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‘A Darkly Mysterious Instrument’: Through China with John Thomson

06/07/2018

Dr Andrew Hillier discusses the China photographs of John Thomson (1837-1921) in the light of a recent exhibition of his work at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

One of two hundred images published in John Thomson’s Illustrations of China and its People, the ‘Cantonese official’, seen in figure 1, fixes the viewer with a look as intense as it must have been when he faced Thomson’s camera in 1869.[i] Magnified to many times its original size, it provided a particularly striking image in the recent exhibition of Thomson’s photographs of Siam, Angkor (Cambodia), Hong Kong and China, held at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS. Accompanied by two talks and a study-day, the exhibition provided an opportunity for a major re-assessment of Thomson’s work in East and Southeast Asia and its legacy.[ii]  Excellently displayed, with stunning images of landscape and people, it confirmed that Thomson was, as Jamie Carstairs said in his earlier blog, ‘probably the greatest of the nineteenth century photographers of China’.[iii] However, as the picture of this Cantonese official shows, the exhibition also raised questions about the role of a Western photographer in China during the treaty port era and how such work should be displayed today.

Fig. 1. Listed simply as ‘a Cantonese Gentleman’, the photograph was described by Thomson as ‘a salaried official who in process of time became … a mandarin of the sixth grade’, Illustrations of China, I, plate 22. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 650. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Unlike Thomson’s formal portraits of officials such as Prince Gong (Figure 2) and members of the Zongli Yamen, this more low-grade official is un-named. This is because, as with many of Thomson’s photographs, the purpose was not to portray an individual but to exemplify a particular Chinese ‘type’. Moreover, the image does not conform to the conventions of Chinese portraiture: the full face is not shown, part of it being in shade and, only the top half of the body can be seen.[iv] This suggests that, although the official must have agreed to being photographed, it may not have been done at his request and the resulting image may well not have met with his approval.

Fig. 2. Listed as ‘Prince Kung, China’, this is a formal portrait of Prince Gong, sixth son of Prince Daoguang, Illustrations of China, I, plate 1. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 692. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

This is not something that would have worried Thomson. It is clear from his commentary to Illustrations of China that, however, sympathetic he was towards Chinese people, he could often be superior and high-handed, amused by, but brushing aside, their fear that he was ‘a dangerous geomancer and that [his] camera was … a darkly mysterious instrument which … gave [him] power to … pierce the very soul of the natives’. As a result, Thomson often encountered, but was seemingly unperturbed by what he saw as, ‘the hatred of foreigners’, especially in and about large cities, such as Canton (Guangzhou) where this mandarin held office. On one memorable occasion, when photographing a bridge in Chaozhou, Guangdong province, he came under a hail of stones, one cracking the wet plate in the camera and causing him to beat a hasty retreat but not before he had taken the shot.[v]

Fig. 3. Chao-chow-fu Bridge, Kwangtung. Groups of people gathered on the bridge and began throwing stones. A vertical crack can be seen on the glass plate. The photograph appears in Illustrations of China, II, plate 8. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 290. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

On the other hand, Thomson was obviously an excellent communicator and established a good rapport with many of his subjects, whether they were Chinese officials posing in their formal robes or street vendors plying their trade. Critical of Qing officials, as a social commentator, he developed a great sympathy for these ordinary people, particularly the boat-women of Hong Kong and Canton, who certainly seem to have been willing to pose.

Listed as ‘boat girls’ in Illustrations of China, I, plate 7, this photograph was taken in Kwantung in 1869 and was one of a number of boat women around Canton and Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 684. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

It was an interest and sympathy that would later inform Thomson’s study of London street life.[vi] However, as with so many of these types of Victorian image, there is a disturbing tension between the depiction of such subjects, whether on the streets of Peking (Beijing) or London – coster-mongers, gamblers, beggars, and street vendors – and the aesthetic pleasure derived from viewing them in lavishly-produced volumes. [vii]

Fig. 5. One of a group of four ‘medical men’, the photograph shows a chiropodist in Beijing tending one patient, whilst another waits his turn. It appears in Illustrations of China, IV, plate 11. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 727. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY

Fig. 6. Listed as ‘one of the city guard, Peking’, the photograph shows a night-watchman with his wooden board, used to sound that all was well: ‘wrapped in his sheep-skin coat and in an under-clothing of rags, he lay through cold nights on the stone steps of the outer gateway and only roused himself to answer the call of his fellow-watchmen near at hand’, Illustrations of China, IV, plate 22. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 688a. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

