Andrew Hillier considers how five portraits of the London Missionary Society (LMS) missionary, Walter H. Medhurst (1796-1857), one of which can be found on HPC, made over the course of his career, were used to maintain connections and promote the missionary cause.
Devout evangelical though he was, Walter Henry Medhurst was not above a touch of vanity, particularly when it came to sitting for his likeness. At least, five examples survive today, together with a number of contemporary copies. Between them, they show how he and the LMS attached importance to the image, both for the purpose of promoting the missionary cause and as part of the LMS archive. With his forty-year career coinciding with the birth of photography, they also demonstrate the increasing importance of that new medium for such exercises.
Appointed as a missionary printer to the newly established station at Malacca, on 30 August 1816, aged just twenty, Medhurst, set off on the first leg of his journey to Madras. Before doing so, the LMS commissioned the miniaturist, William Thomas Strutt (1770-1850), to make a portrait of its latest recruit, to form part of its growing collection. Wearing attire chosen to match the age of elegance, Medhurst comes across as more Regency buck than zealous missionary. No doubt it was this and a dogged persistence, that would become legendary, that persuaded his future wife, Betty Braune, to accept his proposal of marriage shortly before he was due to leave Madras. The following day, with the formalities completed, the happy couple set sail.
After five somewhat turbulent years in Malacca and, briefly, Penang, Medhurst was dispatched to Batavia, Java. There he spent the next twenty years, travelling far and wide, and, having mastered a number of dialects, preaching to the expatriate Chinese in preparation for entering the country itself. Although he achieved few converts, during a two month expedition up the China coast in 1835 he convinced himself that, despite fierce official opposition, the country was ‘ready for the Gospel’ and, the following year, he returned to England to publicise the cause. Over the next two years, Medhurst toured the country, addressing packed meetings and raising substantial funds for the intended conversion of China’s many millions.
Finding that little was known about the country, Medhurst completed this undertaking by writing China: Its State and Prospects, a lengthy treatise summarising its history and culture, his journeys and efforts to date and what needed to be done to make progress. The well-known frontispiece comprises a coloured engraving, based on an oil painting done by the artist and printer, George Baxter (1804-1867). Commissioned by Jemima Luke, as a gift for her father, Thomas Thompson, a wealthy philanthropist and prominent member of the LMS, the painting was later presented to the Society and retained in its Collection.
Medhurst is here depicted as the Western sage dictating to his Chinese assistant, Chooh-Tih-Lang (Chu Tak-leung), against an oriental background. Once again elegantly attired, but lean and scholarly, he comes across as intensely serious and, without any religious frills, the sort of man to whom non-conformists ought to be happy to entrust their subscriptions. Inside the book, along with a number of illustrations depicting the ‘heathen’ practices of the Chinese, is a picture of Medhurst and his fellow missionary, Edwin Stevens, being rowed ashore at Woosung (Wusong). Complete with top hats, they are projected as emblems of western civilisation.
How much the missionaries impliedly validated Britain’s unwelcome entry into China, following the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842, is a moot point but, once achieved, Medhurst lost no time in opening a mission station in the newly-established treaty port of Shanghai. Arriving in December 1843, he would spend the next twelve years there, building a congregation, a hospital, with his medical colleague, Dr William Lockhart, and establishing a thriving press, which published both secular and religious works, including a new translation of the Bible into Chinese, the Delegates’ Version, which Medhurst had co-ordinated. With ferocious energy, he preached and travelled, making one lengthy trip in Chinese disguise, for which he was heavily criticised, as it grossly violated the permitted limit of one day’s journey, and, narrowly avoiding severe injury when he and two colleagues were set upon during another expedition – experiences, which he recorded in detail, both in published works and in his reports to the LMS in London.
Unable to visit England, Medhurst saw the importance of maintaining contact, not just through the written word, but through images. When his daughter, Martha, was setting off from Shanghai with her husband, Powell Saul, he entrusted her with a portrait of himself to be presented to the LMS. As he informed the Directors, it had been ‘taken by a Chinese artist [and] is said to be a good likeness though roughly finished’. Although we cannot be sure, it most probably formed the basis for the engraving made by John Cochran (1803-1865) for the front page of the Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle for 1852. Again, it depicts him as intensely serious and dispels any notion that he might be simply a Bible-thumping eccentric in danger of ‘going native’.
