Here’s five historical images from China, for the Games:
Here’s five historical images from China, for the Games:
This photograph, with its somewhat clumsy composition, was snapped inside an unidentified temple. It is really more about the two splendid, wooden idols of unidentified gods, than about the bell. These impressive and expressive statues were very colourfully painted, something not readily discernible in a black and white photograph. However, once an actual idol was seen, the brilliant colours could be easily read into a monochrome photographic image.
The idols in Ru01-070 bring to mind Wenlock™ and Mandeville™, the Olympic mascots, now all over London, including one standing outside St Paul’s Cathedral (a temple now so enthralled by Mammon that only visitors blessed with deep pockets may enter). Idols aside, let the bells ring out, and bring on the Games, ding, dong!
The Qiantang River and Hangchow (Hangzhou) Bay have long attracted visitors to witness the roaring tidal bore – the largest in the world. This swirling wall of water travels at up to 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles an hour) and can reach as much as 9 metres (30 feet) high, although more usually it is from 1.5 to 4.5 metres (5 to 15 feet) high. This force of nature is a hazard to shipping in and around the harbour, and is too dangerous to surf.
The great photographer Diane Arbus once observed that ‘a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.’ NA07-107 is the very picture of such secretive photography, if only because it is such a glorious double exposure: a cacophony of a photograph, which includes musical instruments in the Confucian Temple, in Confucius’s home town of Chufu, Shantung (Qufu, Shandong), in c.1903. (See also Louis Faurer’s iconic double exposure ‘Accident, New York City, 1952’: http://vuucollective.tumblr.com/post/12436296133/firsttimeuser-louis-faurer-accident-new-york).
Whilst digitizing some fifteen thousand old photographs for the Historical Photographs of China project, I have travelled vicariously all over a China of long ago, gradually getting to know pieces of that vast country, rectangle by rectangle, as an enigmatic, silent, still, monochrome place, a place that does not exist like this any more. Imagination, memory and a general understanding can fill in for the missing sensory input, rightly or wrongly. But with thorough background and historical knowledge, the photos can be read: people, places and events can be identified; information, stories and secrets can be revealed.
However, more caveats apply: “Photographs are ambiguous. A photograph is a meeting place where the interests of the photographer, the photographed, the viewer and those who are using the photograph are often contradictory. These contradictions both hide and increase the natural ambiguity of the photographic image.” (John Berger: Another Way of Telling).
And yet, when looking at photographs, it is not too difficult to acknowledge these important inherent contradictions and nuances, to bear in mind the whos, what fors, and whys. If asked how such contingent material could be of use to historians, it could be argued that there is something about a photograph that is unambiguously real and true—benefiting from what László Moholy-Nagy called the ‘hygiene of the optical’—and that photographs are in fact informative historical documents, when read perceptively (László Moholy-Nagy: Painting, Photography, Film).
A longer version of the above post by Jamie Carstairs, was published in ‘Picturing China 1870-1950: Photographs from British Collections’ by Robert Bickers et al (2007), available from our Amazon bookstore.
‘Old Photographs Fever: The search for China’s pictured past’, which explores our project through interviews with the team, with some of our contributors, and with some of those who make use of the project, was broadcast earlier today on BBC Radio 4. If you’re able to use the BBC iPlayer site, you can listen to the programme by following this link.
There’s also a wonderful slide show packaged around some of the contributions to the programme up on the BBC News Magazine section of the BBC web site.
Furthermore, BBC History Magazine online is currently showing a slide show of some great representative images from the collections: http://www.historyextra.com/historicalchina.
This is a personal favourite of mine, although there is plenty of competition. I love Warren Swire’s photograph of the old ‘Bridge of Ten Thousand Ages’ (万寿桥) in Fuzhou, his wonderful picture of the Bund and shipping at Jiujiang, and Fu Bingchang’s shot of Min Chin posing with a camera. But there is something very sweet about this photograph of Sir Robert Hart’s Chinese band rehearsing in, one assumes, the garden of his Peking residence in about 1907.
Hart, Inspector-General of the Imperial (late simply Chinese) Maritime Customs Service from 1863 until 1908, was perhaps the best known British figure in modern Chinese history. The activities of his Service went far beyond the simple assessment of customs revenue, as I show in my book The Scramble for China: Foreign devils in the Qing Empire. He once joked that he might as well be titled ‘Inspector General of Everything’. Hart lived in China almost without a break from 1866 onwards, having first arrived in 1854 as a young Vice-Consul. He was a lover of music, playing the violin and in the late 1880s first putting together a brass band of Chinese musicians, which played at his famous garden parties in Peking. These were mostly boys and young men, who first had to learn how to play their instruments.