If these images raise difficult questions today, as Thomson’s biographer, Richard Ovenden, reminded the audience in his entertaining lecture, to understand his work, we must start with his upbringing and early training in Edinburgh, a city where diligence and intellectual fervour were highly-valued.[viii] He probably first learned about photography during his apprenticeship to an optician and scientific instrument- maker, James Mackay Bryson, and then, impatient to start earning his living, set off for Singapore, where he arrived in May 1862 to join his brother, who had established a watchmaker’s business. Realising that photography was the way forward, Thomson spent the next eight years working in Southeast Asia and the China coast, returning to Britain from time to time.

Between 1870 and 1872, Thomson travelled extensively in China, before finally leaving Asia in the summer of 1872. Throughout this time, he used the wet-plate collodion process, a cumbersome exercise entailing dangerous chemicals and a substantial amount of bulky equipment, but which allowed for shorter exposure times and, in skilful hands, could produce high resolution images that recorded the finest detail. Although he is to- day chiefly known for the illustrated books that resulted from his travels, during these years, he was principally working as a commercial photographer, supplying the western community in Hong Kong and the treaty ports, with portraits and cartes de visite.[ix]

For Thomson, it was not just the photographs but also the accompanying text that was important. He wanted to inform and instruct and ‘share the pleasant experience of coming face to face with the scenes and people of far-off lands’. This included images of the continuing conflict between China and Britain, embodied in the ruins of the Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) destroyed by the British in 1860 (Figure 7), and the Chapel of the Sisters of Mary in Tientsin (Tianjin) where ten French nuns had been murdered in 1870 (Figure 8).

Fig. 7. The Bronze Temple, Yuen-min-Yuen at Wan-shou shan. One of the few buildings remaining in the ruins of the Summer Palace destroyed by the British in 1860. ‘Left ruinous and desolate designedly as one means of keeping the hostility of the nation active, and as an ever-ready witness to the barbarities to which foreigners will resort; many educated Chinese have that feeling and look upon our conduct as an event of heartless vandalism’, Illustrations of China, IV, plate 19. Photograph by John Thomson. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

Fig. 8. Chapel of the Sisters of Mary, which was destroyed, following the murder of ten French nuns in 1870, Illustrations of China, IV, plate 3. The photograph was probably taken not long afterwards in early 1871. Photograph by John Thomson, negative no. 528a. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

If Thomson never sought to question the validity of Britain’s presence, his attitude towards China was ambivalent. Whilst critical of what he saw as the corruption and obfuscation of Qing officials, he nevertheless could see the country’s potential. Beside the image of three officials entitled, ‘The Government of China’, he told the reader, ‘Western nations have woken the old dragon from her sleep of ages, and now she stands at bay armed with iron claws and fangs of foreign steel.’

It is difficult to gauge how much influence his work had on the understanding of China in Britain at the time. Although well-received, the four volumes of Illustrations of China were prohibitively expensive and accessible to only a few. Being commercially-minded, he kept pace with the changes that were taking place in the mass-production of books and magazines, including the more sophisticated forms of wood engraving of photographic images (Figure 9). He wrote and published extensively, particularly in the Graphic and the Illustrated London News, and produced cheaper versions of his work, the most popular being With a Camera in China.[x]

Fig. 9. Travelling chiropodists: a wood engraving based on the image at fig. 5. Drawn by E. Ronjat and engraved by T.H. Hildibrand, it formed one of the illustrations in a cheaper more accessible version of Illustrations of China, viz: John Thomson, The Land and People of China: a Short Account of the Geography, Religion, Social Life, Arts Industries and Government of China and its People (London: SPCK, 1876). Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC.BY.

In normal circumstances, this might have had some influence but, by the late 1890s, relations with China were at a low ebb. As western nations and Japan competed for large swathes of its territory, the Boxer Movement was gathering pace, culminating in the Siege of the Legations in 1900. Thomson’s photographs would soon be overtaken by a new wave of images, depicting the devastation following the Siege and the public execution of Boxers and their alleged associates, and that that also raise questions about display and interpretation today.[xi]

The after-life of the photographic image was a recurring theme during an intense and varied study-day – the initial developing and cropping (at which Thomson was particularly adept), its use in books and magazines, and as a political and social instrument, and its display and interpretation over the course of time. This recent exhibition displayed Thomson’s images in a way that neither he nor his subjects could have envisaged. With such high-quality negatives, the magnification undoubtedly enhanced their impact and the resulting detail of the formal portraits and landscapes was quite breath-taking.[xii]