In letters to her sister, Martha, Medhurst’s daughter, Eliza Hillier refers to a number of ‘likenesses’ of her parents, telling her, on one occasion, not to ‘send them to Canton to be copied for me as I only wished for a daguerreotype copy and do not care for a Chinese one’. Sadly, none of the ‘likenesses’ of her mother, Betty Medhurst or copies made in Canton (Guangzhou), have survived and we have only a much later photograph of her.
However, there is a fine pastel portrait of Walter Medhurst, undated and unattributed, which has remained in the family. Most probably this is an artwork copy of a portrait photograph of Medhurst by Robert Sillar. It is more flattering than the photograph, more of an idealised or optimised portrait, ‘air-brushing’ out the, perhaps unwelcome, ‘warts and all’ nature’ of the photograph. Following his death, cartes de visite were made of the pastel portrait, by a Fleet Street studio, T. N. Fall, and circulated amongst family and friends.
By 1856, Medhurst, along with Dr Lockhart, was by far the longest-serving resident in Shanghai and one of its most well-known figures, not only as a missionary and Sinologue, but also as a founding member of the Shanghai Municipal Council. Not surprisingly, therefore, when the accomplished amateur photographer, Robert Sillar arrived in Shanghai, he asked Medhurst to sit for his portrait, shortly before Medhurst left for England.
Taken exactly forty years after the first portrait was done, the result is an outstanding picture, conveying all the gravitas of his years, but also the elegance to which Medhurst obviously still attached importance. It is not known how many prints of Sillar’s photograph have survived, other than the one in an album held at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.
A final twist to the story is that an enlarged but half-length, photomechanical print based on Sillar’s photograph, was made by the London photographer, Reginald Haines (1872-1942), seemingly at the request of the LMS, since it forms part of the Society’s collection. This portrait is also flattering, presenting a seemingly younger man without wrinkles. When and why it was made in this way is not clear, but it may have been done when the Mission Museum closed in 1910 and the portrait archive was being re-organised. This means that there are now three known versions of the same image and it is just possible that a fourth one may still be found.
Medhurst and his wife left Shanghai in September 1856 and, sailing via the Cape, they arrived in England in January 1857. But the years in the East had taken their toll and he died just a few days later on 24 January. He was buried in Abney Park Cemetery, London. In some ways, Medhurst was ahead of his times, understanding the importance of promoting the missionary cause, both in England and in China, through the use of images that would convey the seriousness of the message and, plainly, he took care when deciding how he should be portrayed. The four examples held by the LMS show how such pictures enabled contact to be maintained with outlying missionary stations and how, even after his death, they were treated as an important part of the LMS archive, powerfully evoking his and his colleagues’ early endeavours in the Ultra-Ganges Mission.
 I am very grateful to Joanne Ichimura, Archivist, at Special Collections, SOAS, London, for all her assistance and to Special Collections for permission to reproduce the images in this post.
 The picture was one of 165 miniatures dating from around 1798 to 1844, primarily watercolour on ivory, with a small number being pencil on paper with some silhouettes and drawings, showing missionaries appointed to the London Missionary Society. A guide book, ‘London as it is to-day’(1851), refers to a number of portraits being exhibited in the London Missionary Museum, Blomfield Street, Finsbury, which had first opened in 1814 and which, with its large ethnographic collection of ‘idolatrous objects’, had become a popular attraction by the 1840s; see the Illustrated London News, 25 May 1843, p.342, and https://blogs.soas.ac.uk/archives/2017/07/03/miniature-portraits-in-the-london-missionary-society-archive/
 See Andrew Hillier, Mediating Empire: An English Family in China: 1817- 1927 (Folkestone: Renaissance Books, 2020), p.7 and for other aspects of his life referred to in this post, pp. 3-53.
 W.H. Medhurst, China: Its State and Prospects, with Especial Reference to the Spread of the Gospel (London: John Snow, 1838).
 The picture is an almost exact copy of one by William Alexander, entitled ‘Temporary Buildings at Tientsin’; see The Costumes of China (London: William Miller, 1805), plate 44.
 W.H. Medhurst, A Glance at the Interior of China Obtained During a Journey through the Silk and Green Tea Districts, taken in 1845 (Shanghai: Mission Press, 1849 and London: John Snow, 1850), reprinted in part in Elizabeth H. Chang (ed.), British Travel Writing from China, 1798–1901, Vol. 2, Mid-Century Explorations, 1843–1863 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010), pp. 51–146.
