The preconditioned eye

Eminent individual, c. 1890, from the Bowrac collection featured by Visualising China

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.

Nodding mandarin figure, c.1820, in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

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.

Manchu woman in fine traditional dress, c. 1905, from the Ruxton collection featured by Visualising China

The images include ‘documentary’ shots of Chinese in traditional upper class garb.

Chinese mirror painting showing a lady leaning against a balustrade in a garden setting, mid eighteenth century, at Saltram, Devon. ©National Trust Images/Rob Matheson

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.

Porcelain shop, Xiangtan, 1900-1920, from the Banister collection featured by Visualising China

Westerners also collected photographs of shops, including those selling that iconic Chinese product, porcelain.

Lage Chinese blue and white porcelain lidded vase, Kangxi period (1662-1723), at Dunham Massey, Cheshire. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

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.

Huxinting, the Willow Pattern tea house, Shanghai, 1890-1900, from the Book Illustrations collection featured by Visualising China

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.

Glazed earthenware plate decorated with the Willow Pattern, Spode, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, 1800-1820, in the Victoria & Albert Museum. © V&A Images

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.

7 Responses to “The preconditioned eye”

  1. Susan Walter Says:

    One of the things that struck me about the subjects in Fu Bingchang’s photos was just how comfortable they all looked in western clothing, although they clearly wore both western and traditional costume (presumably depending on whim and the occasion). There was no sense of them being dressed up in their best or of having donned a costume, such as you get in some the photos above. It is presumably connected with the difference between documenting your own life, family and times and documenting the exotic. One is an environment you and the subjects are entirely familiar with, in the other, there is a certain awkwardness due to unfamiliarity on both sides. Fu’s photos are indeed a rare and valuable glimpse.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed Susan, in some ways Fu Bingchang’s lifestyle seems to have been very internationalist and ‘modern’. Moreover, with Fu Binchang’s pictures you get a personal, insider’s view, whereas with the images shown in this post you get more of a tourist’s perspective. But equally it is really interesting for us now to be able to see what an early twentieth-century porcelain shop looked like, for instance.

    That reminds me of when I was an intern at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (Netherlands) and saw the Japanese wooden toothbrushes from about 1800, collected by several Dutch merchants with an ethnographic bent ( They would have been considered throwaway objects by the Japanese at the time, but are of course fascinating to us, as well as to present-day Japanese historians of material culture :).

  3. Parnassus Says:

    I have been away for a while and am just catching up on your posts. Your point about Westerners picking and choosing elements of Chinese society to create their own fantasy is well taken, but we should also consider how much foreigners perceived that was really there.

    In the photo of the woman, it is interesting to see the painted backdrop like those in Western studios of the period. I am particularly intrigued that she is wearing a headband which, although not beaded, is of the same type that I featured in a recent post on Chinese headbands:

    In Taiwan at least, it is still possible to find old-fashioned shops very much like the ceramics one in the photo. These are fascinating to see with their old shelves and fittings, and often still sell traditional products like baskets, rope, bamboo items, and especially Chinese medicine.
    –Road to Parnassus

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, yes I agree with you – that is why Visualising China is so interesting, as it includes examples of both Chinese and western perspectives.

    Thanks for that link to your mei-lei post. And it is interesting to hear that that type of shop still survives here and there.

  5. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    I think it was in 1977, not so long ago, that my female architecture professor travelled with a group to China and was forewarned not to wear anything but the most conservative and somber-colored clothes so as not to offend the Chinese. That all quickly changed but I am glad that the records of their rich cultural past are still appreciated.

  6. columnist Says:

    Did you notice the long fingernail on the left hand pinkie of the lady in the first photograph? Not something we associate with culture, but I think it’s what it signified for them.

    Here too one long fingernail is not uncommon. Perhaps a legacy of the immigrants who came from China.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Classicist, yes during the last hundred years China has gone through multiple revolutions, from imperial, through Nationalist to Communist, and then from Maoism to the current preiod of high growth. Some very old Chinese people must have an extraordinary perspective, looking back.

    Columnist, in that sense China was a true mirror world (in the William Gibson meaning of that phrase, i.e. similar in some ways and completely different in others) to the west.

    It seems to be a different kind of mirror world now: mirroring market economics back at us 🙂

    Which makes the mirror painting below the photograph of the Manchy lady it all the more apposite 🙂

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