OK, that’s not what W.H. Auden actually wrote, but while I have been enjoying the selections of photographs made by Tom Larkin for our new Instagram feed — @hpcbristol, go on, follow us — Auden’s poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ has come to mind more than once. There is often such a lot going on in the photographs, or revealed in the background, especially the recent series of photographs of Hong Kong, and it goes on off to one side ‘Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot’ as the poet put it.
I’ll grant that the context is different, perhaps the note is actually off-kilter, but here are some of the things I have enjoyed noting.
Take this photograph of the two impressive bank buildings in central Hong Kong in 1952. Except it’s not, it’s a photograph of a man taking a photograph of a woman posed in front of a car. Also, it’s a photograph of the fact that someone has hung up washing to dry on the railings in front of them.
Or this shot of a child begging and a woman sewing:
It is more a photograph of peeling cigarette advertisements posted on to the walls of the British colony. Then there’s Wyndham Street, c.1924:
Here are more cigarettes, and enigmatic posters reading ‘Why Worry’ ‘Why Worry’, and there’s more washing. But there’s also the supremely comfortable man in the sedan chair
and what is this couple looking at? Answers on a postcard please, but don’t worry, don’t worry if you don’t have an answer.
(And before you rush to tell me: ‘Why Worry’, a six-reeler Harold Lloyd comedy — ‘See him fight for girl in danger / Rocks and socks the fresh-faced stranger’). (Which dates our photograph roughly to January 1924). And then, below, there’s my title prompt: more cigarette posters, and a child, with scratching.
The streets of Hong Kong, then, packed with life, and even that pompous site of colonial display, garlanded with the statue of a banker (did you spot him?), is claimed for the simple people’s business of laundry. On those streets, against a backdrop of peeling posters, children pop up, irrepressibly.
Our latest post is from Sarah Yu, a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is writing her dissertation on hygiene and daily life in Republican China. You can see some of the archival highlights of her research on her blog site, Chinese Must Wash Their Hands Before Returning To Work.
While we do not often associate Republican China with much political cohesion, Chinese people were actually united throughout much of the early twentieth century in their ongoing war against the humble house fly. Cholera – the disease most intimately linked to the filth of the common fly – tangoed with its vector in water sources, kitchens, and toilets. Naturally, these spaces became the earliest targets of some authorities’ sanitation measures. The Shanghai Municipal Council had established the practice of conducting regular inspections of slaughterhouses and market stalls before the turn of the century, and completed a new ‘state-of-the-art’ water supply and sewage system by 1883. In addition, the Municipal Council’s Nuisance Department, established in 1867, employed street cleaners who would clear the public streets of night soil and waste and sell the former to local farmers for fertiliser. Cholera education campaigns, often large-scale parades through city streets demonstrating effective fly traps and sanitary cooking methods often also provided onlookers with combined cholera and typhoid vaccinations.
My recent research on Republican hygiene education has led me to investigate the proliferation of ‘fly elimination campaigns’: group efforts launched by cities, schools, and other communities that required mass participation to kill as many flies as possible. The goal of these campaigns was ostensibly to curb outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease – something needed to be done to eliminate those fatal flying pests that could bring a swift death almost silently, to anyone.
Compared to the waterborne cholera bacteria, flies seemed to have more malicious agency. Fortunately, they could also be killed. And here was where the average citizen was expected to step in. Scholars of modern China may be sceptical about the effectiveness of individual people killing individual flies, presumably using such simple tools as netted or sticky traps and fly swatters. The dire consequences of the pest elimination campaigns of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward certainly come to mind. But contemporary commentators marvelled at the impact of intentional, mass-participation fly-killing. In fact, John B. Grant, Peking Union Medical College’s public health expert, reported that the fly traps created by a Mr. Yang for the kitchens of South-Eastern University were so effective that ‘there were practically no flies’ during a particularly hot summer. In 1927, a report from a Chongqing middle school proudly announced that each student was able to catch and kill at least twenty flies per evening. Soon after, the Nanjing government began to conduct surprise inspections of restaurants and tea houses to ensure that their food preparation and service spaces were clean, and count the number of observed flies on each premises. In 1930, the Beijing Municipal Department of Public Safety hosted an anti-fly campaign in 1930, in which participants were awarded a copper coin for each ten flies caught, resulting in over 12 million dead flies to the tune of $2,000 from the city’s coffers.
Throughout Republican China, fly elimination campaigns quickly became a norm for cities, schools and workplaces, even more so as China headed into war. Flies had been a national enemy for all the unsanitary havoc they had unleashed on the Chinese people, but now there was another urgent enemy – the Japanese.
Posters, like the one above, creatively ensured that viewers’ fears of both flies and the Japanese were top of mind, and intertwined. This one depicts a fly with a Japanese Rising Sun emblem, with slogans on the side reading ‘If you don’t kill it, it will kill you … we need to prevent cholera and kill flies: and if you want to survive, kill the Japanese soldiers’. In another image, a fly is depicted as a fighter jet that drops bombs labelled ‘cholera’ onto a crowd of people. Numerous other flies are lined up behind the first. Chongqing’s population, already sensitive to bombing attacks from Japanese forces, were now presented with a picture of two missiles heading towards a populated city, with the caption ‘Air raids are scary, cholera is more scary!’.
While cholera prevention rarely makes headlines anymore, efforts against other epidemic disease still do. Some reforms still eerily resonate with their historical counterparts. As early as the 1910s, representatives from the Rockefeller Foundation reported that China’s mines and industrial sites should consider implementing 50-foot-deep bore-hole ‘Java style latrines’ for better prevention of cholera and hookworm infections. China watchers today may find it interesting to read the intermittent news reports about Xi Jinping’s ‘toilet revolution’ – a national initiative to improve the overall sanitation levels of facilities in tourist destinations and cities around the country. Since its launch in 2015, the central government has spent over 21 billion yuan to clean, refurbish, and rebuild over 68,000 bathrooms. But the campaign has left the country with some unexpected, and some undesired, results. Caixin also reported that even in 2019, villages were still unsure about how the funding from the central government would be distributed to pay for individual toilets.
Moreover, if toilet reform began explicitly in order to manage the control of epidemic diseases, it has proven to be insufficient for the most recent outbreaks of COVID-19. The physical toilet itself, just like the physical extermination of a few (or even 12 million) flies, is only one link in the long chain of actions for health improvement that need to be performed by different levels of government and their constituents, from sewer updates, waste management, diligent restocking of toilet paper/hand soap/cleaning supplies, to individual toilet users’ personal behaviours. An air-conditioned, glass-roofed toilet may inspire, but certainly not compel, its user to aim, flush, and properly wash hands, that some well-placed spittoons will redirect phlegm from the sidewalks and into appropriate receptacles, or even that more, accessible hospitals will lead to more people getting regular health check-ups.
The distance between infrastructure progress and individual responsibility was, and remains, a significant barrier to public health improvement. In fact, Republican China’s continued war against the humble fly was really a series of efforts to knock down this barrier. The famed example of Qiaotou Village’s fly extermination campaign in 1934, published in multiple book series including the Commercial Press’ Xiaoxuesheng Wenku, is a perfect illustration. In this small but accessible village near Shanghai, students at a local school started a fly killing campaign to address the fact that local residents did not feel safe from disease. ‘There is a child in America who has caught 121,000 flies! And there are other cities in which people don’t see any flies. Let’s make this happen here too!’ The team promoted its proposal to kill then feed the flies to livestock to keep them plump, and then to secure enough fly swatters and traps for all participants. The students on the committee were directors, promoters, and suppliers of cleaning products; the participants included many of their elders – ‘farmers, workers, businessmen, and old women’. While an elderly man dismissed the seriousness of the campaign at its start, saying ‘we can now live more than seventy years, which would be impossible if flies and mosquitoes really were so harmful’, by the campaign’s end, no villager could deny that flies were dangerous enemies and capable murderers.The final illustration in the book is striking – a young schoolboy stands at an auditorium podium backed by a portrait of Sun Yat-sen and flags of the Republic, speaking emphatically to an audience of adults at the celebratory meeting of the success of the campaign. ‘We hope that fly elimination campaigns will continue to spread, from our village to the entire county, to the entire province, to the country, to the entire world … only if we identify our enemies, and work hard to eliminate those enemies, will we reach the final victory of mankind!’
The idea for fly elimination started from the mind of a precocious schoolchild, who then explained the rational, tangible benefits of his proposed campaign, and successfully led the wider community towards solving the problem. Just as a single student could start a campaign that would change the minds of hundreds in Qiaotou, every Chinese person could start from killing a few flies to make progress, and every individual living in a COVID-19 pandemic world can begin by wearing a mask or washing his or her hands.
 Isabella Jackson, Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 167—8.
 Yu Xinzhong, ‘The Treatment of Night Soil and Waste in Modern China’, in Angela Leung and Charlotte Furth (eds.), Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011)
 John B. Grant, ‘Fly and Mosquito Control in Nanjing’, 19 January 1924. Folder 348/Box 55/FA115, Series 601, RG 5, IHD, Rockefeller Archive Center (Sleepy Hollow, NY).
 ‘Guoli di erishier zhongxuexiao ben bu ji yi er liang fenxiao zhengjie shishi qingxing [cleanliness of the 22nd middle school and two affiliate schools]’, March 1943, Second Historical Archives of China 5/1927 (2) (Nanjing, China).
 John B. Grant, ‘Report of the Peking First Health Station for 1930’, 30 September 1930. Folder 471/Box 67/FA065. CMB Inc, Rockefeller Archive Center (Sleepy Hollow, NY).
 ‘Weishengshu yifang bibao [posters about medicine and defence]’, Kuomintang Party Archives 502/90 (Taipei, Taiwan).
 ‘Jiaoyubu guan yu gaohao qingjie weisheng fangfan huoluan shanghan he fenfa yimiao yaopin yu geji xuexao waiwenshu [Ministry of Education communications with various schools regarding sending cholera and typhoid medications and hygiene work]’, 1943. SHAC 5/1925(1) (Nanjing, China).
 ‘Quchu Wencang Yundong [Fly-Elimination Campaign]’, Xiaoxuesheng Wenku (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1934).
A round up of recent posts: internment, a church, a shipwreck, three missing Spanish diplomats, Wuhan
This blog has hosted a fair few guest posts recently, and we have been writing our own as well. Just in case you missed them I thought I might recap a little, and flag up the fact that in the coming days we have Sarah Yu on flies and hygiene, and Anne Gerritsen on china, labour, and dust.
This blog aims to let you know more about what’s new on Historical Photographs of China, but also what’s old there. Frankly, we sometimes rather lose sight of what gems are tucked away, and after all we have 22,000 digitised gems in the platform for you: open access, and available for non-commercial reuse under a Creative Commons licence. Jamie Carstairs, Project Manager, and camera supremo, probably hasn’t forgotten what’s there, as his trained eye was focused on copying most of our holdings. Nor has metadata maestro Shannon Smith, who has pasted in suitable terms and captions for very many of these to help people find them. But I have.
It’s quite wonderful when new eyes are brought to bear on our holdings. Sometimes we have posts from scholars who have already used our images in books and articles, but recently we have offered authors a chance to introduce the theme of just-published books to what we have. So Jay Carter drew material together on racing in Shanghai, Benno Weiner on Tibet’s eastern Amdo region in the first decade of the PRC, Brian Dott on the history of the Chile pepper in China, Nick Kitto on his photobook survey of surviving treaty port architecture, and Gina Tam confounded us by finding the perfect hook for an essay on dialect and nationalism in China. But hey, you can still listen to a 30 minute BBC radio programme about our photographic archive. We transcend media.
We have also been working from home since 23 March, and I think most of our bloggers have been posting from home as well, although possibly not working from such congenial, onboard surroundings as these British diplomats did. Or perhaps such sights are indeed hidden behind the Zoom backgrounds and anonymity of online interaction.
What and who else? Xavier Ortells-Nicolau provided a powerful essay on the erasure of Spain from the history of treaty port China, while Andrew Hillier, project associate, and prolific blogger, has provided posts on our project to locate and digitise holdings in British Army Regimental Museums, and on his family’s long and deep entanglement in China here (with Buick) and here (with Amanuensis), and most recently on internment in Weihsien. Cole Roskam nosed around Trinity Church in Shanghai. Helena Lopes, shortly to take up a Leverhulme Research Fellowship with Bristol, has been working to help bring our Hong Kong collections online, such as the Hagger collection, and has blogged about some of these here (a doctor) and here (a queen), on China in an era of global war, and the sinking of the China Navigation Company steamer, SS Chusan.
Chris Courtney blogged on Wuhan and cholera, Yang Chan on Wuhan’s resilience in a time of crisis, Jamie introduced the John Gurney Fry Collection, and the work (his, with others) to commemorate John Thomson with a Bronze Plaque. All this since February.
Get reading! And get writing: we are open for business. Please do get in touch if you would like to propose a post. After all, look at the wonderful company you’ll join. There’s no point our placing these gems online if you don’t use them, and we would love to see what you can do with them.
