Review: These stunning photos show the rise of China and the fall of the Soviet Union

Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
Students on a hunger strike, a photo featured in “Life in a Sea of Red,” by Liu Heung Shing.
(Liu Heung Shing)
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He saw history unfolding in front of him: The massacre at Tiananmen Square. The chaotic coup attempt to unseat Gorbachev. The swift stroke of the pen that marked the fall of the USSR. And, yes, Shanghai’s first American fashion show (Bianca Jagger modeling Halston!). Time and again, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Liu Heung Shing positioned himself at political and cultural turning points, capturing, from a mere lens-length away, the telltale moments in China’s rise and the Soviet Union’s demise.

Liu’s impressive new photo book, “A Life in a Sea of Red,” is a rat-a-tat-tat I-was-there collection of the most memorable, most revealing pictures made during a 40-year career covering China and Russia at times of unprecedented upheaval. Outside of journalism circles, Liu’s isn’t exactly a household name, but he’s been called the Cartier-Bresson of China — and the sweeping black-and-white and color pictures in this 288-page, substantially sized book make an extremely compelling case.

Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
Bianca Jagger (1980) in the dressing room before the first American fashion show in Shanghai led by designer Halston, credited with defining style for the jet set in the 1970s.
(Liu Heung Shing)

Born in Hong Kong and schooled in mainland China, Liu moved to New York to attend college. There, he took a class with legendary Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili, who later asked him to intern at Life. In 1976, Time magazine sent Liu, then just 26, to China to cover Mao Zedong’s funeral — and so began the career of the ultimate inside-outsider, the rare photographer able to see events play out from both the Chinese and the Western perspective.

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Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
Protesters gathered in Minsk, Belarus, 1990, featured in “Life in a Sea of Red,” by Liu Heung Shing.
(Liu Heung Shing)

As a photojournalist, Liu is blessed with many gifts, among them an uncanny ability to spot the small moments of ordinary life that come to stand for something larger, as well as a newshound’s nose for being at the right place at the right time. “Sea of Red” is full of examples: the workers quietly removing a large poster of Mao, the blurred-on-purpose moment Gorbachev signed the document that closed the book on the Soviet Union, a happy patient standing with the only plastic surgeon in 1980 Beijing performing Western “eye job” surgeries. But perhaps the most astonishing picture is Liu’s cinematic shot of a young couple on a bicycle hiding under a bridge during the Tiananmen protests as tanks rumble on the street just above them.

Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
Dr. Fu Nongyu points to the eyes of a patient who has undergone plastic surgery to create “double eyelids,” common to Westerners. Fu was the only surgeon in Beijing who could perform these “eye jobs,” operating on one eye at a time so the patient could cycle home, Beijing, 1980.
(Liu Heung Shing)

The book features 195 images, many of them masterworks of composition on the fly. “The selection process,” Liu told The Times via email, “was from thousands rather than tens of thousands [of photos] because I worked in film, not digital. I was taught to make every frame count.” But aside from the pictures themselves, the captions provide a bonus layer of entertaining detail: Those winter cabbages the peasants gracefully toss into a truck? Liu writes that they weigh at least 22 pounds apiece. That plastic surgeon? He worked on one eye at a time so the patient would be able to bicycle home.

Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
A giant portrait of Mao is removed from the Museum of Chinese History on the east side of Tiananmen Square, signaling an official end to the personality cult of Mao and the start of the de-Maoification of China that began after the completion of the trail of the Gang of Four in 1981 featured on the cover of “Life in a Sea of Red,” by Liu Heung Shing.
(Liu Heung Shing)

The publication of “Life in a Sea of Red,” by distinguished photo-book publisher Steidl, comes at an interesting time, with Russian political machinations once again taking the world stage. But it’s also the perfect moment to look back on China’s ascendancy, as this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests, the 40th anniversary of China’s economic reform, and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Liu has been along for much of that ride. He told me that, even as a young man in 1976, he sensed that “the story of the potential transformation of the People’s Republic — as it involved a fifth of the world’s population — would be an earth-shaking story, so I just kept at it.” And keep at it he did.

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Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
A young couple waits beneath Jianguomenwai Bridge on the fringe of the diplomatic area, as People’s Liberation Army tanks roll above them, June 5, 1989.
(Liu Heung Shing)
Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
Peasants at Evergreen Commune just outside of Beijing toss the new harvest of cabbages, the only vegetable available to Northern Chinese in winter. This was strenuous work as each cabbage could weigh at least 10 kilos, often much more, 1980.
(Liu Heung Shing)
Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
A young ballerina has a fitting for her costume, Moscow, 1993.
(Liu Heung Shing)
Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
Three young toughs, Simao, Jinghong County, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, 1980.
(Liu Heung Shing)
Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
Protesters ask soldiers to leave the city in a photo featured in “Life in a Sea of Red,” by Liu Heung Shing.
(Liu Heung Shing)
Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
Workers at Beijing Petrol Refinery, 1980, featured in “Life in a Sea of Red,” by Liu Heung Shing.
(Liu Heung Shing)
Photographs by Liu Heung Shing from "Life in a Sea of Red."
A billboard showing an early advertisement for new motor vehicles. Shanghai, 1978.
(Liu Heung Shing)
Book Jacket of "Life in a Sea of Red" by Liu Heung Shing
The book cover of “Life in a Sea of Red,” by Liu Heung Shing.
(Steidl )

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Life in a Sea of Red: The Photography of Liu Heung Shing
Pi Li, Geoff Raby and Christopher Phillips

Steidl: 288 pp., $95

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Shapiro is the former editor in chief of Life magazine and the author of “What We Keep.”