Uncanny China by Rolf Gilhausen, 1958-59

Starting in December 27, 1958, Stern magazine in Germany started publishing a series of articles and photos on China that would eventually cover nearly 70 pages of the magazine. Left-leaning Stern which quickly became the leading post-World War II magazine in Germany after its founding in 1948, was fascinated by China and the great experiments happening there under Chairman Mao.

This fascination was shared by the writer Stern had dispatched to China: Joachim Heldt called what was happening in China: “Mao’s greatest mysterious experiment in human history.” Heldt and an accompanying Rolf Gilhausen were originally sent out to photograph the Trans-Siberian Railway connecting communist-dominated Russia and China, but found the latter country more interesting. Their dispatches were titled, Unheimliches China (Uncanny China).

China was indeed uncanny: slowly recovering from the civil war that preceded the Communist takeover, it had just finished its First 5-Year Plan in the preceding year, and just commenced its second, which would later be more notoriously known as the Great Leap Forward.

The country’s industrial and agricultural outputs had been slowly increasing, and Mao had announced China’s plan to develop of nuclear bombs, intercontinental missiles and satellites. But the future errors of the Great Leap Forward were already baked into her leadership’s economic policies: the government had been applying political and financial pressures to force businesses and farmers to merge into state-owned corporations and cooperatives, and because the Party longed for food self-sufficiency, food imports were restricted. The Four Pests campaign — the plan to eliminate rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows — which would result in an ecological disaster and a famine, had just began.

This was the China Heldt and Gilhausen saw: the China where the young communist cadres practiced with rifles and admired rockets, where “Blue Ants” workers toiled and factory workers proudly proclaimed, “We are overtaking you,” where people enjoyed classical Chinese operas and Communist plays alike. Juxtaposed were the panoramas of happy workers alongside gleaming technologies, in the best traditions of Socialist Realism and Orientalism.

December 27, 1958

January 3, 1959

January 10, 1959

January 18, 1959

January 24, 1959

January 31, 1959

February 7, 1959

February 14, 1959

February 21, 1959

February 28, 1959

March 7, 1959

Gillhausen and Heldt were often commissioned by Stern for travel pieces, and travelled extensively together through China, India and Africa. Rolf Gilhausen was born in Cologne in 1922 and served in the Second World War, ending up as a prisoner of war. A self-taught photographer, he began as photo reporter at the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung in 1948 and later as a photojournalist for the Associated Press in Bonn. He began his career at Stern in 1956, covering the Hungarian Uprising, and later served as the cover editor, vice editor-in-chief, and editor-in-chief of the magazine. (In addition from 1976 to 1978, he was founder and editor-in-chief of GEO).

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