Our latest post comes from Xavier Ortells-Nicolau, an adjunct professor at the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and English Studies, Universitat de Barcelona. His recent work has focused on images of China in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Spanish media and on the figure of Juan Mencarini, a Customs employee and amateur photographer who promoted photography associations in Shanghai and Fuzhou.
The seal of the Municipal Council of the International Settlement in Shanghai famously included the flags of the some of the foreign states that composed that multinational enclave: the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan — those with the largest number of residents and greatest economic power — but it also contained the emblems of smaller European countries such as Denmark or Spain, with a minor role in the history of the treaty ports. The presence of Spaniards in the treaty ports increased after the loss of the Philippine colony in 1898 and in the 1920s and 1930s one might find a hat store named La Espana or a Sevilla restaurant in the French Concession. Among the foreign communities of Fuzhou, Hankow or Xiamen one would surely meet Spanish diplomats and businessmen, and venturing into the interior (as china beyond its maritime or riverine territories was once routinely known), any of the countless Spanish Catholic missionaries, distributed along vicariates and provinces: Augustinians in north Hunan, Franciscans in Shaanxi, Dominicans in Fujian, and Jesuits in Jiangsu and Anhui.
Over the last decades, different research projects have been looking into the activities and presence of the nationals of Norway, Italy, the Netherlands or Hungary in nineteenth and early twentieth century China. ALTER at UOC-Barcelona, a research group led by Carles Prado-Fonts and David Martínez-Robles and focusing on the Sino-Spanish relationships, has produced outcomes that reveal a limited but nonetheless significant impact: the first Sino-Spanish treaty in 1864, for example, was a much less unequal business than other treaties, as it granted the most-favoured-nation clause … to China; its negotiation depended on the skills of Sinibald de Mas, who was later required by the Zongli Yamen to act as secret agent in an operation to get Macao back. In a recent publication, Monica Ginés-Blasi has dissected the schemes of Spanish merchant-consuls in the coolie trade off Xiamen. These and many others cases exemplify the contributions that such from a peripheral perspectives can afford to the historiography of the Western presence in China’s ports, and the extent to which cases like the Spanish one can provide some nuance to our understanding of the ‘Western’ presence in China.
Many of the images in this blog entry come from yet another outcome of ALTER’s research, the Archivo China-España, an online catalogue of images, documents and pieces of historical media covering Sino-Spanish relationships during the 19th and 20th centuries up to Franco’s regime. In addition to individual entries, the archive (for the moment, mostly in Spanish) includes narrative itineraries and visual collections, such as the one obtained by Diplomat Enrique Otal y Ric in China. In a photograph included in the collection, four bearers and other attendants, ready to carry a sedan chair, pose in front of a building credited as the residence of the Spanish minister in Beijing between 1876 and 1879, Carlos Antonio de España. Behind a white pony, three Western figures are discernible, including Minister de España next to a pillar (with a beard) and Otal y Ric to his right wearing a bowler hat.
Research into Historical Photographs of China’s virtual archive has opened a fascinating line of inquiry into the circulation of China images in the nineteenth century. In the National Archives in Kew collection, we can see a second print of the same negative, which credits the photograph to Thomas Child. However, in this copy the three Spanish diplomats have disappeared: actually, traces of the erasure are evident as spectral presences over the window.
Later on, the same photograph would be reproduced as a postcard by Max Nössler in Shanghai, and in turn confirmed it as an image of a “chair of a mandarin”, in addition to favouring the relocation at convenience, as in this postcard send from Shanghai to Würzburg in 1901. As if it were true that a picture is worth a thousand words, the vicissitudes of this negative stand for the historical irrelevance of Spanish presences in China, which ALTER’s research has worked to correct.
As Carles Prado-Fonts has amply demonstrated, the mediations of English and French cultures were key in the China-related knowledge and literature of fin-de-siècle Spain. That is why the few cases of Spaniards with direct knowledge of China in the nineteenth and early twentieth century become particularly relevant. A case in point is Juan Mencarini, a middle-ranked Imperial Maritime Customs Service employee, esteemed philatelist and photography aficionado with a key role in the development of photography in China. I have explored at large Mencarini’s life, career and photographs in the paper ‘Juan Mencarini and Amateur Photography in Fin-de-siècle China’.
In 1891, Mencarini was deployed to Fuzhou to act as Second Assistant B under the Hungarian commissioner Edmund Faragó. It was not long after his arrival that, as he had just done during his previous service in Shanghai, he joined other foreigners (like Siemssen) in creating the first club of amateur photographers in town, the Foochow Camera Club. In 1893, the club organized an exhibition of photographs of its members. A review published abroad described Mencarini’s works: it commended high praise ‘to No. 18, ‘Foochow Autumn Races, 1892’, taken at the time of presentation of ‘The Ladies’ Purse’. Full of figures, each one comes out in the picture with singular clearness, and the faces of each are easily recognizable’,  a description of a scene which is recurrent in HPC.
Similarly, the review noted that his photograph of the ‘Sacred Fish Pond’ at Gushan Monastery was ‘distinctly good’. This photograph, reproduced in different albums and press articles, is easily identifiable among Mencarini’s preserved works. In it, Mencarini tried to capture the reflection on the water of the trees in the background, while drawing our attention to a number of female figures standing at the veranda of the right hand pavilion, located at the entrance of the Buddhist mountain compound of Gushan, then on the outskirts of Fuzhou. In words of the North China Herald when the image was exhibited in Shanghai, the photograph has “all the charm of picturesqueness with the added touch of life in a few figures”.
This image presents us with another felicitous case of visual collaboration across repositories, as an image attributed to the local studio Tung Hing shows the spot from where Mencarini obtained his image. As if granted a peek behind the scenes, we can perhaps imagine the moment of the shot, with the photographer standing on the stones that line the road and directing the people posing in the pavilion.
The provincial capital Fuzhou, its famed tea district in the Wuyi Mountains north of the province of Fujian, and its variated river courses provided some of the most reproduced landscapes and vistas of the last quarter of the nineteenth century in China. Even though by the time Mencarini arrived to Fuzhou the tea trade was in decline, he was similarly attracted, like professionals and amateurs alike before him, to the picturesqueness of the sumptuary or religious constructions, like the horse-shoe tomb of the revered local official Chen Ruolin and the Gushan and Yuanfu monasteries. Albums by him or including his images, owned by friends or colleagues at the Customs, featured agricultural scenes, the lush riverbanks of the Min River, or the Jinshan temple on an island.
Quite idiosyncratically, Mencarini was as attracted to the aesthetics of photography as to their pedagogical power. He used them in press articles and magic lantern projections to elaborate historical and economic narratives of the different regions he got to know during his service in the Imperial Customs (as was also member of the Royal Asiatic Society). A North China Herald report on a lecture in April 1905 offers us a glimpse of Mencarini’s style:
Mr. Mencarini has done a great deal of camera work in this beautiful country and it will be remembered that he won the gold medal at the recent exhibition with a picture taken a few miles from Foochow. He was able to illustrate his remarks last night with some excellent views of scenery which he did not hesitate to compare with that of Switzerland and the Riviera. Mr. Mencarini supplemented his purely descriptive passages with a sketch of the history of the port, from the time of the first Portuguese traders in the 16th century through the period of its 19th century prosperity, till the present time, when “through the unpardonable neglect of the natives”, the tea trade has departed to India. A similar fate may overtake another leading industry, Mr. Mencarini said, unless speedy steps are taken to check the wholesale felling of the pine forests, the lumber of which is a considerable export.
 See David Martínez-Robles, ‘Constructing sovereignty in Nineteenth century China: the negotiation of reciprocity in the Sino-Spanish Treaty of 1864’. International History Review, 38: 4; Entre dos imperios Sinibaldo de Mas y la empresa colonial en China (1844-1868), Marcial Pons, 2018.
 Mònica Ginés-Blasi, ‘Exploiting Chinese Labour Emigration in Treaty Ports: The Role of Spanish Consulates in the “Coolie Trade’, International Review of Social History, 1-24.
 ‘Disconnecting the Other: Translating China in Spain, Indirectly’, Modernism/Modernity, 3. 3, 2018; ‘Writing China from the Rest of the West: Travels and Transculturation in 1920s Spain‘. Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, Vol. 19: 2, 2018.
 Anthony’s photographic bulletin, vol. XXIV, no.11, 10-6-1983.
 The North China Herald, 24 February 1905.
The author of our latest guest post is Benno Weiner, Associate Professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. He is author of The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier (Cornell University Press, 2020) and co-editor of Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History under Mao Retold (with Robert Barnett and Françoise Robin, Brill, 2020).
In recent years, the United Front has made headlines as the agency tasked with polishing China’s image abroad through such “soft power” instruments as sponsoring Confucius Institutes (language and cultural centres installed on college campuses around the globe) and the co-option of overseas Chinese willing to quietly promote the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, scholars have paid relatively little attention to the role of the United Front in China since 1949, where it was tasked with gaining the vital support of important non-Party elements of Chinese society and incorporating them into the new nation. This is despite Mao Zedong himself having declared the United Front, along with Party building and armed struggle, one of the ‘three magic weapons’ of the Chinese Revolution. What limited scrutiny it has received has mainly focused on the Party’s attempts to co-opt and control non-Party intellectuals. By contrast, little scholarship has been directed toward another major target of the United Front—what the CCP refers to as ‘minority nationalities.’
The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier is the first in-depth study of an ethnic minority region during the first decade of the People’s Republic of China (PRC): the vast borderland region known to Tibetan speakers as Amdo. The tendency has been to assume that the United Front as deployed in ethnic minority areas was little more than a cynical ruse meant to placate local elites until the CCP was in position to forcibly implement its radical agenda. Instead, I argue that in 1950s Amdo the United Front was considered by its proponents to be a progressive, transformative methodology of nation building. It was designed to be the primary means by which non-Chinese people—who inhabited a full 60 percent of the landmass of the PRC—would be transformed into citizens of socialist China.
The majority of Amdo (sometimes called northeast Tibet) lies in present-day Qinghai province, with the remainder spilling into neighbouring areas of southern Gansu and northern Sichuan. As demonstrated by these wonderful photographs by the Reverend Claude L. Pickens Jr. — who traveled in northwest China from 1933 to 1936 as part of the China Inland Mission — Amdo has long been an ethnocultural frontier where the Tibetan, Chinese, Mongolian, and Central Asian worlds meet. Its expansive but sparsely populated southern and western grasslands are primarily populated by Tibetan and, to a lesser degree, Mongol and Kazakh pastoralists, while the more densely populated agricultural districts along Amdo’s eastern edges have long been home to a multi-confessional mix of Chinese, Tibetan, Mongol and Turkic-speaking communities. In the eighteenth century, Amdo was incorporated into the expanding Qing Empire (1644-1912). However, as in most imperial borderlands, oversight was generally light and rule was exercised indirectly through a myriad of local powerbrokers and religious leaders who were awarded honours, titles, and rewards in exchange for expressions of loyalty and their service as intermediaries between the imperial state and local society.
After the collapse of the imperial system in 1912, Amdo came under the contested rule of the ‘Ma-family warlords.’ Chinese sources reserve particular disdain for the Hui Muslim Ma clan—their ethnic and religious pogroms are said to have severely damaged the historical unity between the region’s various nationalities. And confrontation between the Mas and their rivals was often marked by tremendous cruelty. Yet despite their militaristic, authoritarian instincts, time and again the Mas were forced to negotiate with an assortment of the region’s religious and secular authorities, who were again granted positions and rewards in exchange for their support. These were often the same people and institutions that had long served as intermediaries between the imperial state and local communities. Broadly speaking, Amdo’s political elite continued to operate according to imperial practices and assumptions.
This, then, was the challenge the Communist Party faced in Amdo and many other non-Han (ethnic Chinese) regions of the former Qing Empire: how to transform loosely governed imperial possessions into component parts of a unified, consolidated nation-state. While state building presumably could be accomplished through force, Party leaders realized that nation making required constructing narratives and policies capable of convincing Amdo’s inhabitants of their membership in a wider political community. The CCP then, as now, was insistent that China was a historical, inseparable, multinational state. Yet they recognized that many non-Han communities held deep grievances toward the Han majority and were suspicious of the Party and its platforms. According to CCP leaders, this was due to discrimination and exploitation committed by the Han against ethnic minorities over centuries, what it referred to as “Great Han chauvinism.” If the Party wanted to gain the support of ethnic minorities, it first needed to eradicate the cause of their antipathy.