But in the case of the more intrusive images of Chinese ‘types’, the process is possibly more questionable. If, as Nick Pearce has said, ‘these photographs of the natives may make us feel uncomfortable’, arguably this discomfort can only be increased by such magnification. Coupled with Thomson’s moving text, images such as that of the night-watchman become all the more distressing.[xiii]  Moreover, taken, as they were, against a frequently hostile background and recorded in lavishly-produced books, they are emblematic of Britain’s imperial presence in an era that is still officially described as ‘the century of national humiliation’. Does this way of showing them not implicitly legitimise that presence?

That there is no easy answer to these questions is clear from the image of the Cantonese official (Figure 1). On one view, the enlargement has increased the sense of objectification.  But on another, it has helped to transcend his anonymity and enhance his individuality. We know little about him but, for many viewers, his face and the intensity of that look will have remained with them long after they had left the gallery. This may be the measure of Thomson’s skill, not only as a photographer but also as a communicator.

[i] J. Thompson, FRGS, Illustrations of China and its people: a series of two hundred photographs with letterpress description of the places and people represented (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle, 1873-1874). For Thomson, generally, see Richard Ovenden, John Thomson (1837-1921): Photographer (Edinburgh: The Stationery Office Ltd, 1997) and Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China: Western Photographs, 1861-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2010), pp. 214-256. For Thomson’s China photographs, see China: Through the Lens of John Thomson, 1868-1872  (Bangkok: River Books, 2010), the second edition of the catalogue originally prepared for the exhibition of the forerunner of this exhibition at the Beijing World Art Museum in 2009.

[ii] ‘China and Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson’, Brunei Gallery, SOAS, 13 April – 23 June 2018 ; ‘John Thomson: Reframing Materials, Images, and Archives, 7 June 2018’. The original negatives are held at the Library of the Wellcome Collection and are accessible on-line. This exhibition will next be shown at Bournemouth starting on 3 November.

[iii] Jamie Carstairs, ‘Restoring John Thomson’s Grave’, Visualising China, 31 May 2018,  http://hpchina.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/05/31/restoring-john-thomsons-grave/

[iv] Cf. Tong Bingxue, ‘John Thomson: a Humanist View of the World in China’ in China: Through the Lens of John Thomson, 1868-1872 (Bangkok: River Books, 2010), p.10 and the commentary to the plate on p.119.

[v] For the quotation, see Introduction to Illustrations of China  and, generally, James R. Ryan, Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1997), pp. 61-68 and 161-167.

[vi] Adolphe Smith and John Thomson, Street Life in London: With Permanent Photographic Illustrations (London: Sampson, Low, Martson, Searle and Rivington, 1877-78).

[vii] Cf. Ovenden, Thomson, pp. 72-109 and Ryan, Picturing Empire, pp. 173-180.

[viii] Richard Ovenden, ‘John Thomson: Master Photographer’, SOAS 14 June 2018.

[ix] Ovenden, Thomson, pp. 1-5 and 167-175. Only a handful of the cartes de visite can be traced to-day as Angela Cheung explained in her study-day paper, ‘What is a photograph? Reflections on Thomson’s Carte de Visite production in China’.

[x] Through China with a Camera (London: Harper, 1899), Ovenden, Thomson, pp. 175- 183.

[xi] James Hevia, English Lessons: The pedagogy of imperialism in nineteenth-century China (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), pp. 195-240.

[xii] For a detailed discussion of Thomson’s formal portraits and landscapes, see Ovenden, Thomson, pp. 109-166.

[xiii] Nick Pearce, ‘John Thomson’s China: 1868-1872’, in China, p.8.

Restoring John Thomson’s grave

31/05/2018

Jamie Carstairs, Historical Photographs of China Project manager, has joined the committee seeking to restore photographer John Thomson’s grave. Here he explains why.

An ad hoc group has come together to try to raise the funds needed to restore the grave of John Thomson (1837-1921), whose final resting place is in a south London cemetery.  The badly eroded headstone marking his grave has fallen over and is lying flat on the ground. The inscription is barely legible. Surely we can do better than this to preserve the memory of a man whose photographs of China, amongst other places, so shape the way we picture the nineteenth century.

The fallen over grave stone of John Thomson, who is buried alongside his wife and his son Arthur, in Streatham Cemetery, Tooting, London. Photograph by Terry Bennett.

