Hu, the former prime minister Zhou Enlai, and the present prime minister, Li Peng.

'When I was using the old cameras, I prayed every time I pressed the shutter that the picture would come out all right,' Mr Zhang told the China Daily recently. 'Many times I had to carry several cameras in case one was out of order.' Mr Hu's visit finally persuaded Mr Zhang's bosses to buy him a new Rolleiflex and he has since set about documenting rural life in the Yan'an area.

Mr Zhang's second passion was collecting pictures which document the early years of the revolutionary struggle. In all, he has assembled a remarkable set of about 7,000 pictures for the museum. He also has a small personal collection of those he is most fond of, some of which he agreed to lend to the Independent on Sunday Review for publication to coincide with last Sunday's 100th anniversary of Mao Tse-tung's birth.

Mr Zhang, born in Yan'an, was just eight years old when the People's Republic of China was founded by Chairman Mao in 1949 and never himself photographed the Great Helmsman. But over the years he obtained copies of some unique shots of Mao. He remembers how, in 1974, an American journalist was visiting Yan'an and showed him copies of 10 pictures of Chairman Mao and his revolutionary colleagues taken in 1946. Mr Zhang worked all night to make copies of the set, and one (shown here) of Mao Tse-tung, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De was later circulated thoughout China.

In 1970, two years after starting work at the Yan'an Revolutionary Museum, Mr Zhang was allowed to study for a time at the Peking Film Institute. Many of the photographs in Mr Zhang's private collection were taken by his teacher there, Wu Yinxian, including one shot in 1941 of Mao after giving a lecture to 120 Division in Yan'an. Mao is standing in front of the mountain dwellings often used by his army, looking slightly toothy, and clutching a banner presented to him by the soldiers. Another portrait by Mr Wu, taken in 1945 in Yangjialing village, Yan'an, shows a more jovial and relaxed Mao.

Now the director of Yan'an prefecture's reception department, Mr Zhang has been swamped with visitors in the run-up to the anniversary celebrations. Yan'an, like everywhere in China, is full of kitsch items of Mao memorabilia stamped with his portrait. They show little of the character of a man who led a revolution and then traumatised China with the Great Leap Forward in the late Fifties and the Cultural Revolution a decade later.

The photographs from Mr Zhang's collection also fail to reveal the tyrant that Chairman Mao became. In one, taken in 1947, Mao sits back in a deck-chair, tea-cup in hand, on a visit to Wangjiawan village when he was moving through the province organising the Eighth Route Army. Just two years later he was standing victorious in Tiananmen Square.

(Photographs omitted)