In its attempt to repair this tear in the aspirational nation, the CCP employed a strategy known as the United Front. In Amdo, simply put, this referred to a transitional period of indeterminate length during which class struggle would be de-emphasized in favour of forming alliances with the region’s religious and secular elite. Unlike traditional imperial practices, however, the United Front was imagined as a ‘gradual,’ ‘voluntary’ and ‘organic’ method of nation building. By eliminating the exploitation Amdo Tibetans and others allegedly had suffered under the Ma regime and its predecessors, and replacing it with the autonomy, equality, religious freedom, mutual respect, and material prosperity promised by the CCP, Party leaders confidently predicted that both class awareness and patriotic consciousness would rise and eventually the masses themselves would indicate that they were ready for the transition to socialism and to be fully integrated into the PRC.
As my book shows, however, United Front gradualism existed in constant tension with a revolutionary impatience within the Party that was deeply suspicious of practices that eschewed class struggle in favour of allying with members of Amdo’s ‘feudal’ leadership. Finally, at the onset of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the contest was decided in favour of the latter. With checks on Han chauvinism eliminated, the path was cleared for the rapid collectivization of Amdo’s grasslands which in turn sparked the massive 1958 Amdo Rebellion and its brutal ‘pacification.’ Although the uprising began among Tibetans, it also came to include Mongols, Hui, Salar, and others. Tens of thousands were arrested; many thousands were killed. Rather than a voluntary union, as Party leaders had envisioned, Amdo was incorporated into the PRC through the widespread and often indiscriminate use of state violence.
It was never going to be easy to convince Amdo Tibetans and others on China’s ethnic borderlands that they were members of a Han-majority nation. And my book suggests that there are reasons to be deeply skeptical that if left intact the United Front could have worked its “magic.” Nevertheless, in its place the Party has been unable to erase the memory of the violence that accompanied Amdo’s integration into the PRC or the decades of state repression that followed. While the CCP’s warnings against Han chauvinism in the 1950s were reductionist, at least they contained an implicit acknowledgement that creating a nation out of the disparate remnants of a fallen empire rarely can be achieved through ethnocultural violence. And intermittently Party leaders have remembered this lesson, most noticeably for a brief moment in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward and again during the early 1980s as the Deng Xiaoping regime sought to deal with the fallout from the Cultural Revolution. Each time, however, commitments to return to the stated (although never actualized) tenants of the 1950s United Front were quickly forgotten.
Most recently, in the wake of ethnic riots in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009 and the ascension of Xi Jinping to national leadership a few years later, Beijing seems to have jettisoned many of its gestures toward the relative pluralism represented by the 1950s United Front in favor of a nakedly assimilationist Han-centric nationalism. This can be most clearly seen in Xinjiang, where the CCP has pursued an unprecedented campaign of securitization, surveillance, mass imprisonment, and forced labor intended to erode the cultural identities of indigenous Muslim communities. However, it can also be found in Tibetan areas, where many of the mechanisms of both high-tech surveillance and street-level policing that have raised concerns in Xinjiang first originated. While violence (or the threat of violence) may prove to be an effective means of clamping down on ethnic unrest in western China and consolidating state control, there is little reason to believe that it will be any more successful than previous attempts to nation-build through coercion. Then again, it is sobering to think that nation building, as it was once understood, may no longer be the Party’s goal.
Drawing on his own records and images from the Historical Photographs of China platform, Dr Andrew Hillier, author of Mediating Empire: An English family in China 1817-1927 (2020) has posted a number of blogs here and elsewhere about his family. In this post he provides an account from other family records of a phase of the history of the foreign communities in treaty port China of which we have only a few photographic records: the years of Allied civilian internment during the Pacific War.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Ella Hillier, whose husband, former Hongkong & Shanghai Bank Peking Manager Guy Hillier, had died in 1924, was in Tsingtao (Qingdao). She would go on to spend almost three years as an internee, and whilst the story of these years is well-known, her account, which is summarised in this post, shows how life, in such circumstances, can be banal, farcical and frightening but also, on occasions, uplifting.
Following the death of her husband (on whom see A Banker and his Amanuensis), Ella Hillier spent her time travelling and looking after her four nephews and nieces, who were at school in England. In 1940, now in her early sixties, she returned to China and stayed with her sister, Mary Celia Napier, in Qingdao, the cosmopolitan port-city and former German colony on the Southeast coast of Shandong province.
In May 1941, Mary Celia left to join her family in Shanghai and Ella stayed to look after the house. By this time, Shandong was under Japanese military control, but, within limits, the British and nationals of other neutral powers were able to carry on their lives as before. With the outbreak of the Pacific War on 7 December 1941, this abruptly ended.
For the first ten months, Ella was confined to her house, but was allowed to go out for shopping and exercise from noon until three p.m. each day. In July, 1942, she was joined by a Mr and Mrs X (as she calls them) and ‘life became less nerve-wracking’. In October, Mrs X was taken to the German hospital and two days later Ella and Mr X were collected by lorry and taken to the Iltis Hydro Hotel at Huk, a seaside suburb of Qingdao.
To their consternation, they were told they would be sharing a room. ‘“But this is not my wife!”, said Mr X. “You must put this lady elsewhere!” The officer drew a hissing breath. “So, she is not your wife? Then she must join the loose ladies – the ah – unattached – women in the Dance Hall.”’ And so, Ella bedded down in the Trocadero Dance Hall, which, from then on, became known as ‘The Dormitory for Loose Ladies’ and its inmates as the ‘Trocadero Dance Girls.’
The 27 ‘loose ladies’ comprised a mixture of nuns, missionary nurses, teachers, typists, and ‘at least three genuine loose women, very much divorced from their husbands.’ With a total of 147 internees in a space designed for 45 guests, life was far from comfortable. However, a routine was quickly developed, tasks were assigned and Ella was put in charge of the library. A caterer was instructed to provide meals, ‘with two Chinese cooks in the kitchen being supervised by ladies who took turns week by week. Volunteer young men and girls waited at table, a week at a time, and helped to wash up.’ Without any sort of heating, it became painfully cold as winter set in. Eventually, they were able to obtain some stoves and these provided some minimal heat.
Our most wonderful memory was the festival on Christmas Eve. After breakfast, strong men cleared the Trocadero of all the beds… a large Christmas tree was put up and decorated with tinsel ornaments and silver rain. Carols and Christmas glees were sung in the afternoon, followed by a Nativity Play. At the end Father Christmas appeared and distributed toys for the children, including 3 beautiful bride-dolls, dressed by our Dutch friend. It was a happy radiant time for all. On Christmas morning we held services and opened the gifts sent to us by neutral friends outside.
Whilst ‘a beast’ of a commander then took over, and some internees were subjected to brutal and humiliating treatment, in the main, life was manageable.
In March, 1943, having been told that they were being transferred to a former American Presbyterian College, situated just outside Weihsien (Weifang), they were ‘the first to burst into that silent camp, empty and unfinished, to prepare for all the rest’. Eventually, the Civil Assembly Centre would house some 1,800 internees, including 500 priests and nuns, many from Mongolia.
The Camp Commandant, who had been the former Japanese Consul-General in Honolulu, was ‘quite good-natured, allowing the internees to administer the internal affairs of the Camp’. The rows of students’ rooms were given over to married couples, while the class-rooms were transformed into dormitories for single men and women. Internees from the north were allowed unlimited quantities of baggage and two grand pianos arrived. ‘There was’, she reported, ‘a Salvation army brass band from Peking, a Hawaiian jazz band from Tientsin and a camp orchestra of 26 instruments, including a beautiful American nun playing the saxophone’. There was also a sixty strong Choral Society, which sang choruses from The Messiah, Elijah, Hiawatha and St. Paul and presented various glees and madrigals. A Labour Bureau operated at first, finding camp jobs for everyone.
We were a miniature world, having merchants, engineers, bank clerks, architects, professors, typists, dressmakers, nurses , doctors, manicurists, barbers, bar-tenders, shop keepers, prostitutes, an Olympic champion runner [Eric Liddell, whom the children called ‘Jesus in running shoes’] a Rhodes scholar, as well as two Basque pelote players who had come to China from Cuba.
A bakery was started by two Armenian bakers, with men working shifts under them, so there was good bread but otherwise food was scanty, save when parcels were sent by neutral friends. Carpenters began making necessary tables and benches, and stools for the water-closets which the Japanese had erected in their style – holes in the floor.
The Church was renamed the Assembly Hall, and was used during the week for lectures, plays and concerts and classes. Four schools functioned: the Peking American School, the Tientsin Grammar-School, the Chefoo School (‘some 250 pupils with excellent teachers and apparatus’) and a Catholic School. Once again, Ella was appointed Head of the Library, which, amongst the 3000 titles, included some 500 books for children and was run by three ladies, with nine assistants.
On Sundays the Hall functioned as a church, with early mass for the Catholics, followed by early communion for the Anglicans, then High Mass at ten, with five Catholic Bishops on the dais, followed by Matins at eleven under the Anglican Bishop Scott of North China. At 3 pm. there was Sunday School and at 4.30, Union church for non-conformists, while in the evening the Salvation Army held a song service, preceded by their band playing in the churchyard. And amongst the Catholics, there was an Australian Trappist priest from a monastery faraway in the North-West.
He considered himself absolved from his vow of silence in the Camp, and the talk bottled up in him for thirteen years gushed out in an ever-flowing stream. He gave us two lectures on the Trappist Order. He contacted all the Aussies and New Zealanders and persuaded them to celebrate Anzac Day. At night he used to buy quantities of eggs from the Chinese for the women and babies in camp, through a hole made by loosening bricks in the wall. Though he and the other priests made use of singing their prayers as a warning when Japanese guards were approaching, he was caught one night and sentenced to solitary confinement for one month, with two books of breviary. He used to chant his daily offices and prayers and hymns, and when no more came to his mind, he would start on interminable verses of “Waltzing Matilda”. His singing got on the Japanese nerves, so that they released him a week before his time.
On 17 August 1945, two days after the official surrender, a rescue team parachuted from an American B24 bomber and liberated the prisoners, although many had to remain there until they could find other accommodation. For the next six weeks after that, they received food and medical supplies by parachute.
Although delighted to be free, for Ella and many of the other internees, the next months were not easy. Keen to shake ‘the dust of China off [her] feet’, as she said in one of her letters, she finally left on 18 December 1945. She would not return to China but the memory of these extraordinary years would remain with her, most of all the way people had responded.
Some came with such deep resentment in their hearts that it festered like a poison, spoiling their life. Others were adaptable, making the best of things with humour, enjoying the lectures and concerts and above all the communal life.
Mediating Empire: An English Family in China 1817-1927 was published by Renaissance Books in April. For details, see andrewhillier.org.
 I am extremely grateful to Jennifer Peles and Fiona Dunlop (two of Ella’s great-nieces) for allowing me access to Ella’s full account and to quote from it. I am also grateful to Nick Kitto for his advice and permission to use his images. See Trading Places a photographic journey through China’s former Treaty Ports. Two of Nick’s great-great uncles and their wives were interned with Ella. The subject is comprehensively described in Greg Leck, Captives of Empire: The Japanese Internment of Allied Civilians in China, 1941- 1945 (Bangor, Pa: Shandy Press, 2006); see also Captives of Empire. The new China Families platform contains extensive lists of Allied internees across China and Hong Kong, and also neutral foreign residents in occupied Shanghai.
 For an account of life in Qingdao immediately before the outbreak of war, see Forgiven but not Forgotten, Memoirs of a Teenage Girl Prisoner of the Japanese in China by Joyce Bradbury.
The F. Hagger collection encompasses some 260 photographs of China in the early 1930s, as well as many of Japan, Singapore, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), North Borneo, Manila, India, Egypt, and others which are not on the Historical Photographs of China website. The album will be available for consultation at University of Bristol Special Collections.
We currently know little about Hagger other than he was an Electrical Artificer in the Royal Navy. His job involved the installation and maintenance of electrical systems, including in generators and motors, on ships. He almost certainly served on the China Station aboard H.M.S. Medway, the first purpose-built large submarine depot ship built for the Royal Navy. An album of photographs inscribed with his name ‘F. HAGGER, E.A.’ [E.A.=Electrical Artificer] was donated to the Historical Photographs of China a few years ago, but even then the connection with Hagger himself had been lost. Although some of the photographs in the album appear to be duplicates of images found elsewhere, many seem to have been taken by Hagger himself – or perhaps by someone close to him. The album is thoroughly captioned, and the HPC team was able to identify Hagger from some of the indications provided in the captions. He appears in several photographs, either in individual portraits – in uniform, in civilian clothes or with little clothes – or in group shots with other Royal Navy personnel.
Whilst photograph albums of China coast Navy servicemen are not uncommon, the Hagger collection is impressive for the quality and variety of images. It is a rich holding for historians interested in China’s social, economic, and international history. Those working on urban and rural life in Republican China, the British military presence in the country, everyday life in the treaty ports, Hong Kong history, and maritime history (there are several photographs taken at sea and a few portraying the people who worked and lived on boats) will likely find images in this collection of interest.
