By Ivi Fung
Many will recognise immediately what is in the middle of the film slide – a portrait of the first Chairman of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao Zedong. The photograph was a material representation of Mao’s cult of personality at its height.
Suzanne Helen Paine, the photographer of this slide, was a young economist and Marxist who toured China with the Cambridge economic professor Joan Robinson during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76). It was a time when students stormed administrations and political leaders were preoccupied with power struggles. Alongside with a collapse of social order, the period saw the rock bottom of diplomatic exchange with western states. Paine and Robinson were among the few foreigners who were openly sympathetic to PRC and recieved an entry permit to set foot in the Mainland. Paine’s collection of photos and Robinson’s field notes presented a China with a thriving economy and satisfied, hardworking people.
More informative is what is absent in the photo. The tourists’ lavish experience was very much standardised and controlled by the Chinese government. Almost all visitors went through the same official tour, talked to the same workers and students, and were accompanied by the same translators. What was not captured by tourists, but rather demonstrated later by first-hand biographies and recently-released county chronicles, were the poverty, mass deportation, violence, power plays, and political persecutions. The slide is a reminder of the usefulness of individual sources, but also their limitations in writing and reading history.
Image credit: Author’s own. Photo courtesy of Paine’s husband for donating the box of slides to the Needham Research Institute.