Unimaged and unwritten regrets

In 1974, when I was twenty-one years old, I took color photos for the first time, but the photos were not developed and printed, leaving only a small paper bag containing negatives from the photo studio, with the following words attached by my father.

“What a pity that a roll of new color photos failed in its entirety.
(a) the photo studio did not stick the tape tightly.
(2) the photo studio for the rewind when the light exposed.
(C) the film expired.”

Forty years after the little paper bag was stuck into the old book, it slipped out by chance in this hazy winter and activated my memory of that photo shoot.

In April 1974, my father’s imprisonment since November 1967 ended, and he was allowed to return home after his examination by the Third Office of the Central Committee. I had been in the countryside for five years and was so excited to learn the news that I immediately took leave and rushed back to Beijing from the frontier of Inner Mongolia. Could my situation be improved by my father’s “liberation”? I had many fantasies. But what I saw was that my father had not been “completely rehabilitated” and his job had not been restored. He said he was “still a semi-liberal prisoner”, a self-deprecating truth that made me almost despair. When I came out, they said, “If I talk about this, I’ll go back in,” and the air froze in his voice.

But the social life in 1974 was a little more relaxed than the year of my father’s arrest, 1967, and a little richer than the year I went to the countryside, 1969. For example, the market has been sold color film, color photos quietly into life. At that time, color film was imported and expensive, and the cost of printing was also very high. But when I was about to return to Inner Mongolia at the end of my twelve-day family leave, my father bought a roll and loaded it into the Leica camera that was returned to him from the prison. He proposed to me, who was too preoccupied to go out and take color photos.

The outskirts of Beijing were picturesque in April, but my father took me to the crowded Tiananmen Square. The sun was shining and the sky was blue in color. My father was very excited, saying that good weather would produce good photos. The tourists in front of Tiananmen Square were crowded one after another, and they all wanted to take the best angle to take pictures. I couldn’t squeeze up and was pushed into the crowd by my father impatiently. He shouted for me to hold on and not to give up my spot to anyone. I stood stiffly with a row of people huddled against the camera, only to see my father raise his camera, but then suddenly stop. He ordered me in a loud voice to take off my coat and take pictures wearing only my sweater, which was quite unexpected. At that time, the view of the sea of people in the square is blue, gray and grass green, wearing a sweater outside will be very solid. What makes it doubly difficult for me is to take off my coat so eye-catching, my sweater is not beautiful and does not fit, is their own with the old wool head to weave, multi-colored wide and narrow strip is not a pattern.

The sun made my father’s face red, and he stubbornly shouted at me over the crowd and noise, urging me to take off my coat. He stressed that this time he was using color film and that the most important thing was the color, so he wanted the sweater to be exposed. But I interrupted him and shouted back in boredom, “Take the picture, everyone else is waiting!” In the midst of the stalemate, my father finally stormed out, stomping his feet and accusing me of not understanding even the simplest of truths, excitedly talking and cursing, attracting onlookers.

At that time, the security in front of Tiananmen Square was much looser than it is now, and my father and I were surrounded by people shouting and waving cameras, but no police officers were on duty to intervene. The number of onlookers grew and grew. In order to end the situation, I had to take off my Corps “Kentucky clothes” in full view of the public, and exposed my old tattered sweater with mixed colors. My father held up the camera, his hands still shaking with rage, sweating profusely, trying to restrain his hands from shaking, focusing again and again and asking me to “smile” until I wiped away my tears and reluctantly cooperated with him.

I didn’t think about the results of that photo shoot, and it took eight months before it was revealed in my oblivion. At the end of the year, I received a letter from my father on the border of Inner Mongolia, enclosing the small paper bag with the words mentioned at the beginning of this article. The three points of analysis about the failure of the film were neatly written, conveying his deep disappointment about the highly valued photo shoot. I suddenly felt sad. What was unexpected was that the little negative bag contained a tiny picture, the size of a bank card today, torn from the cover of a small pocket calendar book from 1975. That kind of small book did not print the image of Mao, which was somehow new at that time. My father sent it to me as a New Year’s greeting card with a small cover.

The picture was of a pair of young figure skaters, two girls in bright red dresses, with their arms open in a crouching position and their legs raised in a standing position, a rare beauty in the harsh years. I looked at the back and there was my father’s writing: “To Xiao Di, Good New Year. 74,12,23 6:30 a.m.”.

I remember reading the letter as the snow was flying outside the window, and New Year’s Day 1975 was approaching in a haze of hope.

Now when I see the little paper bag and the little greeting card, I think of my father again. I have come to understand him in Tiananmen Square who was furious and insisted that I take off my coat, and I have come to understand his stubbornness and tyranny to capture the colors. I found it coincidental that my father wrote the congratulatory message on his greeting card on December 23, 1974, and ten years later, on that day in 1984, it was the day he died after a long illness.

I was reminded that the Leica camera that my father had used to take pictures of me, which had been copied and returned during the censorship, had been accidentally lost in the summer of 1983, the year before his death, while he was convalescing in Beidaihe. So my father bought a Nikon camera in 1984, at the beginning of the spring flowering season, after a few selections and, laughingly, “with a hard heart”. But in the winter of that year, the first roll of color film loaded in the brand-new Nikon camera was not yet finished, and he died tragically after falling ill.

The unimaged and unused color rolls left a legacy of regret, but what I regret even more is that my father did not have any written account of his own experiences behind bars during the Cultural Revolution. Among the writings left behind by a man of his full writing ability is a very detailed report to the Beidaihe seaside police station about the loss of his Lycra camera, but not a single recollection of his seven years in prison! When I think of what he said to me in a lowered voice back then, “When I came out, they said that if I told this, I would go back in,” I feel sad. Because when I was young, I only tried to understand the so-called struggles and movements as much as I could, but I never had the understanding to understand an innocent man who was imprisoned. I never shared his fears and sorrows, nor did I have the courage to listen to his intermittent, heavy narratives. I grew up so slowly, too slowly to express my understanding and compassion for my father during his lifetime.

Only now, so many years later, do I understand the importance of those narratives and the responsibility of recording them. If I had not treated those dictations with care, who else would have been expected to preserve them? Unfortunately, it has been thirty years since my father’s death, and his narrative remains in my memory in a messy way, unchecked, and no longer capable of being written as a rigorous documentary.