The pioneering Scottish photographer geographer and traveller, John Thomson, is rightly acclaimed as probably the greatest of the nineteenth century photographers of China.  His ten years’ work as a photographer in Asia led to the publication of Illustrations of China and Its People in 1873/4.  In four volumes, 200 fine documentary and portrait photographs are enhanced with Thomson’s astute and informative text.

Gochi, a young Baksa woman, Taiwan, 1871. A photograph by John Thomson, which was published in his Illustrations of China and Its People, Vol. II, Plate IV ‘Types of Pepohoan’ (1873/4).  Maxwell Family Collection (Mx01-076), courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

A scan of Thomson’s stereoscopic negative numbered 770. ‘Gochi, a Baksa girl 1871’. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

A portrait of Gochi. Thomson’s negative numbered 782. ‘Pepohoan girl, Baksa, Formosa, 20 years old.’ Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

In 1878, further social documentary photographic work resulted in Street Life in London. Adolphe Smith provided much of the text, which is presented in a similar style as in Illustrations of China and Its People. Street Life in London brought to bear ‘the precision of photography in illustration of our subject’ – London’s poor – memorably personified as ‘Caney’ the Clown, the ‘Crawlers’ and the Flying Dustmen.

Thomson also photographed in Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Cyprus. He was a member of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society) from 1879 and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.  Thomson taught photography to Isabella Bird, who also photographed in China in the mid-1890s.

John Thomson’s photographs provide a rich and lasting visual legacy of later nineteenth century Asia – and of London. It seems only right that we should restore his grave in London as a fitting memorial to the man himself.

If you would like to donate to renovate Thomson’s grave, you can make a contribution via JustGiving, at https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/johnthomsongravestone

Many thanks from the restoration committee: Terry Bennett, Michael Pritchard, Jamie Carstairs, Betty Yao.

Buddhist monks playing chess, Temple of the Five Hundred Gods, Guangzhou. Edward Bowra Collection (Bo01-099), courtesy of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs.

The exhibition of superb large prints from Thomson’s glass negatives: China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson, is on at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London. Admission free. Exhibition ends on 23rd June 2018!

Yang-May Ooi interviewing Betty Yao at the exhibition ‘China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson’, at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, University of London. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Recommended books:

China and Its Peoples in early Photographs – An Unabridged Reprint of the Classic 1873/4 Work by John Thomson (Dover Publications, New York, 1982).

Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs by John Thomson (Dover Publications, New York, 1994) – an unabridged republication of Street Life in London.

Defend Wuhan!

16/05/2018

‘Defend Wuhan’, banner on wall, Wuhan, 1938. HPC Miscellaneous collection, Bi-s166 © 2018 Historical Photographs of China

We spotted this on Ebay, and bought it along with a small group of prints evidently taken in Wuhan during the Sino-Japanese war. They came from an album of prints that was being sold, page by page. A little research provided us with the owner’s name. Briton Leslie Reginald Frederick Shrimpton (1910-1964) served with the Royal Navy on the Yangzi River gunboat HMS Falcon in 1937-39. The photographs are undated, but must have been taken during the period before the fall of Wuhan to the Japanese army in the summer of 1938. The ship was certainly in Wuhan in June 1938.

Shrimpton’s other photographs, as far as we could see them on Ebay, were unremarkable, some were purchased from photographers, but others are not taken by professionals. He may have taken them, but at the very least he selected them for his album, his eye  evidently caught by these large banners and posters. Such records of the visual propaganda on China’s streets and buildings that underpinned Nationalist China’s dogged resistance to the Japanese invasion are quite rare. It prompts us to reflect on else might yet be in homes overseas, in the care of families like Shrimpton’s, and what else they might yet offer us by way of records of China’s past.

Defend Wuhan!

16/05/2018

‘Defend Wuhan’, banner on wall, Wuhan, 1938. HPC Miscellaneous collection, Bi-s166 © 2018 Historical Photographs of China

We spotted this on Ebay, and bought it along with a small group of prints evidently taken in Wuhan during the Sino-Japanese war. They came from an album of prints that was being sold, page by page. A little research provided us with the owner’s name. Briton Leslie Reginald Frederick Shrimpton (1910-1964) served with the Royal Navy on the Yangzi River gunboat HMS Falcon in 1937-39. The photographs are undated, but must have been taken during the period before the fall of Wuhan to the Japanese army in the summer of 1938. The ship was certainly in Wuhan in June 1938.