The collection offers a visual record of the human and material dimensions of the routine exercise of British naval power at a period of transition when other competitors, notably Japan, were in the ascendancy. Hagger’s tour in China took place in 1932-33, at the height of the Manchurian Crisis and in the aftermath of the Shanghai War of 1932, key events in the origins of the Second World War in East Asia. A state of tension was very much in the order of the day. During a visit to Japan in 1933, H.M.S. Medway was reported to ‘have been observing photographing the fortified area while traversing the Moji Straits’ by the Moji water police, an allegation denied by the Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief of the China Station, Admiral Sir Frederic Charles Dreyer (1878-1956). The suspicion was not unfounded, though. According to Antony Best, the Medway was indeed being used to ‘gather information on Japanese consular, military, and mandated islands traffic’ as part of a three-month watch on Japanese wireless transmissions activities in East Asia that had been planned by the Naval Intelligence Directorate and the Government Code and Cipher School.
The Hagger album is also a treasure trove for those interested in gender history. Scholars of masculinities would find here plenty of inspiration: there’s a variety of depictions of male bodies, portraits of homosociality and spaces of masculine leisure and consumption (including a before-and-after sequence of a New Year’s party onboard), and examples of photographic imperial and male gaze, as well as racialised categorisation – an album page on ‘types’ of Japanese women is an illustrative example of that.
Although images of male camaraderie abound, the collection also holds very interesting images of women, especially outside shots of women at work – such as one of women road members in Hong Kong – or simply walking on the street. If 1930s China is often associated with the much-debated ‘new women’, Hagger’s photographs provide, intentionally or not, a testimony of the visibility and confident deportment of women in Chinese streets. Two photographs of ‘café girls’, seemingly photographed in Japan, also provide an interesting prompt to reflect on the transnationality of ‘modern girl’ archetypes.
Images of bustling city life are aplenty in this collection, capturing fascinating details of the many people, businesses, and means of transport that dotted everyday activities in mainland China and Hong Kong in the 1930s. Some carefully framed images offer postcard-like distant views over the urban landscape, such as a serene shot of the Peak Tram or an impressive view over Qianmen street in Beijing.
Other photographs, taken at street level, show random shots of daily activities such as eating or chatting. The Hong Kong photographs offer quite a few gems: a side view of a fruit stall in front of a wall full of advertisements with a man eating, standing nearby, a moment of contrasts in a busy Des Voeux Road, with a barefoot girl standing on one side of the road while pedestrians, cars and rickshaws rush on the other side, or a seamstress with bound feet concentrated on mending clothes while a passer-by glances at the photographer.
One of my favourites, probably taken in Weihai, depicts a neighbourhood ally where women, children and what appear to be itinerant food sellers congregate. It was photographed from under an archway – a curious suggestion of the photographer’s position: an outsider looking in, from a distance.
Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Yantai, Weihai, and other China coast locales can be found in the extensive Hagger collection. Its photographs celebrate the opportunities offered to male agents of empire, but also offer fleeting glimpses of the everyday pleasures and pains of urban China during the ‘Nanjing decade’. You can browse the whole collection here and will no doubt find something interesting.
If you have information on F. Hagger or the 1932-33 China Coast tour of H.M.S. Medway please get in touch with the Historical Photographs of China Project.
 The ship was launched in 1928 and was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean in 1942.
 About the latter, see Donald A. Jordan, China’s Trial by Fire: The Shanghai War of 1932 (Ann Arbor, 2001).
 ‘Admiral Dreyer Denies Medway Took Pictures of Nippon Forts’, The China Press, 29 September 1933, p. 1.
 Antony Best, British Intelligence and the Japanese Challenge in Asia, 1914-1941 (Basingstoke, 2002), p. 109.
 On this topic see: Alys Eve Weinbaum et al (eds), The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (Durham, NC, 2008)
Cole Roskam is an Associate Professor of Architectural History in the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. The author of Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843-1937 (University of Washington Press, 2019), his research explores architecture’s role in mediating China’s relationship to the world. Cole has just completed work on a book-length manuscript Yale University Press tentatively titled Designing Reform: Architecture in the People’s Republic of China, 1970-1992.
A look at contemporary Shanghai’s skyline makes it hard to believe that Trinity Church (renamed Trinity Cathedral in 1875) was once the tallest and one of the best-known buildings in the city (Figure 1). Only through a closer look at historical images of the building available on the Historical Photographs of China web site do we gain a sense of its striking verticality and monumentality, particularly in relation to the existing Chinese walled city and the emerging urban fabric of the British Settlement. Shaped by the ambitions of a foreign community seeking to distinguish itself within Britain’s vast imperial sphere, the building stands as a reminder that desire on the part of cities around the world for globally recognizable architectural icons is nothing new.
The cathedral is one of the numerous architectural projects detailed in my recently published book, Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843-1937 (University of Washington Press), which examines architecture’s manifold contributions to the production of the treaty port’s unique extraterritorial environment. The existing structure, designed by the famed British architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) and completed in 1865, was built to replace an earlier iteration of the church completed by George Strachan in 1848, which had been built largely through the efforts of the American missionary and bishop William Jones Boone (1811-1864) and with the financial backing of the British government (Figure 2). In 1863, the first structure’s deterioration due to poor construction standards – its roof collapsed one Sunday in July 1850 prior to service – prompted the British Settlement’s British Episcopal Church Society to write to Scott requesting his services in the design of a new edifice.
Scott was Britain’s most preeminent Gothic Revival architect and a designer of notable renown whose involvement in the project imbued it with certain international distinction. No architect was arguably more closely associated with architectural representations of Britain’s evolving imperial ideology at the time than Scott. In addition to completing the designs and/or construction of the exterior of London’s Foreign and India Offices in 1858, its Colonial Office (1870-74), as well as its Home Office (1870-75), he was also responsible for the design of numerous projects in Great Britain, Newfoundland, India, South Africa, and Australia.[i] Through his involvement, the settlement’s British community connected itself, albeit tangentially, to active and ongoing public debate back in England over the search for an appropriately British architectural style, and, not unrelatedly, the future of British imperialism.[ii]
Scott accepted the commission and its requirements that the new building be able to support a congregation of eight hundred people, at a construction cost of no more than twenty thousand pounds. Drawings for an ‘early-thirteenth-century Gothic style’ design were completed in November 1864. Unfortunately, however, Scott’s plans did not adhere to the community’s initial requests. For example, the proposed church included seating for only 460 members. Equally disappointing and potentially damaging to its international status, the church as proposed did not feature a spire, which residents desired as archetypal of ecclesiastical architecture back home in Britain. William Kidner, a Scottish designer employed by Scott who relocated to Shanghai in 1864 to assist with the project’s construction, was subsequently asked to complete revisions to the scheme while additional funding was raised. Kidner’s proposed revisions were approved by Scott, who purportedly expressed relief that Kidner, who ‘so thoroughly understood his views and who appeared to be so capable of carrying them out satisfactorily,’ would see the project to completion.[iii]
The building’s foundation stone was eventually laid on the most ‘favourable’ afternoon of May 26, 1866. Numerous American, European, and Chinese residents attended the ceremony, which was led by members of the settlement’s various Masonic lodges – an active and influential social organisation not only in Shanghai, but in numerous locales throughout the British empire. Upon its completion, the building measured 152 feet long and 54 feet high and featured an impressive ribbed vault ceiling and a detailed mosaic floor.
Kidner’s redesign accommodated three hundred more people and featured brick construction rather than Scott’s proposed stonework; it also included a wooden ceiling, rather than brick, to alleviate the building’s weight given Shanghai’s soft, alluvial soil (Figure 3). These gestures also accommodated the skills of the city’s Chinese workforce, which was an often unacknowledged but vital force in the treaty port’s construction. Other notable features include the church’s organ, which was manufactured by Walkers of London – another of the building’s many links to the imperial metropole. The church’s stained-glass windows were gradually accumulated and installed through local donations. Due to a lack of funding, the church’s spire was not completed until 1893.
Trinity Church-related images included in the Historical Photographs of China database capture the building and its groundbreaking monumentality, though they do so in new and unusual ways. In particular, a series of photographs taken from the first church of its surrounding environs provide us with a rare vantage point from which we may better understand its surrounding urban fabric (Figure 4). Taken together, these wonderful images offer a unique panoramic view of the fortress-like mercantile compounds designed for and by capitalism that dominated the foreign settlements’ emergent urban fabric, thereby underscoring the church’s early and notable physical prominence.
[i] See M. H. Port, Imperial London: Civil Government Building in London, 1851-1915 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995) 2–3; and G. A. Bremner, Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire, 1840-1870 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), xiii, 203.
[ii] G.A. Bremner, ‘Nation and Empire in the Government Architecture of Mid-Victorian London: The Foreign and India Office Reconsidered,’ The Historical Journal 48, no. 3 (September 2005): 703–42.
[iii] Minutes of Annual Meeting of Subscribers to the British Episcopal Church, January 25, 1866, F.O. 17/454, National Archives, Kew.
There are several photographs of disasters, including some of shipwrecks, on the Historical Photographs of China site. A collection we are in the midst of readying for publication includes several that show the aftermath of the disaster that befell the S.S. Chusan, a China Navigation Company (CNCo) steamer wrecked near Weihaiwei (now Weihai) in early October 1932. This series of photographs comes from the F. Hagger Collection (about which more soon). We can relate them to other images on HPC, such as this one below, taken by the CNCo Chairman, Warren Swire, and with other materials.
Built in Greenock, Scotland in 1914 by Scotts Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. – the Scotts had intertwined interests with Swire – the Chusan was commissioned by CNCo, one of the associated companies owned or managed by John Swire & Sons in London. In China, CNCo was managed by the firm’s subsidiary, Butterfield & Swire. On the evening of 2-3 February 1932, while en route to Shanghai from Yantai (Chefoo), the Chusan ran aground, wedging on rocks of an outer island near Half Moon Bay. Maritime accidents in China’s coastal waters were rarer by 1932 than they had been in the nineteenth century, when the Chinese Maritime Customs Service was still developing its lighthouse network, but they still occurred.
News reports of the time are not very clear as to the exact cause of the accident, but it seems likely the Chusan ran aground after hitting a reef. Its Captain, George Alfred Evans, a twelve-year veteran with the firm, was immediately dismissed, suggesting that he was found to be at fault; the Chief Officer was promoted. The North China Herald had reported that ‘the spot upon which the vessel ran aground is probably that known as the “Pinnacle”, which has on its crest a lime-washed piled of stones […],’ which suggests the area’s risks were not unknown.
More than a hundred passengers and crew, most of them Chinese, were on board the Chusan when the accident happened. Assistance was provided by the British Royal Navy warships HMS Kent and HMS Medway and it is thought that someone from one of these ships, or possibly F. Hagger himself, photographed the events. These warships picked up the Chusan’s S.O.S. signals and came to rescue the passengers. They were taken to Weihaiwei and later transferred on the steamship Shuntien to Shanghai, arriving there on 6 October. After saving the passengers, attention turned to recovering the cargo onboard. About one hundred packages were reported saved. The crew was taken off the ship on Monday 4 October and, like the passengers was first moved to Weihaiwei and then moved to Shanghai onboard the steamer Tungchow. Like the S. S. Chusan, the S.S. Shuntien and the S.S. Tungchow were CNCo ships built by Scotts. The two would be out of operation in the following years.
The vessels involved in the salvaging operation attest to the internationalisation of China’s shipping in the early twentieth century – a period of often-competing but occasionally collaborating foreign, commercial, and nationalist interests. According to The North China Herald, apart from the two British naval vessels, the Royal Navy tug St Breock was sent ‘with divers and carpenters with hawsers, timber and other needed appliances to assist in salvage operations’. The Japanese ships Dairen Maru and Yusho Maru were sent from Dalian (Dairen) – in Japanese-occupied Manchuria – and Moji, respectively, to assist the Chusan. Both the Herald and The China Press reported that ‘Japanese tugs with almost superhuman effort have managed to manoeuvre a sampan alongside the outer island and rescue the remainder of the Chusan’s crew and one officer, totalling about 17 persons’. While these Japanese ships assisted the Chusan, Sino-Japanese tensions brewed elsewhere. The ship’s intended destination, Shanghai, had seen military clashes in the early months of 1932. Interestingly, one of the first reports of the steamer’s ordeal appeared in the same front page of The China Press whose headline celebrated: ‘Lytton Report Recognizes China Sovereignty,’ a major development in the Manchurian Crisis which would eventually lead to Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933. The fragile peace of the interwar years had started to go under, much like the Chusan.
Bad weather made the salvaging operations difficult. By 4 October ‘the fore-part of the ship had been broken off by the force of waves’ and the deck was already ‘partly submerged’. The Chusan was reported ‘abandoned as a total loss’ a few days later. The Herald published a sequence of three photographs showing the gradual sinking of the vessel on its edition of 19 October.
The Hagger collection includes four other images, from different angles, of the salvaging operations, which offer an impressive closer look at the different phases of the ship’s sinking – the last image, taken three days after the first, shows only a few remaining parts still above water. Historians of maritime history may find them of interest – and those wanting to recreate similar events in historical fiction have here a set of images captured on site for their reference.
