Barney Rosset and China

Barney Rosset: Early Life & Career

Barney In "Foto-Moto"

Barney in "Foto-Moto"

Barney Rosset; January 1945

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The photographs in this exhibit were taken from 1944-1945 by Barney Rosset, then a young American Army photographer. Rosset documented the Chinese Army in their pursuit of Japanese troops following the Battle of Henan-Hunan-Guangxi. The Japanese Army was pulling back from the Ichi-Go operation, the largest Japanese land campaign of the war, and Rosset joined Chinese troops at the deepest point of Japanese penetration (Kweiyang).

Rosset was usually in the vanguard of the advancing Chinese army, traveling in a small truck with a co-driver and his field photo laboratory; at times his adventurous spirit led him far ahead of the troops. After befriending an American OSS officer who worked with Chinese guerrillas inside Japanese-held territory, Rosset assisted in a rather unofficial capacity by driving his truck to transport the guerrillas into their area of operations behind Japanese lines. Rosset was sent to Shanghai near the war’s end, and was one of the first Americans to arrive during the final days of Japanese occupation. Rosset thought highly of the Chinese troops he accompanied, and wrote of the soldiers’ impressive bravery and conduct despite their being ill-equipped and poorly-fed. He even claimed never to have heard a wounded Chinese soldier or injured civilian cry out in pain.

After the war, Rosset became the proprietor of Grove Press, publishing authors often refused due to their controversial subject matter. Many of these figures would come to have great significance in their time, such as Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, Beat novelists Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and even revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Malcolm X. He additionally offered the first American introduction to many great international works, including Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot." Rosset became best known for defending freedom of expression and pushing the limits of censorship in America. He fought landmark battles in the courts to publish uncensored versions of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” One photograph, showing Barney Rosset after the war, was taken by American poet Allen Ginsberg. In Ginsburg’s handwriting is his inscription: “Publisher-hero Barney Rosset whose Grove Press legal battles liberated U.S. literature & film.” Newsweek called Grove Press “a force that challenged and changed American culture in deep and lasting ways,” and with the 1957 founding of his Evergreen Review a new generation of writers “produced some of the best and most provocative writing of the time.” 

Rosset also maintained his interest in China throughout his life. He published Grove anthologies of Chinese literature, and created a university course on the “New and Old Civilizations of China.” His interest in China was formed at an early age when he read “Red Star over China” while still in grammar school. It made a great impression on him, and was one of the first books he put back into print. Rosset wrote that when he was sent to Shanghai as the war was ending, he felt like a live actor in “Red Star over China,” or in “Man’s Fate,” a novel by Frenchman Andre Malraux which was set in Shanghai in 1927. In 1991, he made a return visit to Kunming, but the visit was all too short. 

Some years ago a selection of these photographs were shown in a well-received exhibit in New York, but Rosset's longstanding wish was that his documentation of this tragedy might be shared with younger generations in China. Barney Rosset died in New York in February, 2012, but with the current exhibit by the Kunming Municipal Museum, Barney Rosset’s wish has become a reality.

Bob Bergin
Remarks at the Opening of "Publisher-hero as Combat Photographer in China"
An Exhibit at Kunming Municipal Museum
Kunming City, Yunnan, China, February 20, 2014.

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