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Lost China

China in Old Photographs, 1860-1910

by Burton F. Beers
Scribner’s, 160 pp., $17.50

The Face of China is the result of an exhibition mounted last spring at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It consists of more than 120 beautifully reproduced photographs with historical commentary and captions. Many of these pictures were taken by photographic pioneers like Felice Beato and John Thomson, who had to cope with daunting technical problems. China in Old Photographs is a less lavishly printed book of 165 photographs from the Museum of the American China Trade in Milton, Massachusetts. It, too, has many photographs by Beato and Thomson, but it adds to these a number of less professional pictures taken by Westerners who visited China after Eastman introduced celluloid film in 1899. Together, the two collections provide a vivid sense of traditional China “in its dotage” during the days of imperial decline and fall.

Some of the scenes are familiar to visitors now. The Great Wall near Pata-ling-ho or the huge stone warriors guarding the portals to the Ming tombs may be better tended now, but their outlines were just as clearly marked on nineteenth-century visitors’ collodion plates as they are fixed on modern tourists’ color transparencies. However, many of the early pictures are a revelation to contemporary eyes: the sinuous rooftops, hillside temples, and carved pagodas of nineteenth-century Foochow; the Buddhist compound on Priests’ Island near Ningpo; the arched pedestrian bridges of the Yangtze valley; or the Kee Monastery in the far southwest, looking like a cross between the priestly settlements of Mount Athos and a Tibetan lamasery.

Even though Beato and Thomson had to travel with bulky darkrooms that were lugged by porters or hauled by cart, they covered a much wider territorial expanse than most visitors with a single-lens reflex camera today. They also captured a much more varied cast of social types. Thomson in particular had a Dickensian interest in the people of the city streets, and the portraits which he made during the 1860s included pictures of a soup vendor, fortune teller, barber, wood turner, camel tender, petty officer, spinner, bannerman gate porter, and even a chiropodist. He and other anonymous photographers also took a number of posed portraits of families. One features a Chinese bride with covered head alongside her new husband. Another shows five wealthy women, comprising two or three generations in the same well-to-do family, seated in a semicircle in front of the conventional moon gate. In yet another family portrait a merchant sits with his wife and four children. The boys, foreheads shaved and hair plaited into queues, look toward the camera. The woman, her lower lip rouged, gazes fixedly off to the side, as though interrupted in a private intimacy.

Chinese women fascinated Western photographers. A variety of female portraits grace the two albums: the stern and formally garbed wife of a provincial governor, a reclining odalisque, a young aristocrat richly dressed and no doubt Manchu because her feet were not bound, a stunning young Chinese woman having her hair combed by a properly attired maidservant, four Manchu brides with elaborately coiffed hair side-by-side with proud and possessive mothers. One photograph in the collection reminded me of the Storyville photographs of Belloc. A woman in white jacket and trousers with dark piping is seated upon a raised platform which is covered with an English-language newspaper advertising a raffle. Behind her is a mirror reflecting at an angle her chignon. Her face is plain and her eyes are sad, gazing inward, while her head is tilted slightly to the right, suggesting resigned submission to some unwanted advance. Below her body is the focal point of the photographer’s lens: the tiny tips of her deformed feet, the left trousers’ leg slightly lifted to reveal the layers of their tight bindings.

Yet there is much that the cameras do not record. While the photographs offer the illusion of immediate accessibility to nineteenth-century China, many objects actually escaped them. Some people simply feared being photographed, as though their very souls might be captured by the magic of the instrument and its wielder. John Thomson wrote that:

I frequently enjoyed the reputation of being a dangerous geomancer, and my camera was held to be a dark mysterious instrument which, combined with my naturally, or supernaturally, intensified eyesight gave me power to see through rocks and mountains, to pierce the very souls of the people and to produce miraculous pictures by some black art.

The wet gelatinous solution of salts on the collodion plates had to be exposed to light for many seconds before the pictures took shape. Consequently the earliest photographs are filled with ghostly forms, phantom swirls of blurred movement left behind by those who fled the open lens. And even when the objects were stationary, like the walled houses of the gentry, they may still have repelled intrusion. Nearly missing altogether, in fact, are their occupants: the literati of Ch’ing China. There is one posed photograph of eleven robed scholars gathered around a T’aihu rock in an ornate courtyard, but mostly we see only the inanimate manifestations of the mandarinate: two long rows of cramped examination cells where candidates were confined for three days and two nights in succession each time they took the civil service tests, stele inscribed with the names of successfully “presented scholars” (chinshih) who had passed the palace examinations in Peking,1 and the barred doors of a grand Confucian temple in some unnamed southern city.

