Not for the first time, a correspondent asks us about the genuineness, or otherwise, of some photographs of the Manchu royal family. This accordion-style booklet certainly looks old, but you can find many news items online in Chinese about it of the ‘Granny cheated out of 21,000 yuan for 5 yuan booklet’ variety (just about verbatim, that one). The title is 皇室舊影 if you want to image search for yourself. Another shot of a couple of the pages is below.
Perhaps fake isn’t quite the right word, but it is clearly being sold in ways which trade on the desire to find old and usual items. The photographs are genuine enough, and have been widely reproduced and studied. There is a very useful essay on them with many good quality reproductions of original prints from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on MIT’s Visualizing Cultures platform. As you can see there, once the Manchu elite took to photography, there was no holding them back.
That is not to say that we do not come across genuine photographs of the last Manchus, for we do. Just last week we took delivery of a couple of photographs dated 1926 of Puyi at the Peking races with a group of Europeans (that is him below, on the right, in the fake booklet). So do keep looking, but do be very wary: it is no coincidence that ‘copycat’, or fake, (shanzhai 山寨) was one of the keywords words discussed by Yu Hua in his 2012 book China in Ten Words.