Last week I showed a few early twentieth-century photographs from the exciting Visualising China site which were taken or collected by the Chinese Nationalist politician Fu Bingchang. Here, by contrast are a few images taken by or for foreign visitors to China in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.
It is remarkable how much continuity they show with the earlier, ‘chinoiserie’ view of China. One gets the sense that westerners went to China expecting to see certain things, or only noticed things that they had been preconditioned to see.
The images include ‘documentary’ shots of Chinese in traditional upper class garb.
They appear to be accurate records of dress and accoutrements, but they are also uncannily reminiscent of the statuettes and pictures of ‘mandarins’ and ‘long Elizas’ which had adorned European interiors for centuries.
Westerners also collected photographs of shops, including those selling that iconic Chinese product, porcelain.
It is interesting that Fu Bingchang’s photograph collection did not include images of such humble commercial sites, which would have been well below his radar as a cultivated man of state.
Fu had himself photographed surrounded by his classical landscape paintings, a traditional signifier of good taste. Western visitors and officials, by contrast, were interested in more quirky and ‘exotic’ scenery.
It is telling that they associated a landmark tea house in Shanghai with the ‘Willow Pattern’, the Staffordshire pseudo-Chinese decorative pattern – fiction was clearly more poweful than reality.
It is one of the beneficial side-effects of Visualising China that we can now make these comparisons, between different photographic collections, between photographs and other images of China, and between different levels of fiction and reality.