Unwelcome at literati gatherings, Western photographers found more accessible the seamier side of Chinese life. Two crucified criminals await the garrot. A felon wears the heavy wood and metal collar called the cangue. A crowd gathers around an executioner whose heavy sword is poised high over the bare neck of his victim. Four raffish Europeans in ducks and seersuckers with white shoes, Manila hats, and Malacca canes stand alongside a cage in which a dead man hangs. The Western photographers saw death in other forms as well. Felice Beato, in fact, came to China first as a kind of war correspondent, having served his apprenticeship with James Robertson and Roger Fenton in the Crimean campaigns. Accompanying the expeditionary force of Lord Elgin and Baron Gros that sailed to China in 1860, the Venetian photographer was on hand to record the capture of the great Taku fort, its ramparts littered with Chinese corpses where the French had breached the walls. The allied forces went on to loot and burn the Summer Palace west of Peking, and this too is recorded in a photograph of the ruins of the lovely buildings designed for the Ch’ien-lung Emperor by Father Joseph Castiglione in the eighteenth century.

In 1900, forty years after this desecration, Peking was occupied once again by foreign troops, this time to relieve the Boxers’ siege of the legation quarter; and, once again, Western photographers like John Henry Hinton, the piano tuner, were on hand to record China in defeat. We see Indian soldiers breaking through Boxer lines, infantrymen bearing off captured Chinese battle flags, cavalry column by column riding through rubble of the legation quarter, and commander-in-chief Count Alfred von Waldersee being escorted in triumph by the Bengal Lancers before the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City. In his brief history of these events in The Face of China, Nigel Cameron quotes Hosea Ballou Morse:

Peking was humbled in the dust…and suffered as Asiatic cities have always suffered when taken by assault by Asiatic armies—but now the invading forces were the armies of the Western powers. Strong men fled: those not so strong fled if they could find the means of transport, but that was scanty; many of the Manchu nobility and countless thousands of women put an end to their lives; many men were killed in a wild orgy of slaughter; the survivors who remained cowered like whipped hounds in their kennels…. [The Boxers’ looting] had only skimmed the surface. The foreign troops now set to work to sack it riotously, but systematically. At first they spread over the city…wherever their fancy led them; then each contingent plundered the district assigned to it.

Burton Beers’s China in Old Photographs leaves a somewhat different impression. Two pictures of Chinese walking through the ruins, one of them carrying what appears to be a bag of old clothing, are accompanied by the simple caption that “these two photographs portray the physical damage caused by the fighting and looting that followed the evacuation of the legation quarter.” Readers who are not otherwise alerted to the foreign sack of Peking may attribute the plunder entirely to the defeated Chinese, who later had to pay a total indemnity of over nine hundred million dollars to the Western and Japanese imperialists who occupied north China.

Professor Beers also supplies his readers with a distorted impression of the war that broke out in 1839 between China and England after the Chinese authorities seized stocks of opium being smuggled into the country by Western traders. Beers writes:

The Ch’ing Dynasty proved incapable of formulating a consistent policy for dealing with foreign penetration. Peking initially was not much concerned by the approach of the West. The Western merchants who led the way to China offered trade that was profitable to the Chinese, and China’s power was such that the foreign merchants could easily be controlled at Canton. It was only when Westerners insisted on extending their activities beyond Canton and applying their own rules that the Chinese became alarmed. They believed at first that they could solve the problem either by punishing the foreign barbarians or by conciliating them. Neither approach worked. The attempted punishments resulted in defeats in two wars, the so-called Opium War (1839-1841) and the Arrow War (1858-1860), and the gentler pressures of conciliation failed utterly to persuade foreigners to abandon their expansionist schemes.

The first four of these seven sentences are mistaken. Peking certainly did have a consistent foreign policy; it was indeed concerned about the Westerners’ approach; the Westerners could not be easily controlled at Canton; and the Chinese were alarmed long before Westerners extended their activities beyond the foreign factories. There is, moreover, no mention at all of the fact that the “so-called Opium War” broke out as a direct result of Western drug dealers’ refusal to obey Chinese laws prohibiting the traffic in opium.

