Snapshots from Mao's comrade in revolution

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Clifford Coonan meets the Chairman's loyal photographer 60 years after she captured history

The black-and-white photographs resonate with the hope and anticipation, perhaps even the frisson of fear, that followed the violent revolution that swept the Communist Party to power in China exactly 60 years ago. The main figure in the photographs is Mao Zedong, the revolutionary genius who would eventually become "the Great Helmsman", before being vilified for kicking off the ideological frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, and the most important figure in 20th-century Chinese history.

They were taken by his photographer, Hou Bo, now a sprightly 85-year-old living in Beijing. On the anniversary of the revolution, she remains as loyal to the party – and its first leader – as ever.

Ms Hou is not alone. Despite the ravages of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, and the disastrous social agricultural reform known as the "Great Leap Forward", Mao is still a hero in China, considered by the Communist Party to be "70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad". He is the central figure in today's mass military parade to celebrate the anniversary, which features thousands of tanks and rocket launchers rumbling past the podium in front of the Forbidden City looking on to Tiananmen Square, watched by his heir, President Hu Jintao.

Ms Hou was with Mao every step of the way from the revolutionary stronghold of Yanan to the taking of Beijing. In one of Ms Hou's photographs, behind a sparse bank of radio microphones, he is reading a speech to the gathered party faithful in Beijing to announce the foundation of the People's Republic of China. Today's parade is a much grander affair, but the images captured by Ms Hou back in 1949 depicted an event that sent shockwaves throughout the world.

"Mao Zedong was a great man," said Ms Hou, in an interview at her home, giving the thumbs-up sign as she spoke, clearly still moved by her memories.

"We were just ordinary workers who gave our lives for the foundation of a new China. After 1949, everyone's life was hard, but so was his. China was very poor, and he made a big contribution to provide a foundation for our country to be great."

Today's China seems a million miles removed from the ideologically fervent civil war that led to the 1949 revolution. Mercedes and Audis zip up and down Chang'an Avenue at the city's heart, the private sector is a growing force and everyone has warmly embraced capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

The way the city of Beijing has been shut down so tightly, with no dissent brooked, in advance of the anniversary is a sign that the party still holds sway with an iron fist in the capital, even 60 years on.

The powerful photographs of the birth of contemporary China mark only one stage in Ms Hou's remarkable narrative of a country which went from being united by a democratic dream under Sun Yat-sen, to fighting an horrific war of resistance against the Japanese invaders alongside Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Nationalists, before the wartime allies turned upon each other in a brutal civil war.

Ms Hou joined the Communist Party at 14, after escaping Japanese invaders, and she spent seven years in Yanan, which marked the end of the Long March and was the focal point of the Chinese revolution between 1937 and 1948. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) she was sent to the countryside after being denounced by Jiang Qing, Mao's wife and the most famous member of the Gang of Four who were later blamed for the period of ideological frenzy that wrought havoc in China.

"She said I was a fake communist, because I had joined when I was 14 even though the official age was 18," said Ms Hou. "And she said the fact I had photographed disgraced figures like Liu Shaoqi meant I was definitely a counterrevolutionary. I hate her, but she did what she believed in. It's true Chairman Mao made mistakes in the Cultural Revolution, but he was very old and he was misled by other people," she insisted. "The party always helps you in the end."

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