When I first saw it, the sequence caught my attention as it had a certain cinematic flair to it: a step-by-step account of a ship going down, from the first impressions in which a good deal of the vessel remains above water to a final shot in which only small reminders of its physical presence are visible, most of it having been swallowed by the waters. Together, the photos tell a dramatic story. After searching for some information on the event, I realised that what the photographs do not depict is arguably even more impressive. None of them shows (at least not up close) the ship’s passengers who, unlike the ship, all survived. Other potentially interesting details are also left to the imagination of the 2020 reader of 1932 news reports: the divers who were amongst the first sent to the scene, the removal of a good deal of the cargo, the several ships involved in the rescue operations… these are largely off frame here. Perhaps someone else’s camera registered different images at the time and they now rest in a private album or archives storage somewhere in the world?
Perhaps because after the accident the association with the name might not be positive, CNCo did not name any of its new builds Chusan. Chairman J.K. Swire would still register annoyance in 1948, however, when he heard that P&O was planing to use the name for a new liner it had commissioned for the UK-East Asia route. Nonetheless, P&O, which had already owned two vessels with the name, took delivery of its third SS Chusan in June 1950. For more on the history of John Swire & Sons and its China interests, including its maritime operations, see the recently published China Bound: John Swire & Sons and Its World, 1916-1980 by Robert Bickers.
 ‘Str. Chusan goes aground’, The North China Herald, 5 Oct. 1932, p. 15.
 ‘Wrecked vessel sinks’, The North China Herald, 12 Oct. 1932, p. 50.
 ‘Str. Chusan goes aground’, p. 15.
 Ibid.; ‘Last of Crew of Chusan Are Rescued’, The China Press, 5 Oct. 1932, p. 7.
 ‘Chusan Grounds Off Weihaiwei; All Saved’, The China Press, 3 Oct. 1932, p. 1.
 ‘Wrecked vessel sinks’, p. 50.
 ‘Chusan Now Regarded As Complete Loss’, The China Press, 9 Oct. 1932, p.3.
 ‘Ship-wreck near Weihaihei’, The North China Herald, 19 Oct. 1932, p. 91.
James Carter is the author of the forthcoming Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai (W.W. Norton), which uses the events of 12 November 1941 at the Shanghai Race Club to tell the story of China on the eve of World War II. He has written two previous books on Chinese history, and contributed to the Times Literary Supplement, the LA Review of Books, ChinaFile, and the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, among other venues. He is Professor of History and Director of the Nealis Program in Asian Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, USA.
Covid19 has fueled a fascination with apocalypses. The end of fictional worlds dominate our media choices: Contagion, 2012, Train to Busan, Deep Impact … we can fill our socially isolated nights with demise of worlds that never were. But worlds end all the time, and not just in fiction, and perhaps it is a good time to look back at some one of them. Historical Photographs of China provides us glimpses of what those moments of impending doom.
Perched at what seems like the end — if not the end of the world, at least the end of the world we have been living in up to now — I’m thrown back to think about when worlds ended before.
I’ve been immersed for some time in Shanghai as it toppled into World War II. I focused my research on a single day — Champions Day, 12 November 1941 — chosen precisely because it was on the margins between one world — old Shanghai, with all its cosmopolitanism and cruelty — and what would follow. It would not re-emerge, at least not as it had been.
Shanghai had existed as unique enclave since the 1840s. It looked like a colony, swam like a colony, and quacked like a colony … but officially, at least, it was not a colony. The International Settlement and French Concession, though, were unique spaces, insulated from most of the trials that swept across China in the last decades of the Qing dynasty, a revolution that overthrew it, and the turmoil that followed.
By the 1930s, the autonomy of these concessions was well established, but their future was increasingly hazy. The 1932 ‘Shanghai War,’ sparked by nationalist tensions and the death of a Japanese monk, killed more than 10,000 people in and around the city as Japanese and Chinese forces fought one another. For the ‘Shanghailanders’ — white (mainly British) inhabitants of the International Settlement — the fighting caused concern, but little real disruption to their lives. Consideration was even given to postponing Champions Day, the holiday in the Settlement when life paused for the running of the Champions’ Stakes, and crowds of 20,000 or more would see one of the city’s fastest horses crowned ‘King of the Turf,’ but in the end, a delay was not necessary. A ceasefire took hold in March, and life in Shanghai quickly recovered. Even the city’s two Chinese-owned and operated racetracks, which had been damaged in the fighting, quickly re-opened and began hosting races once again. Shanghai had survived the end of the world … for now.
The world would end again in the summer of 1937. If 1932 hinted that the world of Old Shanghai might not be permanent, 1937 shouted it. The hostilities that broke out between Japan and China at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peiping (as Peking was then officially known) in July spread to Shanghai later that summer. ‘Black’ or ‘Bloody Saturday’ — 14 August 1937 — was an accident. Chinese pilots mistakenly dropped bombs over the International Settlement, which was supposedly neutral in the conflict at the time, but the effect was no less deadly for having been inadvertent. Thousands died, including many refugees fleeing the fighting all around, and also the first Americans to die in World War II.
From 1937 on, Shanghai entered its Lone Island (gudao 孤岛) era. Japanese armies completed their occupation of the city — except for the foreign concessions — in November, and for four years, until Japanese armies marched onto the Bund on 8 December 1941, the Settlement at the heart of Shanghai clung to its autonomy. We might routinely describe the moment as liminal, poised between the world the ending and the one about to begin. I often think of it more as Wile E. Coyote, suspended in mid-air while the smoke cleared and revealed the abyss below.
Though glimpses into the chasm were common in the Lone Island period, the cartoon coyote stayed somehow aloft. Scarcity and hoarding led to inflation. Foreign consulates advised their nationals to leave. Refugees found their way to the city, escaping the war that was brutalizing China (the atrocities of the ‘Rape of Nanking’ were less than 200 miles away). But amid this chaos, life in the Settlement went on.
Racing went on too—the Chinese-owned tracks were closed (destroyed, really) by the war, but the Shanghai Race Club at the city’s centre was soon drawing larger crowds than ever as Shanghai residents sought escape from the grim reality surrounding them.
It was not until December 1941 that the world ended again. The same offensive that Americans remember mainly for Pearl Harbor included Japanese attacks on Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, and Shanghai. The Japanese strike on Shanghai was quick — sinking or seizing the two remaining Allied gunboats moored in the Huangpu River — but the fate of Shanghai was, as usual, slow to resolve. Although long apprehensive about its fate, Shanghai suffered less during the war than just about any city in Asia. Although there were a few arrests, it was eight months before a large number of Allied men were imprisoned, and another six months before most remaining Allied nationals were interned by the Japanese in euphemistically designed Civilian Assembly Centres.
Even the race track stayed open, dominated still by British nationals into 1942, then controlled by Japanese interests who continued racing right into the summer of 1945. Just weeks before an atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, newspapers in Shanghai were still advertising the races.
Old Shanghai did not return. Racing did not restart after the Japanese surrender. Although the city’s architecture survived the war (much of it lasting to be destroyed as part of the city’s economic resurgence in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries), it was fundamentally changed, in ways that few people looking at the gathering clouds in 1932, or 1937, or 1941 could have predicted.
Our latest guest blogger is Gina Anne Tam. An assistant professor of Chinese history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Gina’s research and teaching interests include the history of nationalism, race and ethnicity, language, and foodways. She received her BA in history and Asian Studies from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and her Ph.D. in history from Stanford University. Her first book, Dialect and Nationalism in China 1860-1960, is published by Cambridge University Press.
This photograph shows the grave of Scottish missionary Carstairs Douglas in the port city of Xiamen (Amoy), where he lived for nearly twenty years until his death in 1877. Among his many legacies—remembered, of course, as a pioneer, church leader—was his expansive and comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary of what he calls the ‘Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy.’ Douglas’s massive tome, with hundreds of pages and thousands of entries, has stood the test of time, continuing to serve as a foundational text in the study of Chinese phonology even to this day.
Douglas was one of many missionaries from Europe and the United States who took advantage of the assertion of foreign power in East Asia after the first Opium War to travel to Qing China, and one of many who used his spare time between evangelical activities to study, analyze, and write about language. These men were instrumental in the invention of a China for the Western imagination—a imagined construct fabricated to adhere to a European and American worldview. Without what felt like a full picture of China before them, these sojourners filtered the fragmented information they collected through the lens of their own histories, making sense of what they saw by inserting it into streamlined narratives of historical progress modeled on the European experience. Nowhere is this process clearer than in European narratives about the Chinese language. It simply made sense to these men to equate the China’s literary language to Latin, its local languages (called fangyan in Chinese) to dialects, and the language of officials to a so-called ‘Chinese language’ that would, were China to modernize and become a modern nation, serve as its lingua franca.
But not to Douglas. One of the ways that he was unique among his peers was that he was one of the few to starkly acknowledge just how inadequate these metaphors were and how misleading the process of translation could be. He wrote the following in the introduction to his dictionary in regard to the spoken language of Xiamen:
Such words as “dialect” or “colloquial” give an erroneous conception of its nature. It is not a mere colloquial dialect or patois; it is spoken by the highest ranks just as by the common people, by the most learned just as by the most ignorant . . . Nor does the term “dialect” convey anything like a correct idea of its distinctive character; it is no mere dialectical variety of some other language; it is a distinct language, one of the many and widely different languages which divide among them the soil of China.
Douglas’s criticism highlights the inherent associations attached to each English term. The term ‘dialect,’ he claimed, implied a branch or auxiliary, a category or entity only made comprehensible through its relationship to its root language. It also implied mutual intelligibility, which could not be claimed of the local languages of Fujian, where Douglas was stationed, and Guangdong, Shanghai, or Beijing. Ultimately, Douglas recognized that terms like ‘dialect’ emerged from a historically contingent experience, and that by applying these terms to phenomena born of a different context, he was creating an imperfect metaphor that had the potential to mislead.
Several decades later, another language enthusiast, Lin Yutang, would make precisely the opposite argument about China’s fangyan. Lin spent much of his early adulthood abroad, first at the United States at Harvard, and then France and finally Germany, where he completed his doctorate in philology at the University of Leizpig. When he returned to China, he became a strident defender of the linguistic methodologies he absorbed in his training. In 1925, Lin wrote an excoriation of his colleagues’ insistence that the term fangyan, a word with a long history in Chinese literature stretching back millennia, referred simply to “languages spoken in a particular place” and nothing more. Lin chided:
There should be no confusion as to the definition of fangyan. The world’s languages are connected in one system, called a yuyanxi [family of languages]. Language families are then divided into yuyan [languages], and within each language there are divisions of fangyan [dialects]…We ought to declare that when we speak of fangyan today that we are using it [with the] meaning from modern linguistics.
Here, Lin insisted that his colleagues adhere to frameworks established by linguists in Europe and the United States. From his perspective, these categories were determined by science and science was not culturally contingent. Ultimately, Lin’s sought to include Chinese knowledge in a global scientific epistemology, which demanded an adherence to the categories it had prescribed.
My book, Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960, explores Chinese nation-building by tracing shifting discourses on fangyan. This history is, in part, a history of translation. The history of how fangyan became equated with the English term dialect reveals how the process of nation-building compelled Chinese reformers at the end of the Qing dynasty to imagine a nation with a singular language—a characterization that we, today, frequently presume to be objective truth. The prescribed “need” for a singular Chinese language was first articulated by Douglas’s peers from Europe and America, who pronounced China “backwards” due to its lack of linguistic unity. But by the turn of the twentieth century, it had become the centerpiece of China’s national conception among Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. And once these reformers had deemed a national language necessary for national genesis, everything else had to be reframed as something other than a national language; dialects, with their connotations of subordination, felt like a natural fit. And once such designations had been deemed necessary for national modernity, linguists like Lin Yutang reframed categories like language and dialect as scientific, objective fact, not human constructions. Ultimately, their work masked the fact that translation is a product of creation—creations imbued with political interests and human biases.
By unpacking the process by which fangyan became twinned with ‘dialect,’ we can see firsthand how the translation was born out of the political needs of the moment of its creation. It was, in other words, not a neutral pairing, but a deeply fraught innovation with wide-ranging implications. And, as my book shows, this translation and the framework it upheld always had detractors. Lin and Douglas were not necessarily representative of their time or place: there were Western observers who uncritically found dialect a proper framework for understanding fangyan, and Chinese folklorists, authors, and scholars who were suspicious of Lin’s hierarchical taxonomical model which indirectly upheld northern Mandarin as more significant than other Chinese languages. These stories are important for understanding the vicissitudes of the relationship between language and identity, too.
While Douglas may be remembered for any number of achievements, to me, his legacy was his prescient recognition that categories born of a European experience might not fit neatly onto China’s linguistic landscape as the tombstone in the photograph ill-fits China’s deathscape. He highlights how the pairing of fangyan to the term dialect was one of creation, and how the translations we choose have implicate our lived realities.
