Photographs taken in China before about 1950 are relatively rare. During the Cultural Revolution many Chinese destroyed their collections of photographs, as any evidence of a ‘bourgeois’ past could get you into serious trouble.
Some collections of photographs of China have been preserved elsewhere, but until recently most of those were fairly difficult to access. Professor Robert Bickers of the University of Bristol has been instrumental in making a number of those collections available through the Visualising China website, where more than 8,000 images can now be explored.
These pictures include views of cities which have since completely changed, portraits of individual Chinese both eminent and humble, and records of everyday life. Some of the collections came from British people who were working in China as part of mercantile, imperial or missionary enterprises. Others are photographs taken and collected by Chinese that somehow ended up outside China.
One of these collections comes from Fu Bingchang (1895-1965), who held various posts in the Nationalist government and was also a keen amateur photographer. His snaps provide a very personal glimpse of elite life in China between the 1920s and 1940s.
The images show a society poised between tradition and modernity. As well as cameras, motor cars and bathing suits, they include traditional architecture, gardens and furniture. Exemplifying this period of huge change in Chinese society, women are often portrayed wearing the cheongsam (or qipao) dress, based on male Manchu dress but adopted by women from the 1920s onwards as a modern, progressive fashion and accessorised with scarves and handbags (as was recently explained to me by WESSIELING). Fu Binchang himself is sometimes portrayed in traditional dress and sometimes in up-to-the-minute plusfours and co-respondent shoes.
An image of a Fang Jiangling next to a round window to me exemplifies this fascinating hybridity: the window is of a type that had been used for centuries in Chinese garden walls to provide enticing and nicely framed glimpses of greenery and vistas beyond. At the same time, Fang Jiangling’s pose next to it is somehow very moderne, as she grasps the edge of the window like an Art Deco sylph playing with a ball or a Bauhaus mannequin manipulating a cog in a machine.
This image database is yet another example of the opening up and linking of online collections that I have mentioned in previous posts. Thanks to Visualising China Fu Binchang’s world can now be reappraised and studied in greater detail.