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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.