Brian Dott received a Master’s degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan and his PhD in Chinese History from the University of Pittsburgh. He teaches in the History Department and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies Program at Whitman College. His passion is studying changes in Chinese cultural practices from 1500 to the present. Brian R. Dott is author of The Chile Pepper in China A Cultural Biography‘ (Columbia University Press, 2020). His previous book examines different groups of pilgrims to one of China’s most sacred mountains: Identity Reflections: Pilgrimages to Mount Tai in Late Imperial China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2004).
Chile peppers (also spelled chilli or chili) first arrived in China from the Americas around 1570. Their popularity took off quickly. A source from 1621 described them as being grown everywhere and important for cooking and medicine. Ultimately, the Chinese use of chile peppers has influenced a wide range of cultural practices, from cuisine to medicine, from decorations to gender tropes. I began this project with a simple question; I was eating in a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing and wondered how the Chinese had begun eating something new with such a strong and distinctive flavour?
As the photograph above might suggest, getting used to Sichuan food once chiles were super popular could take some adjustment! The variety of gazes is quite intriguing: the photographer gazing at traveling companions and at the local Sichuanese; the locals gazing at the foreigners; the child at the table gazing directly at the camera; one of the women at the table contemplating her meal (chiles?); her companion gazing at her reaction.
Initial use as a spice probably began as a substitute for more expensive flavourings, such as black pepper (imported), Sichuan peppercorn, and salt (government controlled). If the chile had remained merely a substitute, it would not have come to play such a key role in Chinese culture. Indeed, by the nineteenth century very few sources referenced its use as a substitute, instead emphasising it on its own merits. For this blog, I will introduce class roles in the spread of the chile and its role as a metaphor for revolution.
Modern sources about chiles in China tend to emphasise transmission and spread of chiles within China via merchants or traders. However, chiles did not become a widespread commercial crop until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Thus, the spread of chiles in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries actually happened in a different sphere. An important trait of the chile plant, which aided its spread around the globe, is that it can grow in temperate climates. Thus, unlike well-known spice trade spices, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, or cloves, which require tropical climates to grow, and therefore had to be continually imported to places with temperate climates, chiles could be grown in vegetable or kitchen gardens throughout most of China (gardens such as the ones shown below).
I argue that chiles spread within China primarily between neighbours. Seeds would have been passed from neighbour to neighbour, between relatives and communities that inter-married. The spread was at the grassroots level. The internal spread of chiles in China was markedly different from other American crops introduced around the same time. The sweet potato, maize, peanut and tobacco all received a great deal of written attention and promotion from both local and national elites. In contrast, no written sources prior to the twentieth century promoted the growing of chiles. With the history of the chile in China, reading between the lines of elite authored sources, we can see people taking their culinary and medical needs into their own hands.
Beginning in the mid-twentieth century the Chinese began employing the chile as a symbol for military expertise and even for revolutionary success. Mao Zedong, a chile-loving Hunanese, absolutely adored eating chiles. He would tease people who ate with him if they couldn’t stand the heat. He even sprinkled chile flakes on his watermelon! At one point a doctor recommended that he cut back on his consumption of chiles, to which he acerbically quipped, ‘If you are even afraid of chiles in your bowl, how will you dare to attack your enemies!?’ Mao went even further in a conversation with American journalist Edgar Snow, asserting that the revolution would not be possible without the chile! Modern writers directly link the military prowess of Mao and other famous Hunanese military leaders with their chile eating.
Today a key component of Hunan regional identity is the ability to eat chiles. Mao is also an important symbol for Hunan, including his love for chiles. Many Hunan restaurants emphasise this connection with busts or portraits of the Chairman on prominent display. Menus often include dishes such as ‘Mao family red-braised pork.’ Below is the frontispiece from the menu of the Financial District Mao Family Hunan Restaurant in Beijing. Mao as revolutionary and chile-lover are both emphasised.
Nicholas Kitto describes the project which culminated in the recent publication of his book ‘Trading Places, A Photographic Journey Through China’s Former Treaty Ports’ (Blacksmith Books)
It was quite late on 16 December 1996, and I was walking along Racecourse Road in Tianjin. We had just finished a fine dinner hosted by my client’s local office and as this had included traditional rounds of maotai, the cold night air was very welcome. We had driven along the road earlier in daylight when returning from the client’s facility in the Tianjin Economic Development Area and had spotted a house that may have been the one I sought. As we were leaving for Shanghai the next morning this was the only opportunity I would have until a subsequent visit.
As a professional accountant based in Hong Kong, from the mid-1990s I began to travel frequently to the mainland on business. Two weeks before my 1996 visit to Tianjin, I was with my father on the Isle of Man and mentioned my forthcoming trip to the city where he was born and had lived until aged six, when the family moved to Hankou (my grandfather, Jack Kitto, was with the Asiatic Petroleum Company (North China) Limited, one of two subsidiaries of the Royal Dutch Shell group operating in China at the time). ‘Wouldn’t it be a laugh if you found our old house’, he challenged before drawing a rough sketch of the building and a map of its location, despite the years which had passed and his age when he had last been there.
Thanks to my father’s drawings, once I was on foot that chilly evening it wasn’t too difficult to identify the house due to certain unique features and it being on an apex of a bend in Racecourse Road at a point where two other roads joined in a ‘V’ shape. The next morning I was up early to take some photographs and my father soon confirmed that we had succeeded.
The following year in December 1997, armed with a photograph from around 1930 provided by my father as second challenge, I was able to locate the former Tientsin Country Club. My father remembered the Club well, at least from the outside, as children were seldom permitted inside. This time I had the hotel driver’s local knowledge to thank for the find.
In the years that followed I continued to visit Tianjin occasionally (memorably attending a ‘tea dance’ in the Tientsin Country Club one Friday afternoon in January 2002) but my interest in the buildings was largely limited to those with connections to my family, although at that time I had little idea of the extent of their activities in China. While visiting Tianjin with my father in November 2004, this began to change. On this occasion, apart from having a drink in the old family house, now conveniently a bar, and also a guided tour of the Tianjin Country Club by a kind and understanding caretaker, we walked around the old city centre and it was hard not to notice the large number of western-style buildings. I wanted to know more about these buildings: who used them and for what purpose, how many of them remained in China and in which cities were they to be found? And so I began to read about the treaty port era and was soon fascinated, especially as it was obvious that, even from my limited experience in Tianjin and Shanghai, a great number of buildings from those days had survived.
Happily, a long-time friend, Robert Nield (1), shared my interest and, after a tentative visit to Tianjin in November 2007, in September 2008 our exploration of China’s former treaty ports commenced in earnest. Robert’s objective was to write on the subject; mine to photograph as many of the surviving buildings as we could find. During our travels we certainly found a large number of these buildings; indeed there was no city we visited where we didn’t discover something.
We were fortunate with our timing. With the approaching Beijing Olympics of 2008 many cities had invested significant resources in restoring buildings of historical interest (not only from the treaty port era of course), and restoring them to a very high standard. This activity was not limited to the Olympic host cities as restoration projects extended throughout the country from Harbin in the north, to Beihai (Pakhoi) and beyond in the south.
Often extraordinary effort was made to save a building or restore a whole area close to how it looked in the 1930s. This included, but was not limited to, moving structures several metres to make way for new development, diverting traffic underground and demolishing gruesome concrete bridges from the 1950s. Demolition to make way for the new might have been a more popular option and it is impressive, and certainly fortunate, that this was not adopted in so many cases. And the restorations continue to this day. At the time of writing, the city of Yantai (previously known as Chefoo) is undertaking a large project to restore the former foreign settlement area to its previous state. Although much has already been completed, work will be ongoing for some years yet.
Our planning for each visit followed a similar pattern. Robert had by far the greater knowledge and resources, especially when it came to maps, but I would always undertake my own research, with a particular emphasis on buildings which may have survived. A day or two before a visit we would ‘fly-over’ the city on Google Earth, comparing interesting-looking roofs to old maps. From this Robert would produce extensive copies of maps and we would plan a route, with me keeping an eye on the position of the sun for the benefit of my camera.
Once on site, we would leave our hotel after an early breakfast and explore on foot, that being the only way to ensure we did not miss anything. Each day was long with no break for lunch, but we would try to be back at our hotel by 6pm. Often we would cover more than one city in a single visit. Generally we booked a hotel car and driver for a day trip to another city but sometimes the distances were too far, in which case we would go by train and stay for a few days.
We frequently created considerable curiosity but this was always friendly and, in particular, I never had any trouble with my large camera and lenses. Sometimes our driver would become interested in our activities, especially if we had hired him for more than one day. I remember one appearing on the second day with his own pocket camera and he enthusiastically joined-in the hunt. On another occasion we were investigating the recently redecorated former Butterfield & Swire agent’s residence in Qingdao when the architect arrived with more than a concerned look at our intrusion. As it happened, we had copies of G. Warren Swire’s earlier photographs of the building which we offered to the architect. He was delighted, but insisted on returning them after he had made a copy. We had many such experiences and these all helped to make every visit fruitful and thoroughly enjoyable.
By 2016, having made over fifty visits to as many former treaty ports and settlements, I had accumulated over 4,000 photographs of buildings (2) and it seemed timely to produce a book to showcase them and to assist those interested in locating them. That took time as I had writing to be completed and photographs to be chosen, but the book was at last published at the end of March this year and a few of the more than 700 photographs it contains are reproduced here.
During our exploration of the treaty ports I also discovered a great deal about my family’s activities in China, but that is another story altogether.
Dedicated website: www.treatyports.photos
- Robert Nield is author of ‘China’s Foreign Places, The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840-1943’ (Hong Kong University Press, 2015). See his blog post on Visualising China: ‘Robert Nield on Wuzhou, old and new‘.
- A complete set of my treaty port images resides with the Historical Photographs of China project at the University of Bristol.
This nice view of a commercial street in Guangzhou (Canton), that has been on the Historical Photographs of China website for a while, has been identified as the work of A Chan (雅真 Ya Zhen), an early Chinese photographer who worked in South China. A Chan’s authorship – confirmed by other versions of the image (see here and here, for example) – was cleverly hidden in plain sight, but it took a closer look to see this. The big shop sign on the right reads 香港 Xianggang [Hong Kong] / 雅真影相 Ya Zhen yingxiang/jing soeng [A Chan (Ya Zhen) photography]. It likely as not marked the entrance to A Chan’s studio in the city, with the reference to Hong Kong suggesting that it also operated in the then British colony, or possibly even that it had begun its activity there.
A Chan’s work is reasonably well known, and the information which had eluded us before had actually been mentioned in a couple of places. For example, in Terry Bennett’s History of Photography in China, Chinese Photographers 1844- 1879 (2013) and on the website Jiu yinzhi 旧影志 dedicated to the history of early Chinese photography.
The street in the photograph was 天平街 Tian ping jie, known as Heavenly Peace Street in English. The street is described in a 1904 guidebook as follows:
‘天平街 Heavenly Peace Street
In this street are shops for making bronze vessels (黃銅 [huangtong]), working in marble (雲石店 [yunshi dian]), and making palm-leaf fans.’
Dr. [John Glasgow] Kerr, A Guide to the City and Suburbs of Canton (Hong Kong: Kelly & Walsh, Ltd., 1904), p. 17
However, an advertisement published in the guidebook A Pictorial Handbook to Canton (Middlesbrough, Hood & Co., 1905), which also reproduces the same photograph of Heavenly Peace Street, lists ‘A. Chan’ as based on ‘179 Tai Sun Street, Canton (New City)’. The advertisement’s note that the studio ‘had always on stock a large assortment of Photographs[,] Views[, and] Post Cards[,] Etc., Etc., of Canton, Macao & Hong Kong’, suggests that he worked around the Pearl River Delta.
‘Tai Sun Street’ was likely 大新街 Da xin jie, or Great New Street, also known as Tai Sen Kai (an old romanisation from the Cantonese pronunciation) – today’s Da xin lu (大新路). It is listed in Kerr’s 1904 guidebook right after Heavenly Peace Street (both in the section on the New City). In Great New Street, that guidebook ensures, ‘the stranger will find much of interest, and the variety of articles made and exposed for sale will repay a careful survey of the shops’. One of them, it seems, was A Chan’s.
The Historical Photographs of China Projects holds several other photographs by A Chan, all of which were taken in Guangzhou.
Dr Helena F. S. Lopes is currently a Senior Research Associate in the History of Hong Kong and a Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Bristol. She holds a DPhil in History from the University of Oxford. Her research interests include transnational encounters in South China during the Second World War.