 Letter, Medhurst to Directors, LMS, 13 February 1851, SOAS, CWM/Central China/1843–1854.
 Letter, Eliza Hillier to Martha Saul, 31 March 1853, Andrew Hillier, My Dearest Martha: The Life and Letters of Eliza Hillier (Hong Kong: City University Hong Kong Press, xx)
 Haines was a fashionable portrait photographer with a studio in Southampton Row; see https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp104543/reginald-haines.
Katya Knyazeva, from Novosibirsk, Russia, is a historian and a journalist whose work focuses on urban form, heritage preservation and the Russian diaspora in Shanghai. She is the author of the two-volume history and photographic atlas Shanghai Old Town – Topography of a Phantom City (Suzhou Creek Press, 2015 and 2018). Katya’s articles on history and architecture appear in international media and in her blog http://avezink.livejournal.com. She is currently a research fellow at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Italy.
The birth of Shanghai is usually pinned to the year 1291, when a market town located near the confluence of two waterways, Huangpu and Wusong, was promoted to the status of a county, subordinate to the prefecture city of Songjiang. For the next 250 years Shanghai grew in size and population, but remained shapeless, until an invasion of coastal pirates, in spring 1553, prompted the construction of the defence wall around the city. The pirates, locally referred to as the ‘Japanese,’ were contraband traders and adventurers of various racial origins, who sailed the coast of China in defiance of Ming proscription, attacking rich settlements like Shanghai.[i]
According to the local gazetteers, it only took three months to build the wall and dig the defence moat next to it. The wall was between eight and ten meters high, made of tamped earth, flat on the top, and faced with black bricks on the outer side. There were 3,600 embrasures on the top edge, interspersed with several lookout platforms facing the bend of the Huangpu River, to allow early sighting of pirate ships. The moat was six meters deep and up to twenty meters wide in some places; it connected to the Huangpu River and the city waterways, and the drawbridges across it could be lifted at any moment.
After these fortifications were built, no force could take Shanghai by surprise. Any invader would have to raft across the moat or cross a drawbridge near one of the six city gates in full view of the armed soldiers stationed there. At eight in the evening, guards locked the city gates with huge wooden bolts. City dwellers who lingered in the riverside markets and failed to get back before curfew had to bribe the guards to crack open the gates or wait outside until sunrise, in the grim company of bamboo cages containing the decapitated heads of executed criminals, hanging from the embrasures.
One of Shanghai nobles, Fan Lian, who partially sponsored the construction of the city wall, described its efficacy in 1556, when ‘Japanese’ pirates tried to rob Shanghai again:
During the day and into the night, the pirates hid at the foot of the wall. Then they put up ladders to come over. Fortunately, a brave, Yang Tian, shouted. One pirate, who had already climbed the wall, killed Yang Tian. Some of the local troops vigorously attacked, stabbing the invaders and sending them falling to the ground. The crowd picked up bricks and pushed stones over to drop on them and crush them. Then the tide came in and the pirates fled. Sixty-seven were drowned in the moat of the wall. As a result, the siege was broken. To this day sacrifices are offered in Shanghai to Yang Tian.[ii]
Initially, the city wall had six gates – four big and two small – to allow the passage of pedestrians and boats in and out of the city. In 1860, an extra north-facing gate was constructed to ease the access to the foreign settlements growing to the north of the Chinese City. In 1906, inner city creeks began to be filled and three new gates were cut through the wall, but they only lasted a few years, because in 1912 the wall started to be torn down, and the moat was filled and paved.