Shrimpton’s other photographs, as far as we could see them on Ebay, were unremarkable, some were purchased from photographers, but others are not taken by professionals. He may have taken them, but at the very least he selected them for his album, his eye  evidently caught by these large banners and posters. Such records of the visual propaganda on China’s streets and buildings that underpinned Nationalist China’s dogged resistance to the Japanese invasion are quite rare. It prompts us to reflect on else might yet be in homes overseas, in the care of families like Shrimpton’s, and what else they might yet offer us by way of records of China’s past.

‘With a Camera in Yunnan’: the Ethnographic Expeditions of Fred W. Carey, RGS

27/04/2018

PART 2 – COLLECTING AND DISPLAY

In this second blog, Dr Andrew Hillier explores how the International Exhibition in Paris (1900) provided this young Customs man with the opportunity to collect local costumes in Yunnan but how their acquisition and display raises further questions about imperial activity in China’s borderland areas.[i]

In Search of Costumes

Having developed at least some understanding of the people to the south of Szemao (also spelled Semao or Ssu-mao, now Simao), in March 1899, Carey set off once again, this time ‘striking south-west, through a region never before traversed by Europeans, along a road followed by cotton caravans coming up from Bulma’.[ii] Travelling without ‘a comrade’, his caravan comprised seven pack-animals with two muleteers, a servant, a coolie who carried his ‘snap-shot camera’, and a soldier – ‘a picked man from the Prefect’s Yamen’ to whom he entrusted his shot-gun.

The main purpose of this more extensive expedition was to gather ‘as much interesting material as possible’ for the International Exhibition due to be held in Paris the following year. Although, as on previous occasions, Sir Robert Hart (the Inspector-General of the Chinese Maritime Customs) played a part, the Zongli Yamen (roughly, the equivalent of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs), appointed a French diplomat, C.E. Vapereau as Commisaire-Général to oversee its organisation.[iii]  Whilst the expedition provided Carey with the opportunity to put his knowledge of Yunnan’s diverse cultures to good effect, it also raises questions as to whether this was a further exercise of imperial power, particularly given the methods he used to obtain the items.

Almost immediately, he was negotiating to purchase ‘the pretty costume of the “Hua Yao Pa I” women’ but, as he explained in his RGS paper, he had to do so ‘without exciting suspicion as to [his] motives’, as they did not want them to be removed from the village.

The ‘pretty costume’ of Hua Yao Shans, exhibited in Paris at the International Exhibition. Frederic Carey Collection, FC01-26 © 2011 Ann Kinross.

Arriving in Panang, he was keen to buy a costume belonging to the Akka women, which included an elaborate head-dress. Again, they were reluctant to part with it because it was vested with religious beliefs but, eventually, the headman relented. The next morning, ‘followed by a crowd of villagers, [he] appeared, bringing a complete dress with the hat’, telling Carey that nearly all the women in the village had been engaged in making it over-night.

A similar request a few days later in the Kawa region was rebuffed, but he struck lucky in the market at Meng Lien, where he ‘obtained several curiosities, including the gala dresses of the Kawa and Lohei women’ and purchased ‘without difficulty’ another of the Shan costumes, ‘trimmed with silver and elaborately embroidered’. As before, he covered an extraordinary distance, taking short cuts which were too steep for the mules, snapping pictures as he went and compiling notes and short vocabularies of key words of the various languages he came across. After thirty-three days, he was back at the Customs House, boasting a large collection of items.

The International Exhibition

These had to be transported, first by mule and then by river to Shanghai, for onward shipment to Paris. The catalogue for the China Pavilion lists seventeen items of tribal clothing as coming from the area around Szemao, most of which presumably emanated from Carey’s efforts.  They are identified simply by reference to the name of the particular tribe – for example, costumes de femme Shan: tribu Lu: Ētats Shans Chinois – and without any ethnographic explanation or context, save in the case of the Kawa, where a distinction is drawn between tribu civilisée and  tribu sauvage.[iv] Participation in previous exhibitions had been opposed by the Chinese elite, because they had no say in the selection of the items to be displayed, many of which were chosen (principally by the CMC) with an emphasis on their ‘primitive’ aspects. However, the Paris exhibition was different. As we have seen, Vapereau had been appointed by the Chinese government, and this was with a view to displaying the progressive aspects of the country’s industry and culture. [v]

If there was a problem, it was in the lack of any explanation in the catalogue in relation to the items that were displayed. Divorced from their context and deprived of their spiritual or ‘superstitious’ significance, these emblems of tribal identity lost their original meaning, but it is unclear how they were perceived by visitors to the Pavilion and what new meaning they may have acquired.

