Photography in China experienced three distinct developments. In the mid-19th century, the conservative Chinese empire had no desire to be disturbed and did not welcome Westerners and their inventions. The 1842 war with Britain and the subsequent campaigns (and Chinese defeats) of 1857 and 1860 forced it to open several ports to foreign trade, but photography, which had reached Chinese shores at the same time as (or even aboard) gunboats, long remained a foreign medium with a limited reach. The situation changed radically in the early 20th century, when social changes and the advent of the Republic in 1911 led to the development of a fully Chinese style. It changed again in 1949 with Communism, which used photography as a major propaganda tool.
The 19th century
Until 1900, photography was practised only in the few ‘treaty ports’ open to foreign trade along the coast and the Yangtze River. The first treaty ports were Canton, Amoy (Xiamen), Fuzhou (Foochow), Ningbo (Ningpo), and Shanghai, Hong Kong being under direct British control. In 1860 Beijing was opened to foreign diplomatic residence, and additional ports were added to the original list as time went on. Deep prejudice against both cameras and foreigners ensured that early photographers rarely ventured outside the ports. Consequently, their work reflects only the places and people depicted, not late imperial China at large.
Most early photographers were visitors for whom, 150 years later, no significant traces or pictures have been found. They were either amateur or itinerant commercial practitioners. Photographers reached China shortly after 1839; the earliest reports of activities are dated 1842; the oldest identified daguerreotypes (by Jules Itier, a Frenchman), 1844-5. The first newspaper advertisement by a travelling daguerreotypist (a Mr West) goes back to March 1845, in Hong Kong. Permanent studios started operating in the late 1850s in Shanghai (Legrand, in 1857) and in Hong Kong (Weed and Howards, in 1860), ports which would remain China's two major photographic centres. Photography never attained comparable significance in other ports: Canton had started well but soon lost ground to Hong Kong; Fuzhou, the important tea-export centre, already supported several studios by the 1860s but then fell behind Shanghai, while Ningbo mostly attracted amateurs. A different pattern characterized the second generation of treaty ports opened after 1858, where photography was started by the Chinese and Westerners never predominated, if they were even present. Examples include the major cities of Hankou (Hankow in Hubei, now Wuhan), Nanjing (Nanking), or Tianjin (Tientsin). In Beijing, the first studio opened only in 1892 (Fengtai, a Chinese business).
Christian missions, which originated from the 16th century, were revived when the Nanking Treaty of 1842 again allowed missionaries into the country. Catholic and Protestant churches alike eagerly seized the opportunity for fieldwork, while photography became a propaganda instrument used to stimulate Western public support. Because Chinese missionaries insisted on going anywhere they wanted, irrespective of treaty port restrictions, early images often cover areas of China not otherwise photographed at the time. However, early production includes only those mission stations with trained photographers, and able to afford the expense. In south China, the Missions Étrangères de Paris photographed churches and other religious buildings, schools, orphanages, staff, and flock. Protestants added a further dimension with medical facilities and Chinese helpers such as the ‘bible women’ whose task was to make contact with the female population. At home, the pictures were used in religious periodicals or books, or even in general-interest publications. They were also—especially portraits of missionaries—sold directly to the public. From c.1900, postcards were issued on a vast scale, reaching all classes of Western society.
Early wet-plate commercial work includes two sets of stereoscopic views by P. Rossier (itinerant, 1858 in Canton) and Louis Legrand (Shanghai, 1857-9), who heads a long cosmopolitan list of resident photographers in Shanghai: French, British, American, German, and Japanese. On the Chinese side, many photographers were Cantonese. Most studios remained active for a relatively short time, although some survived for decades. They included, in Shanghai, William Saunders (1862-87), L. F. Fisler (1871-84), or Kung Tai (Gongtai, 1860s-1890s); Thomas Child, semi-amateur in Beijing (1871-89); F. Schoenke (Fuzhou, 1861-75), or St J. H. Edwards (Amoy, 1870s-1890s). In Hong Kong, the Afong studio was reputedly active over three generations, from 1859 to c.1941, while
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I have several close Cantonese friends, none of whom are particularly good teachers, and years of listening to their conversations hasn't gotten me very far since I have no foundation at all. So far, all I've picked up are ultra-basic conversational phrases.
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