While the city wall was still standing, many western travellers found it a fascinating structure, and the photographs in the collection of Historical Photographs of China are a great way to explore it. Taking a suggestion from Rev. C. E. Darwent, who proposed a walking route on top of the city wall in his Shanghai: a handbook for travellers and residents to the chief objects of interest in and around the foreign settlement and native city (1904), we would begin at the Old North Gate and go clockwise around the city. The whole route, about 4 km long, would take about one hour – or ‘two hours and a half, if the temples en route are to be visited.’[iii]
The photograph below shows the Old North Gate (formally, Yanhaimen 宴海门) when it was Shanghai’s only north-facing gate. Built in 1553, it opened to a marshy and unpopulated country, dotted with graves. One of the few people brave enough to try living here was the young intellectual Wang Tao, who moved to Shanghai in 1848 and spent a few months in a cottage north of the city wall, where the endless ‘stretch of desolate grave mounds’ came close to his doorstep and ‘a dense clump of trees added to the eeriness of the place.’[iv] The photograph from 1858, below, shows this somber landscape; the decrepit pavilion perched on the city wall is one of the lookout towers, known as Zhenwutai (振武台):
By the turn of the twentieth century, the French Concession to the north of the walled city was growing fast and a number of its streets ended at the edge of the moat, which acted as the boundary between the two territories. Continuing to walk on top of the wall in the clockwise direction and passing the Zhenwutai fortress, one would stumble on an old British cannon – a reminder of the 1850s, when the city was preparing to reflect an attack by the Taipings.
The next gate on the itinerary is the New North Gate – formally called Zhangchuanmen (障川门) – which was added in 1860. Several years earlier, the French artillery had damaged the wall while trying to oust the Small Swords rebels, who had barricaded themselves inside the city. The New North Gate – or Porte Montauban – was the main portal between the Chinese City and the French Concession, always in heavy use. Darwent pointed out that
the entrances to the [gates] are very interesting – always crowded, always dirty, always littered up with lepers and with beggars advertising their self-made sores, always sloppy with the water spilt by the water-carriers, a wild jostle of coolies, silk-arrayed gentlemen, sedan-chairs, hobbling women, melancholy dogs, and all the flotsam and jetsam of a Chinese crowd. The photographer and seeker after the picturesque errs greatly if he misses these city gates.
Looking from the top of the New North Gate toward the French Concession, one saw crowded streets and endless rows of shops. Rickshaw drivers waited at the end of the bridge across the moat, ready to take passengers into the settlements. Manoeuvrable as they were, these vehicles could not navigate the narrow streets and stepped bridges of the Chinese City. By the late nineteenth century, even the most old-fashioned of residents usually needed to pass through the city gates at least twice a day, so the gate-closing curfew was pushed back to ten in the evening.
Continuing eastward on the wall, one approached a large pavilion – the Phoenix Tower (Danfenglou) – built in 1584 on the initiative of the Imperial Censor Qin Jiaji who converted one of the lookout towers into a three-story temple dedicated to the goddess Tianhou and various Taoist gods. When the temple was consecrated, Qin bestowed an antique plaque spelling “Phoenix Tower” salvaged from the Temple of the Smooth Passage (Shunjimiao 顺济庙), which had occupied the same spot two centuries earlier. The plaque was hung over the entrance to the new temple, and couplets by the poet Yang Weizhen were inscribed on vertical strips by the door: “Past twelve bamboo curtains and one hundred steps, the phoenix rises to heaven…”[v]
The Phoenix Tower was the tallest structure in Ming and Qing Shanghai, offering spectacular panoramic views of the city within the walls and the bustling neighbourhood between the city and the river. The painter Cao Shiting depicted the Phoenix Tower (below) sometime after 1820, and his painting became the best-known image of Shanghai before the concession era.
The riverside suburb east of the city was set on fire and mostly destroyed in 1855, while joint Chinese and French forces were ousting out the Small Swords. Because of this accidental clearance, the photograph below shows an uninterrupted view north past the Phoenix Tower, all the way to the English Bund and the twin flagpoles of the Custom House.
To the south of the Phoenix Tower, in 1909, the New East Gate, or Fuyoumen (福佑门), was carved through the city wall; it only had a few years of life. The next gate on the route – the Little East Gate, formally called Treasure Belt Gate (Baodaimen 宝带门) – was popular with travellers, who were attracted to the vibrancy of this neighbourhood. The Little East Gate was the primary passage between the walled city and the port – the source of Shanghai’s wealth and its reason to be.