One of the few Chinese victories during the Opium War took place at a collection of villages called San-yuan-li, just beyond the five-storied pagoda on the north city wall of Canton.2 Because of the vigor with which the populace there attacked Englishmen and Indians in 1841, it is something of a shock to see among these photographs a picture of two well-dressed Westerners and a wealthy Chinese gentleman being carried in sedan chairs, by straining Chinese coolies, in front of that same five-storied pagoda not many years later. For by the time Felice Beato reached occupied Canton, it and a number of other Chinese cities had been turned into international treaty ports where foreigners enjoyed the protection of their own laws and even in some cases their own municipal administration. The treaty ports also became centers of foreign commercial development and industrial expansion, often based upon the exploitation of cheap Chinese labor.

One photograph in The Face of China poignantly illustrates this kind of economic relationship. Two slim, mustached Westerners dressed in white suits stand impassively in the middle of a dark factory. Between them leans a heavy-set Chinese labor contractor, looking down possessively upon nine poorly dressed men and women, young and old, who sit beneath their employers and weave rattan. Another photograph, taken in Shanghai perhaps, shows a Western-style restaurant littered with the remains of a dinner party. Around the table sit a group of wealthy businessmen drinking brandy and smoking cigars: the Chinese dressed in white robes, the Westerners in dinner jackets and black ties. It is not yet 1912, for the Chinese continue to wear the queue prescribed by the Manchus for all Chinese, but it is certainly many years away from the mutual exclusion of Opium War days.

The treaty-port world of foreign businessmen and their Chinese compradores is captured in many pictures in these two albums. Living on a scale which would probably have been beyond their means in Salem or Liverpool, American and English businessmen built enormous mansions in Shanghai, lavishly decorated with a mixture of Victorian and Chinese furniture and surrounded by huge gardens maintained by scores of servants. In other cities, too, Westerners lived on a domineering scale which must have affronted many less fortunate Chinese. One picture shows an Anglican clergyman’s large white house, complete with gazebo in the rear, freshly constructed in the middle of a native graveyard outside Foochow. Such burial desecration was not uncommon, and in a number of cases these incidents led to mass antiforeign riots similar to the Boxers’ movement.

The Chinese government’s response to this spreading foreign presence in its territory was to engage in a program of industrial self-strengthening and military modernization. The program was carried out under the aegis of officials like Prince Kung (I-hsin, 1833-1898), whose portrait in The Face of China shows a long purposeful face, reflective while not given to contemplation.3 He and Grand Councilor Tung Hsun (who was also photographed at the time by John Thomson) hoped to use Western technology to defend the traditional system of government. Thus, military modernization was to be carried out by Confucian literati, so that we have the curiously anachronistic photograph of a long-gowned mandarin staring down at the latest model of a Gatling gun turned out by his government’s new arsenal in Nanking.

In the end this early program of modernization failed. The Chinese-invented wheelbarrow was replaced by the Japanese-developed ricksha as a major form of passenger transportation, but all that really improved was the comfort of the passenger and the speed of the ride. The vehicle’s engine was still a human one, pulling passengers rapidly along instead of pushing them more haltingly. And then, as now, many of the heavier wagon loads were pulled by men in place of scarce draft animals. In that regard, many of the scenes one views in China today are not that different from those photographs taken by earlier European visitors. Peasant life, in particular, seems little changed on the surface: nineteenth-century pictures of irrigation pumps run by buffalo or of threshing done by hand could easily be mistaken for snapshots of village life today.

Yet even if the altars at the Temple of Heaven in Peking or the sculptures in the Buddhist caves at Lung-men remain the same, much has changed. The decorated arches (p’ai-lou) honoring the local gentry and the elaborate tombs glorifying a lineage’s ancestors have all but disappeared. The mighty walls and gates of imperial Peking have nearly all been dismantled to build offices and homes. What is more, the unwelcome presence of the treaty-port foreigner is gone from the scene. The Sassoon mansion in Shanghai is now a children’s culture palace, and the old legations in Peking are mainly bricked and boarded up for other use. Perhaps now, with the ancient imperial order long destroyed and national independence no longer at stake, the Chinese can finally carry out the kinds of modernization they wish after such a fitful effort one hundred years ago. If so, the China which we see today will look even more like its nineteenth-century predecessor than it will resemble its twenty-first-century heir.

  1. 1

    Burton Beers mistakenly calls the degree-holders “hanlin,” which is the name of the academy they joined.

  2. 2

    This is the building now called Chenhai lou which houses the impressive Canton Historical Museum.

  3. 3

    The caption under this photograph in The Face of China mistakenly reads “Prince K’ung (I-hsien).”

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