Found between images of refugees and nurses, the photographs of women sewing clothes in 1937 Shanghai (here and here) are hardly the most obvious when discussing a global war. This seemingly banal activity is one that goes on in peacetime as well during conflicts. Yet, times of crisis make clear how much of an essential service this is, everywhere in the world. The current COVID-19 crisis is of course no exception. In accounts of the Second World War in China, making clothes is sometimes mentioned as one of the key activities through which women – this was an activity made mostly by women – supported the war effort. Sewing by hand or with the help of machines, women made uniforms for those serving in the frontline (including, of course, health workers as well as soldiers) and clothes for the destitute, and continued to make garments for everyday use. These images of resilience have obvious transnational parallels and perhaps it was a sense of familiarity that drew the attention of the American photographer Malcolm Rosholt who took those photographs. War is often dominated by dramatic shots of military operations or their devastating effects in humans and the environment but these photographs suggest something of the constructive activities done by those left in the shadows, often lacking recognition for their wartime contribution.
If histories of the Second World War were until fairly recently (and one could argue, still are to a large extent) marked by male-centred narratives, they were also dominated by Eurocentric and American-centric perspectives. However, in recent years, new studies challenging some of the ways in which the conflict had previously been presented in English have begun to enter mainstream discussion. For example, the three volumes of the Cambridge History of the Second World War, published in 2015, have several chapters covering East Asia.
The conflict in China is still more commonly known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, or, in China itself, as the War of Resistance Against Japan (抗日戰爭 KangRi zhanzheng), but many studies of the social, military, political, and diplomatic dimensions of the war in China published in the last few decades engage directly with that conflict’s place in a global Second World War. For a representative list of these studies, see the bibliography below.
The start of a global World War Two continues, to a considerable extent, to be placed in Europe in September 1939, but when looking beyond the standard starting point in central Europe – for example, to China, Ethiopia or Spain – other possibilities make sense as well. One of them is 1937, when an all-out war began between China and Japan. Others may argue that was a mere regional conflict which did not lead to the start of a conflict engulfing the whole world. But neither did that happen with the war in Europe in 1939 – only in 1941.
The conflict in China was extensively covered by the overseas press at the time, including by photographers and documentary film makers, but would come to be overshadowed by the onset of the conflict in Europe. The official start of war in China is now 1931, not 1937, the opening salvo of the Sino-Japanese conflict being placed in the Manchuria Crisis, which started with the Japanese military invasion of the Chinese Northeastern provinces and led to the gradual occupation of parts of North China. The start of a continuous state of warfare in July 1937 surely marked a crucial turning point, though it is important to note that a culture of resistance, with a dimension of transnational mobilisation, existed long before.
For many in the 1930s, the war being fought in China had clear connections to those being fought in Spain or in Ethiopia. In other words, at least for some people, this was understood as a transnational conflict from early on. And whilst there were patches of nominal neutrality in the early phases of the Sino-Japanese War, notably concessions and colonies under foreign rule, even these were marked by global interactions connected to different dimensions of the conflict, including legal and illegal commercial activities.
The Historical Photographs of China Project (HPC) holds numerous images where we can find concrete visual traces of a global Second World War in China. The collection of Malcolm Rosholt photographs shows Shanghai in the early stages of the war in the summer of 1937. We see the physical markers of a divided metropolis, between Chinese Municipality grappling with a Japanese invasion and the supposedly neutral International Settlement and French Concession. But his photographs also show how the momentous impact of the conflict transcended those divisions in different ways and forged new connections, even if unintendedly. Rosholt’s photographs chronicle old and new faces of a global city at war. We find, amongst others, Chinese and Japanese soldiers, Sikh policemen, the French Jesuit missionary Robert Jacquinot de Besange who headed the Shanghai Safety Zone, and refugees fleeing the violence of the war and seeking shelter across the borders that had been drawn around zones of foreign residence and power, and sanctuary, in the city.
Some images provide subtle reminders of the many global connections coming together in wartime China. See for example, the photographs of Chinese Boy Scouts standing in front of a banner for a ‘Red Cross Society of the Republic of China’ hospital. These are two different symbols of an internationalised Nationalist China that gained new life during the conflict.
Other traces of China’s position in a global World War Two can be found in some of the Wuhan photographs among the HPC holdings, which have merited other posts in this blog. It is the case of this pro-resistance banner outside the headquarters of the France, Belgium and Switzerland Returned Students Association (L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS) – the location from where Robert Capa took one of his iconic photographs of wartime China. Capa was one of many – including the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens with whom he had come to the country – to draw parallels between the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese conflict. The role of Chinese communities overseas, including, but definitely not limited to, students is an important dimension when studying transnational connections in China during the war.
The visual record of China’s global war is made of many anonymous faces, but it also includes prominent individuals, both men and women. One of them, which had featured prominently in Iven’s 1938 documentary The 400 Million – in whose production Capa had worked – was Soong Ching-ling [Song Qingling]. The widow of Sun Yat-set and the sister of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Soong Ching-ling founded the China Defence League and was at the forefront of transnational networks of support for China’s resistance. Amongst others, she was photographed by Cecil Beaton, a British photographer who visited China as part of his wartime work for the Ministry of Information. Beaton also documented the conflict in other parts of the world. Many of his wartime photographs can be found at the Imperial War Museum, London.
There were multiple forms of Sino-foreign cooperation in the war, both civilian and military. From formal alliances to shadow diplomacy, from transnational institutions to personal relations, these left traces in different types of sources and attest to the variety of ways in which China was connected to the world and how the war in East Asia was connected to other theatres of the Second World War. HPC includes images of some of these various encounters, including of Sino-British intelligence cooperation in the 1940s evident in the photographs of the Stanfield Family Collection.
This collection also includes several photographs of the official ceremony of Japanese surrender in Beijing. Such events, often understood from national frameworks, were actually quite global: they had international consequences and drew observers and participants from different nations, in this case including Hankou-born John E. Stanfield, who served in the Special Operations Executive Far East Force 136 and signed the surrender documents of the Japanese forces in North China on behalf of the British Army.
Important international connections framed experiences of resistance but these were also present around practices of collaboration. A window into this can be found in the images of foreign diplomats attached to the collaborationist Reorganised National Government which, amongst others, were recently made available by Stanford University in cooperation with the Cultures of Occupation in Twentieth Century Asia Project at Nottingham.
No reference to China’s role in a global World War Two would be complete without mentioning its main wartime capital, Chongqing, which became a major political, diplomatic and cultural centre during the war. The Fu Bingchang Collection holds a series of incredible images of life in the city. The image below, of a party accompanying Fu at the San Hua Ba airport in Chongqing as he left to take up the post of Ambassador to the Soviet Union is one of the many images in his collection that provide a visual record of the rich history of Republican China’s wartime diplomacy. Chongqing also features in other images. The Joseph Needham Collection offers photographic evidence of knowledge exchange taking place in the 1940s through the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office which Needham directed in the city.
Even though important new work has been appearing recently on China’s wartime experience, several of its global connections remain unexplored and should keep historians busy for many years to come. The HPC collections will no doubt provide useful material for those of us interested in the complex history of the conflict in China and its many transnational links.
 Even for Allied War Crimes teams investigating cases in China, the definition of the conflict was set by the German invasion of Poland: Robert Bickers, Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (London: Allen Lane, 2003), pp. 326-27.
A few reading suggestions on China in a global war:
- Christian Henriot and Wen-hsin Yeh (eds), In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Shanghai Under Japanese Occupation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
- Stephen R. MacKinnon, Wuhan 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
- Rana Mitter, China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (London: Allen Lane, 2013)
- Aaron William Moore, Writing War: Soldiers Record the Japanese Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)
- Marcia R. Ristaino, The Jacquinot Safety Zone: Wartime Refugees in Shanghai (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008)
- Hans van de Ven, China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China 1937-1952 (London: Profile Books, 2017)
- Hans van de Ven, Diana Lary, and Stephen R. MacKinnon (eds), China’s Destiny in World War II (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014)
- Shuge Wei, News Under Fire: China’s Propaganda Against Japan in the English-Language Press, 1928-1941 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2017)
- Wen-hsin Yeh (ed), Wartime Shanghai (London: Routledge, 1998)
- Pingchao Zhu, Wartime Culture in Guilin, 1938-1944: A City at War (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015)
- Journal of Modern Chinese History, 13:1 (2019) – special issue ‘Wartime Everydayness in China during the Second World War’
- Modern Asian Studies, 45:2 (2011) – special issue ‘China in World War II, 1937-1945: Experience, Memory, and Legacy’
- Shana J. Brown, ‘Sha Fei, the Jin-Cha Pictorial, and the Documentary Style of Chinese Wartime Photojournalism’, in Christian Henriot and Wen-hsin Yeh (eds.), History in Images: Pictures and Public Space in Modern China (Berkeley, 2012), pp. 55-80
- Christian Henriot, ‘Wartime Shanghai Refugees: Chaos, Exclusion, and Indignity. Do Images Make up for the Lack of Memory?’, in Henriot and Yeh (eds.), History in Images, pp. 12-54
- Jeremy Taylor, ‘The “Occupied Lens” in Wartime China: Portrait Photography in the Service of Chinese “Collaboration”, 1939-1945’, History of Photography (2019)
Andrew Hillier draws on the Richard Family Collection in Historical Photographs of China to evoke the moving relationship between Guy Hillier and his young amanuensis, Ella Richard. Andrew’s book, Mediating Empire: An English Family in China, 1817-1927, is published this month by Renaissance Books.
We last encountered Guy Hillier diving for cover, as he came under fire during the short-lived restoration of the emperor Puyi in the stifling heat of July 1917. The events were described by Ella Richard, Guy’s confidential secretary and amanuensis, who had joined him the previous year. Guy’s wife, Ada, was living in England with their four children but, already seriously ill, she would die later that summer. However close Guy and Ella then became, it would be over two years before they married. With twenty-two years between them, there may have been a paternal element in the relationship but it was one in which the famously austere banker found solace and amusement in his final years.
By the time he was appointed manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank’s Peking office in 1891, Hillier was already losing his sight through glaucoma and, by the early 1900s, it had completely gone. Rejecting his offer to resign, the Bank provided him with an amanuensis. When he returned from visiting his wife in 1916, the position had once again become vacant and the Bank asked Ella if she would be interested. Born on 7 September 1879, she was the eldest daughter of the famous missionary, Timothy Richard, and for some years had been looking after her widowed father. However, he had recently re-married and, with her new-found freedom, she jumped at the opportunity. A keen, if somewhat scatty, writer, she recorded their life together in a diary and various other accounts, along with a cache of photographs, pasted into albums.
Ella Richard had first met Guy in Shanghai 1902, when this ‘desperately shy young woman’ was giving a ‘finishing course’ to Morna, the youngest daughter of the well-known barrister, William Venn Drummond. Guy’s brother, the Customs Commissioner, Harry Hillier, was Drummond’s son-in-law and Guy was staying with the family during the Boxer Indemnity Protocol negotiations. ‘Listening to the blind banker playing the piano’, Ella later wrote, ‘little did I dream what Fortune was to bring us both.’
She arrived in Peking on 9 September 1916, a day earlier than expected. But far from causing embarrassment, there was a flutter of excitement as she entered this intensely masculine world. It soon became clear that, sharing her love of literature and sense of humour, Guy was captivated. Ella would be there to comfort him when news arrived that his son, Maurice, had been killed in action. So also, when his wife died. Although conducted at a distance for over ten years, his was a not untypical empire marriage, and he and Ada had remained fond of each other. Unusually, given Ella’s non-conformist background, Guy was a devout Roman Catholic and a two year delay before re-marriage was customary. The wedding eventually took place on 20 December 1919 in Hong Kong.  Although there were few guests, it was celebrated in style, with Guy, as his son, Tristram observed, dressing as though he was still living in the 1890s.
Although still manager of the Peking agency, Guy left the routine work to his deputy and he and Ella spent much of their time in a set of rooms, he had long rented at Pa-li-chuang (Balizhuang), a Buddhist monastery in the western hills. Whilst there were only the most limited sanitary facilities, including a large earthenware flower-pot for basic needs, it provided a tranquil haven from the bustle of Peking.
Here in spacious courts under beautiful old trees and sophora, we would sit, I reading out aloud to him while he knitted (he knitted very well)… In the trees overhead, we would hear the blue jays or the drumming of woodpeckers or the song of orioles, and outside in the high road would pass a string of camels with clanging bells.
In late 1921, Guy’s daughter, Madeleine, came out to join them and almost immediately became engaged. Her fiancé, Charles Todd, was a dynamic and colourful personality, who had fought in the First World War and was now working for the Eastern Trading Company.  Guy’s son, Tristram, also arrived from England and the wedding, which took place on 25 February 1922, was a large- scale family affair. 
Having lived in the city for over thirty years, Guy had suffered from Peking’s harsh climate and was in failing health by the early 1920s. After a short illness, he died on 12 April 1924 in the presence of Ella, Madeleine and a Jesuit priest, Father Mullins. A lavish funeral was attended by large numbers of Chinese and Westerners and concluded with a long procession to the French cemetery at Beitang, the flowers being carried in a separate carriage. 
Several days later, Ella returned alone to Balizhuang and, passing through ‘the little green gate into [their] own courtyard’, she was ‘enveloped by a sense of peace’.