Travelling down the wall in the southern direction, one came next to the Big East Gate, or Chaozongmen (朝宗门). This had a water gate next to it, under which Zhaojia Creek passed into the city. The creek was always so crowded with stationary boats and barges that navigation was virtually impossible, and those travelling inland from the port avoided the walled city and its waterways. The illustration from Darwent’s Guide to Shanghai (below) portrays this congestion. A local gazetteer also observed that “in search of small profits, rich people build up the embankments and narrow the creeks. As a result, droughts make common folk cry from thirst, heavy rainfall overfills the gutters. Dirty water is one problem, fire hazard is another.”[vi]
The next gate on the route was the Little South Gate, made up of a big water gate and a small one for pedestrians; both connected the city with the bustling commercial suburb of Dongjiadu. These passages were well known to the American and French missionaries, who lived in this area and referred to it as Tunkadoo. After passing the ‘flourishing mission of the American Southern Presbyterians’ outside the city wall, one arrived at Shanghai’s southernmost gate – Big South Gate. It was the terminus of the only wide and straight avenue inside the walled city, which started at the magistrate’s yamen.
The county magistrate could assign punishments of great cruelty, but the death penalty required a special edict from the Imperial Board of Punishments and had to be carried out with byzantine official ceremony. On the day an execution was scheduled, a formal procession of officials from the office of the magistrate would parade on horseback and leave the walled city through the Big South Gate. The cavalcade would ride on a drawbridge across the defence moat, and the bridge would be immediately lifted behind them. By the testimony of W. MacFarlane, who attended an execution in the 1870s, ‘the mandarins and military officers […] generally number about twenty, all mounted on ponies, and they ride round in a circle making as much noise as they can by clattering of hoofs and tinkling of bells, until some small crackers are set off, at which signal the executioner cuts off the head of the prisoner with one fell swoop of his sword.’[vii]
Having walked around the southern curve of the city, one started a northward journey along the western wall. After 1909, one would pass over the Little West Gate, or Culture-Oriented Gate (Shangwenmen 尚文门), named thus for its proximity to the Confucian Temple (Wenmiao 文庙). The photograph below was taken from the city wall for, or by, the British officers temporarily stationed in the temple in 1863 in preparation for the Taiping invasion; the Confucian Temple is in the middle distance.
Continuing to walk along the western edge of the city, one saw few residences and many gardens. Darwent (1904) explained: ‘Walled cities always had to have open spaces in them, to grow as much food as possible in times of siege.’ George Smith, who had himself carried along the wall in a sedan chair in the late 1840s, found that the west of the walled city ‘presented a rural aspect, forming one succession of pleasant gardens, with only a few houses interspersed,’ and that ‘outside the wall there was scarcely a house to be seen.’[viii] Half a century later, the intramural area was still undeveloped, but the French Concession all around the walled city was built up with terraced houses (lilong). The image below shows the gardens in the walled city and the densely built French Concession beyond the wall.
With most of the population living in the city’s east, a single west-facing gate was sufficient. Officially named Ceremonial Phoenix Gate (Yifengmen 仪凤门), it was built in 1553, and according to existing photographs, it was quite substantial. As Macfarlane (1881) described it: ‘We pass through the first archway, the outer gate, and then are within the circular tower, with the sky for a roof, which is seen at all the city gates. In front of us is the watchmen’s house, and the guard […] is standing in the open front of the house, but not standing as a sentinel or watchman ought to stand; his favourite position most probably is lying down, with a hubble-bubble tobacco pipe to console himself and wile away the time.’[ix]
After 1909, the next landmark on the route would be the Little North Gate, or Gongchenmen (拱辰门). The postcard below shows that this section of the city wall was much lower than the eastern and southern sections, which were reinforced and augmented in different years. One instance was the disastrous flood in August 1680, when after a nightlong rainstorm, the rising waves from the Huangpu simply washed away the southern section of the city wall, toppling houses underneath it and killing several residents. The whole county was submerged in five feet of water, and ‘boats were crisscrossing Shanghai as if it was a lake.’[x] Such occasions prompted wealthy citizens to offer funds for the restoration and earn respectful nicknames, like ‘Half-the-City Pan.’
Next stop on the itinerary is the Dajing Pavilion (Dajingge 大境阁, or Guandimiao 关帝庙), known as ‘Piece-Goods Temple’ to the westerners who had noticed that ‘Chinese merchants who deal in Manchester piece-goods’ used it.[xi] Darwent’s introduction was: ‘After a quarter of a mile’s walk, we come to the Da Ching, once a guard-house or castle, now a temple. It is a very beautiful and picturesque building, and makes a splendid photograph from any point of view. Gardens and open spaces surround it; at one corner there is a pool. From that side, with the pool in the foreground, it makes a very beautiful picture.’ The photographer of the image here must have taken these instructions literally.