The band nonetheless has a noteworthy place in the history of new Chinese music (that is European classic music in China) and of cultural exchange. It was the first (civilian) brass band composed of Chinese musicians. We have snatches of its history, and reports of how Hart’s young musicians were poached by leading Qing officials as a vogue grew for bands in the early years of the twentieth century.
This is actually my current screen-saver. It is not a particularly great photograph, in terms of composition, but the best ones often aren’t. I love the way the musicians are rehearsing oblivious to the camera, with the Portuguese bandmaster Encarnacao playing away amongst them. It scores highly on atmosphere and on charm.
For readers interested in the photographs of shipping that can be found in the collections, notably those of G. Warren Swire, or the architectural history of the treaty ports, there are two new sites to investigate. John Swire & Sons (‘Taikoo’, 太古/Taigu) have recently launched WikiSwire, as a tool for building up and presenting historical information about the company’s various activities. They have started by posting to the site profiles and sketches of each of the company’s historic China Navigation Co. ships. As it is a wiki, of course, you are encouraged to augment and add to the site. Elsewhere online photographer Nicholas Kitto has added new special collections to his excellent website, profiling the surviving former buildings of Butterfield & Swire in China, and surviving Chinese Maritime Customs Service buildings. More survives than you might think, for now.
This striking photograph (JC-s037), with strong diagonals in the style of Alexander Rodchenko, may well be the work of an unidentified Chinese studio photographer working in the racy, cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930s.
The precise combination printing and the masterly control of light and shade, makes for a somewhat surreal and tipsy, triple view portrait – surrealist photography being very much about ‘evoking the union of dream and reality’ (as the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History puts it, on the Metropolitan Museum website: ‘The Surrealists did not rely on reasoned analysis or sober calculation; on the contrary, they saw the forces of reason blocking the access routes to the imagination’).
The original print is small (less than 2 by 3 inches). The portrait sitter could look at this photo of herself gazing at herself – a witty, even post-modernist, at any rate modern, play on self-regard and on portrait photography itself.
The team has recently been corresponding with an informal group in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo, who are researching the architectural heritage of this former treaty port. Opened under the first of the Sino-British treaties (Nanjing, 1842), Ningbo was never very successful commercially, and no substantial foreign population ever developed there. Although there was a small relatively informal foreign district, and a small foreign-run administration, it was too much in Shanghai’s shadow.
We have a very good collection of early photographs of the city in the Bowra collection, photographs in albums that belonged to E.C. Bowra, who served in the Chinese Maritine Customs. He was based at Ningbo between December 1867 and April 1870. ‘Nothing ever happened there’ he wrote, and the place was already ‘derelict, forlorn’ (as his son later put it), but that lack of business enabled him to pursue his studies of Chinese, and to amass an evocative and important collection of photographs.
Our Ningbo correspondents have been mining this for the evidence they contain of buildings no longer extant, the gates or temples which look up on the horizon in images such as the one above. An article about one of their explorations has just been published in the Ningbo wanbao (Ningbo Evening News). An example of how they have been using the collection to clarify understandings of Ningbo’s surviving built heritage comes in their identification of the subject of the photograph below, with a bridge that survives today. We have benefitted enormously from their knowledge, which has allowed us to refine the identifications we received with the album, and to further understand the value of the Bowra albums, which are held in the library of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs.
This is the 光溪桥 Guangxi Bridge at Yinjiangzhen 鄞江镇 at Ningbo:
Omnipresent in many of the portraits of foreign families, especially children, is the amah. Often unnamed, or simply captioned ‘Amah’ , these were the Chinese nannies and wet-nurses, servants who suckled or looked after children. They were indispensable additions to the foreign household, and often remembered with great affection by their charges, not least because, as elsewhere in the worlds of colonial settlement or back at home, they were simply a more immediate and tangible daily presence in the lives of foreign children than their mothers.
This gave rise to some anxiety, which was vented in the pages of the English-language press in China. Young foreign children, it was feared with good reason in many cases, might have a better grasp of their nanny’s dialect than their native English. Boys especially were at risk of being spoilt, of being too mollycoddled by their carers. There were also darker urban legends, for example that servants would use opium to make children sleep, or that wet-nurses might pass on disease. On such generally unfounded anxieties was the foreign encounter with China grounded.
As a result many foreign children were eventuially wrenched from their homes and packed off to boarding schools, if families could afford it, to the Chefoo School run by the China Inland Mission in Yantai, or to Britain.
Life for most foreigners in China — though certainly not all — was usually a privileged one, more privileged than life back in Britain would have been, even when domestic service was a norm (my paternal grandmother’s first employment was as a housemaid). But that life also had its costs: the emotional cost of the separation of parents and children, and of the separation of children from their Amahs.