The plum-trees were a mass of snowy blossom and the pear tree was in its exquisite livery of tender green and cool clusters of white bloom. I went to his room and knelt by his bed and felt at last I had come home and that he was near me, watching me … and looking upon all the beauty of our loved home. 
 A selection from the Richard Family Collection can be viewed on Historical Photographs of China. I am grateful to two of Ella’s great nieces, Fiona Dunlop and Jennifer Peles, for allowing me access to Ella’s writings and providing me with much fascinating information about her. Save where otherwise stated, all quotations are from Ella’s papers.
 North China Herald, 3 January 1920, p. 48.
 See generally, Sue Osman, ‘Charles Todd and his family, 1893-2008’ (unpublished, Private Collection).
 Tristram Hillier, Leda and the Goose (London: Longmans, 1954), pp. 42-61.
 China Illustrated Review, 19 April 1924. For Guy’s last days and a moving description of the funeral, see Frank King, The Hongkong Bank Between the Wars and the Bank Interned, 1919-1945: Return from Grandeur, Vol. 3 of The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 146-147.
 Ella survived well into her eighties, a somewhat daunting presence for her great-nieces, when they visited her in her South Kensington flat. She died on 14 October 1963.
Jamie Carstairs, who manages the Historical Photographs of China Project, writes about a collection just added to the HPC site.
Many of the photographs in the album are by either Lai Fong (Afong Studio) or John Thomson, and were taken in Fuzhou (Foochow) or elsewhere in Fujian Province. Most probably the album was put together in China, for or by, John Gurney Fry.
J.G. Fry (1838-1877) was born in Essex, England, where he died, aged just 39. In Fuzhou he had been resident partner in the firm of John Silverlock & Company, merchants. His brother, Frederick William Fry also worked for the company, as a clerk. On Fry’s ‘premature death’, a notice reproduced from the Foochow Herald records that ‘The Foochow community are indebted to the deceased gentleman for his hearty assistance in several public undertakings, notably the Club, of which he was the principal promoter’.(1) Indeed, early on in the album are photographs of the club’s opening in 1870 – Fr01-007 and Fr01-005.
Fujian Province is tea country and Silverlocks (known as Zhonghe in Chinese) was principally a tea firm. In the album, there’s a straight-on Chinese style portrait of a ‘Tea man’ (merchant) who worked at the firm, named as Hopchun. He is posed with a bowl of tea, a tobacco pipe and fan, beside a tea plant (Camellia sinensis), the plant as if on an altar.
Lai Fong used the tiresome wet collodian process which required the glass plate negative to be processed immediately before the chemicals dried. Terry Bennett notes (2) that Lai Fong’s makeshift portable dark-tent (i.e. darkroom) can be seen on a boat in Fr01-071, as shown below. One has great admiration for the early photographers, lugging around their kit (bulky camera paraphernalia, as well as flasks of chemicals and fragile glass negatives) in wheelbarrows, on porters or pack horses ‘their fingers and linen stained with nitrate of silver and odoriferous chemicals’ (3) – and for their ingenuity as regards darkrooms. C. F. Moore, for example, converted a Chinese sedan chair into his portable darkroom.
The large chocolate-hued albumen prints that Lai Fong made are textbook examples of Frederick Scott Archer’s game-changing collodian technique, i.e. ‘highly satisfactory from the artistic point of view; the image produced was perfect in definition, subtle in detail, and well balanced in tone values.’ (4)
Photographs by John Thomson in the album, include the following:
Thomson occasionally photographed at the same location as others. Compare Thomson’s well known photograph of picturesque ‘Little’ Jinshan temple (金山塔寺), Wulong River, near Fuzhou, with Fr01-002 (below) and with Hv36-47.
Who, I wonder, is sitting with Charles Sinclair and his wife in Fr01-081, which is a detail of Lai Fong’s photograph Fr01-080 (Touring party in Bankers’ Glen, on the Yuen Foo branch of the Min River, near Fuzhou, c1869.)?
The album contains seven, multiple part, panoramic views. Towards the end are 28 photographs taken in Shanghai, Singapore and Penang, perhaps serving as souvenir remembrances of Fry’s sea journey home to Essex? An irresistible pièce de résistance treat in this box-of-chocolates album, is a striking interior photograph of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Shanghai, taken with great skill soon after the building was completed. The depth of focus is remarkable, the lighting expertly balanced, the composition radical.
John Gurney Fry’s album was subsequently owned by both his sister Jane Augusta Fry and his brother Frederick William Fry. Later, it apparently came into the possession of R. Tanner-Smith of the tea importers and blenders Twinings, before being passed on to Richard Ambrose’s family. The album was saved from disposal after Richard Ambrose’s great grandmother’s death in 1946, by his father, who appreciated the beauty and technical skill evident in the photographs.
It is fitting that the John Gurney Fry Collection is in Bristol, a city with strong Fry family connections. Frys invented the chocolate bar in Bristol. Lewis Fry and his sister Mary Fry (Mrs Napier Abbott) helped mobilise support in the city for the creation of University College Bristol and later the University of Bristol. The Fry Tower still exists in University Road. The Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies thrives. The Fry Portrait Collection is a much used resource in Special Collections. Property, money, books and other mss were donated to the university by the family. The generosity of the Fry family, and of Richard Ambrose, is a credit to the city.
(1) The London & China Telegraph, 29 October 1877, p. 925.
(2) Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China, Chinese Photographers 1844-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2013), p. 191.
(3) Lucia Moholy, A Hundred Years of Photography 1839-1939, (Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1939), p. 72.
(4) Moholy, A Hundred Years of Photography, p. 72.
Our new blog is from Chris Courtney, Assistant Professor of Chinese History at the University of Durham. His research focusses on the city of Wuhan and its rural hinterland. He is the author of The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood, a study of one of the deadliest disasters in human history. He is currently writing a history of heat in modern China, examining how ordinary people coped with the challenge of living in extreme temperatures over the course of the twentieth century.
Two centuries before the COVID-19 outbreak thrust Wuhan into the global media spotlight, the city was in the grip of another deadly pandemic. The disease described by the British as Asiatic cholera swept across the globe in seven waves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It left millions of people dead in its wake. Imaged from the Historical Photographs of China collection offer a fascinating insight into how Wuhan experienced this disease, and how people joined the global effort to overcome it. Pandemics are not simplistic morality tales with culprits and victims. Yet they do require human agency, as people build the systems that nurture and disseminate pathogens. In this respect, cholera was, in its first flourish, a disease of empire, transported unwittingly by merchants and soldiers exploiting new transportation links. Later it became a disease of modernity, hitching a lift in the bodies of sailors, statesmen, and pilgrims as they used steamboats, railways, and automobiles to traverse vast distances at hitherto unimaginable speeds.
Much like with COVID-19, in the nineteenth century China there was considerable debate as to how and where cholera originated. Some argued that the disease had long been endemic to China, while others suggested it had been imported more recently. Much of the confusion stemmed from the fact that a new disease was given an old name. The Chinese called cholera huoluan 霍亂, which was a term that had been used for three millennia, used to describe diseases that caused a “sudden disturbance” of the bowels. Despite these pretentions of antiquity, however, cholera in its modern form seems to have only arrived in China the nineteenth century. In 1817 it spread out from the Ganges Delta, where it had long been an endemic condition, first throughout India and then to East Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Over the subsequent decades, it would reach all populated continents. It arrived in China in the 1820s, during the first pandemic wave, having most likely stowed away aboard a British merchant ship.
It is difficult to say when cholera – as opposed to huoluan – first arrived in Wuhan. It has been spreading along the Yangzi River trading route in the 1820s, and there were epidemics during the Taiping Civil War, yet the first outbreak in Wuhan to be confirmed by biomedical testing seems to have occurred in 1895, having been recorded by physicians in the Catholic Hospital. This was the same institution, today under somewhat different management, where the COVID-19 whistle-blower Li Wenliang 李文亮 worked before his tragic death. While we cannot say for certain when cholera arrived in Wuhan, we can certainly see why the city was so susceptible to the condition. It had long been a commercial centre and transportation hub, where merchants exchanged diseases as well as produce. It was also one of the most densely populated areas in all of China, which suffered from poor sanitation and regular summer floods. Even in the absence of a crisis, a shortage of sources of fresh drinking water meant that many people had to rely on polluted rivers, buying bucketloads from carriers such as the one pictured above. Although drinking water was filtered with alum and boiled, the same precautions were often ignored for cooking and washing. All these factors allowed cholera and other waterborne infections to thrive.
A key development in the fight against cholera occurred when an industrialist called Song Weichen 宋衛臣 commissioned a large water tower in 1906. Though this hardly stands out on the vertiginous skyline of Wuhan today, for much of the twentieth century it was the tallest building in the city. It formed the centrepiece of a new Waterworks and Electrical Company, which was supplying around fifteen thousand people with clean drinking water by the mid-1920s. While this went a long way to tackling the problem of water-borne diseases, many of the poorer residents remained beyond the reach of the new urban sanitary regime. The same was true for medical interventions. The first vaccines for cholera were developed in the late nineteenth century, yet only foreign settlers and local elites were able to take advantage of them. As a result of these uneven developments, susceptibility to infectious diseases came to correlate increasingly with economic status. This was true also true in the world beyond Wuhan – as richer communities improved their defences, conditions such as cholera increasingly became a disease of the poor. Until conditions could be improved for every citizens, however cholera would remain a threat.
During the early twentieth century numerous organisations were involved in efforts to eradicate cholera. These included local benevolent halls, foreign missionaries, and organisations such as the Red Cross and Red Swastika. Few figures did more to improve public health in cities such as Wuhan than Wu Liande 伍連德, a Malayan-Chinese epidemiologist who had made his name fighting plague in northern China in the 1910s. In the 1930s, Wu set up one of the branches of his new Quarantine Service in Wuhan. Unfortunately, this new institution could not prevent an outbreak of cholera in 1932. This occurred partly a result of disastrous flooding that had struck much of China the previous year. The 1932 epidemic was the deadliest of the twentieth century, spreading to three hundred cities, infecting one hundred thousand people and killing thirty thousand. It highlighted the continual vulnerability to the China suffered, its public health problems being a symptom of chronic poverty, environmental instability, and political chaos.
Having witnessed the terrible devastation wrought by the 1932 epidemic, it is not surprising that the Nationalist Government was extremely alarmed when millions of refugees took to the roads to escape oncoming Japanese invasion in 1937. With Wuhan serving as the temporary capital of Nationalist China following the fall of Nanjing, many of these refugees soon began to arrive in the city. Lacking adequate accommodation and suffering aerial bombardments, Wuhan struggled to cope. Soon propagandists began to promote anti-epidemic measures as part of the broader war effort. Flies often serve as a vector for cholera infection. These insects were now portrayed as the equivalent of the invading Japanese army, and vice versa. The Nationalists were hardly unique in drawing such comparisons. As Edmund Russel has noted, throughout the modern era people have sought to anthropomorphize insects, turning them into conscious adversaries with wicked plans, whilst they have also sought to dehumanize enemy soldiers, suggesting that they need to be eradicated like insects. In 1938, the Nationalists claimed that the common fly and the Japanese army both posed an existential threat to China, proclaiming that ‘If you don’t kill it, it’s going to kill you.’
Wuhan eventually fell to the Japanese, meaning that Nationalist anti-epidemic measures were relocated to Chongqing. Tackling cholera remained a major task for the government during the war, particularly when a deadly epidemic struck Yunnan. In her recent book, Mary Brazelton demonstrates that while efforts to implement mass vaccination during the war were severely constrained, the expertise developed during this period would form a vital blueprint for the health campaigns implemented by the Chinese Communist Party after 1949. These campaigns would eventually vastly diminish the impact that cholera, in Wuhan as elsewhere in the People’s Republic. While the Chinese government was happy to take the credit for this, in reality cholera prevention was the culmination of decades of effort, conducted by numerous different organizations, both domestic and international. Despite these efforts, cholera remains a threat in the world today, as is most tragically demonstrated by the ongoing outbreak in Yemen. The strain of cholera has changed, yet the context for its transmission – poverty, sanitary collapse, and warfare – is strikingly similar to that found in early twentieth century China. Thus, as we enter the age of COVID-19 it is worth reflecting on the fact that we have not escaped the time of cholera.
Some Further Reading
- Brazelton, Mary Augusta, Mass Vaccination Citizens’ Bodies and State Power in Modern China, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2019
- MacPherson, Kerrie, “Cholera in China, 1820–1930: An Aspect of the Internationalization of Infectious Disease,” in Mark Elvin and Ts’ui-jung Liu (eds.), Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History, 487–519. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Peckham, Robert, Epidemics in Modern Asia. New Approaches to Asian History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016.
- Poon, Shuk-wah, “Cholera, Public Health, and the Politics of Water in Republican Guangzhou,” Modern Asian Studies, 47(2), 2013. 436-466
- Russell, Edmund. War and Nature : Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. Studies in Environment and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.