To complete the route and arrive back at the Old North Gate, one passed the Soldiers’ Cemetery on the outside of the city wall, which contained 305 graves of British nationals, who died in the 1860s during the defence of the foreign settlements from the Taiping uprising (most of these deaths were not battle casualties, but resulted from rampant cholera). Since 1887, the cemetery was virtually abandoned but three oblong memorial tablets remained embedded in the city wall until 1938, when the cemetery was finally closed and the graves relocated. The graveyard was quickly built up; new houses clung to the surviving section of the wall like barnacles and completely hid it from sight.
The city wall was torn down in the years 1912–1914, and Shanghai citizens volunteered to assist with its dismantling, salvaging the bricks to repair their houses. The earth from the rampart was used to fill the moat, and the ring road emerged in its place, with a tram running in the middle. The inner side of the ring was called Minkuo Road (Minguo Lu 民国路), and the outer, French, side was called Boulevard des deux Republiques. The subsequent editions of Darwent’s Handbook for Travellers acknowledged that the scenic walk on the rampart was no longer possible, and the temples recommended for visiting ‘have all disappeared with the walls,’ except for the picturesque Dajing Pavilion. It was rebuilt in the late 2000s to resemble the original structure and now serves as a museum of the walled city. It is surrounded by a replica wall made of black bricks, some of which were, indeed, taken from the original city wall.
The old city wall made a sudden comeback in 2006, thanks to the long-forgotten Soldiers’ Cemetery. During demolition works in this area, a 70-meter section of the original city wall was found hidden between the houses. Unwilling to change the construction agenda, the developers dismantled the discovery and only after some pressure from the municipal authorities rebuilt part of it as picaresque ruin in front of a new apartment complex.
[i] Jerry Dennerline, The Chia-ting loyalists: Confucian leadership and social change in seventeenth-century China (Yale, 1981), p. 127.
[ii] From the translation quoted in John Meskill, Gentlemanly Interests and Wealth on the Yangzi Delta (Ann Arbor, 1994), pp. 94–95.
[iii] Darwent, C. E., Shanghai: A handbook for travellers and residents… (Kelly and Walsh, 1904)
[iv] Henry McAleavy, Wang T’ao: Life and Writings of Displaced Person (London, 1953), p. 5.
[v] Yang Weizhen, Phoenix Tower Verse 丹凤楼诗 (undated).
[vi] Jiaqing Songjiang Prefecture Gazetteer 嘉庆松江府志, Vol. 10 (c. 1820).
[vii] W. Macfarlane, Sketches in the Foreign Settlements and Native City of Shanghai (Shanghai, 1881), p. 60.
[viii] George Smith, A Narrative of an Exploratory Visit to Each of the Consular Cities of China… (1847), p. 134.
[ix] Macfarlane, 1881, 28.
[x] Jiaqing Shanghai County Gazetteer 嘉庆上海县志, Vol. 19 (1814).
[xi] T. Hodgson Liddell, China, Its Marvel and Mystery (George Allen & Sons, 1909), p. 41.
Jenny Huangfu Day is the author of Qing Travelers to the Far West: Diplomacy and the Information Order in Late Imperial China(Cambridge University Press, 2018) and the editor of Letters from the Qing Legation in London [Wanqing Zhuying shiguan zhaohui dang’an] (Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2020). She teaches East Asian history at Skidmore College, New York.
In the decade before the Qing established its first legations in Europe and the United States, it sent out a few investigatory missions staffed with mid-level officials to prepare for the dispatch of long-term resident ministers. The gentleman who led the first mission of 1866 was Binchun, a retired magistrate with personal connections to the Zongli Yamen, the newly created central office to handle foreign affairs. In Qing Travelers to the West, I wrote about how members of the Qing’s early missions imagined, poeticized, circulated, and consumed information about the West, and how these earlier strategies of conceptualizing the West changed when the permanent legations were established.
Just as the Chinese used these travels to gather information about the West, Western depictions of these early missions – in sketches, photographs, watercolour paintings, and texts – made rounds in metropolitan and local newspapers and some were exchanged in private collections, making them excellent sources in what nineteenth-century Europeans considered important about the Chinese.
Before we examine some of these images and texts, it’s worth mentioning that Binchun and his colleagues were quite aware that they were being documented in Western media, even though they might not be clear just how they were being portrayed and why the Europeans held such a fascination with their images.
Binchun wrote in his journal: ‘Months before our arrival, newspapers of each country began making noises, and when we are here, many people ask to see us or make sketches of us. A few days ago when we were in Paris, merchants kept the films of our photographs and sold prints at fifteen silver dollar per portrait.’ His poems attributed the attention they received to his own charisma and the civilizing influence of Chinese culture, and he used the mission’s popularity to forge important personal connections. The Chinese were not being passively observed, but negotiated their appearances and to the extent possible, positioned themselves in ways to take advantage of it.
British journalists subjected the mission to constant and minute scrutiny, but for quite different purposes from what Binchun seemed to think: it was important to know exactly what the ranks of the Chinese were in order to know what level of accommodation they were entitled to. According to the Birmingham Daily Post: ‘The study of buttons is essential to an accurate appreciation of Chinese life … We have scanned their costumes from their skull cap to their thick-soled shoes; and round the outside of their flowing robes, back and front, without being able to discover the all-important sign of rank about them.’ Speculations about the precise ranks of the commissioner and his suites occupied the British press in the few days, and the ‘great mystery’ was eventually solved after members of the mission made a formal appearance in official attires, complete peacock feathers and buttons.
Visual portrayals of the mission confirmed the anxiety about the status of the Chinese, highlighting the features mentioned in Birmingham Daily: notably, their officials robes, the peacock feathers and ‘button’ decorating the commissioner’s hat, the court beads, the embroidered symbol marking one’s place in the official hierarchy, the woven waist-sash. All members of the mission were depicted with their long, braided queues made emphatically visible.
Indeed, to have their peacock feathers shown, Qing commissioners were probably often asked to look sideways when being photographed in studios, instead of gazing directly into the camera and engaging the eyes of the beholder. This visual strategy can be seen in many well-publicized photographs the early missions.
Whether intended or not, such visual strategies of portraying the Chinese in their early missions to the West confirmed many existing impressions about the Chinese: that they were extremely status-conscious, fond of social gatherings, and typically gave only somewhat innocent – if not childish – responses to what they saw, depicted by terms such as ‘delighted,’ ‘disappointed,’ ‘disapproved,’ or ‘taken aback.’ In the following image, taken in Stockholm, the juxtaposition of the Qing mission, seen as a moving relic of an ancient and static culture – and the monumental glass-roofed ‘crystal palace’ at the Kungsträdgården, an industrial hall designed by the great architect Adolf W. Edelsvärd, sums up these impressions well.
Interestingly, these caricatures of the early Chinese travellers to the West, simplistic and condescending as they were, have been embraced by modernist Chinese intellectuals in the reform era – and at present – to show how far China has come along, or has yet to go, towards becoming ‘modern.’ Images of these early travellers to the West, created through the lenses of nineteenth century Western photographers, came to embody the steps China took to walk out of its supposed late imperial isolation and arrogance. Whatever its historical validity, the trope of the Confucian gentleman ‘stepping forth onto the world’ has been widely circulated in the Chinese public sphere, often as a subtle critique of the nationalist, or anti-Western, policies of the People’s Republic of China.
As Qing diplomacy converged with contemporary Western practices and moved towards the permanent legation, the value of Qing representatives as spectacles of the orient also declined, as it was replaced with direct consultations with Foreign Ministries. The role of the diplomat thus differed fundamentally from that of the traveling mandarin by design. Diplomatic negotiations were often conducted in private meetings, in writing or through telegraphy, with little fanfare and publicity. From 1877 onward, the most publicized images of Qing diplomats were standard head portraits similar to those of European statesmen, not visual stories exhibiting them on site.
From the 1880s onward, hardly any visual representation of Qing diplomats could be found in Western newspapers, and when they appeared, the Chinese were not depicted as spectators, but as diplomats and statesmen.
So the image of the traveling mandarin gazing the West in wonder came to an end with the Qing’s dispatch of resident ministers and consuls. This change was as much a reflection of China’s changing diplomatic structure, as it was a media artefact of how the Chinese came to be documented by the press.
 Binchun, Cheng cha biji (113.
 Day, Qing Travelers to the Far West: chapter 1.
 I argue that the name ‘Burlingame Mission’ has tended to downplay Chinese agency in the mission.