The costume worn by the ‘Pa-I’ or ‘coloured bodice’ Shans and exhibited in Paris, consisting ‘of a turban embroidered with gold thread, a short tight-sleeved jacket, a long white petticoat, and a coloured skirt’. In the RGS article, the photograph is captioned, ‘Pa-I’ Shans Playing at the love-game of throwing coloured balls’, Carey adding that he was ‘pelted with the love-missiles whenever[he] appeared in the valley. Frederic Carey Collection, FC01-08 © 2011 Ann Kinross.

Akk’a woman, Shan States. Another of the costumes exhibited in Paris. Frederic Carey Collection, FC01-02 © 2011 Ann Kinross.

Whilst press coverage of the exhibits seems to have been limited, the traditional Chinese buildings were praised, even if it was the French who received the plaudits, one review stating that ‘la section Chinoise etait admirablement presentée par M. Ch. Vapereau’.[vi]

‘Le Palais Chinois’ from Le Panorama: Exposition Universelle [de] 1900 (Paris: Librairie d’Art, 1900). Note the depiction of ‘Chinese visitors’. Image courtesy of University of Bristol Library, Special Collections.

However, just as the Exhibition was opening, news was arriving of the Boxer Uprising and these events, culminating in the Siege of the Legations, must have overshadowed any interest in the China Pavilion. They probably also overshadowed Carey’s paper, which, timed to coincide with the Exhibition, was read to the RGS in February 1900.  Reflecting the Society’s position as an important imperial institution, a number of speakers, in the ensuing discussion, referred to their time in the region, a Major Yate speaking of his work demarcating the border and annexing the southern Shan states. Published in the Society’s journal, the paper and the discussion implicitly reinforced the legitimacy of Britain’s presence to the south of the border and its right to explore and map those parts that remained China’s sovereign territory and classify the peoples living there.[vii

An Abiding Interest

Worrying though the events of the Uprising were, they did not diminish Carey’s interest in the region and its peoples. He continued to travel extensively, photographing festivals, funerals and exotic female ‘fashions’.

‘The delight of the small boys … is the Dragon, a fearful animal, wonderfully made with wicker basket work and coloured cloth. Each of the vertebra …is supported by a man’. Frederic Carey Collection, FC01-24 © 2011 Ann Kinross.

Carey was also interested in simple agricultural implements, such as a water- wheel for irrigating the fields and an ingenious ‘labour-saving device’ for skinning rice, both of which he displayed in the lantern slides that illustrated his talks.

A Shan water-wheel used to irrigate the fields. Frederic Carey Collection, FC01-16 © 2011 Ann Kinross.

A rice-skinner: ‘… a wooden log, hollowed at one end, and with a piece of hard wood fastened through the other. The log is evenly balanced and a stream of water is directed onto the hollow end, which sinks down under the weight of water, empties itself and rises again. The other end falls continually onto the grain and loosens the husk’. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

After a slow start, Carey’s career was beginning to progress. In 1900, he was appointed Assistant-in-Charge and, because no consular official was prepared to serve at Szemao, he enjoyed the unique distinction of being temporarily appointed the treaty port’s consul. Even in this remote area, it was, in his words, an ‘exceptionally critical and dangerous’ time, and one in which he ‘succeeded in upholding British prestige’.[viii] In December 1901, Carey began his first period of furlough and, whilst in England, he delivered his paper to the Camera Club.[ix]  Compared to the RGS, this was a very different audience, one which would not have had the same ethnographic interest nor have necessarily subscribed to the imperial ethos inherent in the exercise. The content of the paper, however, was similar and, at a time when demonization of China was coming into vogue, the tone is relatively free of imperial condescension.

On his return, he was appointed Acting Commissioner at Sanduao, a small port in Fujian. It would be another sixteen years before he achieved his first full appointment at Ningbo. Heavily involved as co-chairman of the Chinese-Foreign Famine Relief Committee, on leaving, he was hailed as the city’s ‘best-loved Commissioner’.[x] Transferred to Swatow in 1925, Carey retired two years later. Sadly losing much of his money in what turned out to be a fraudulent investment scheme, he returned to China to work for the Fairey Aviation Company and died after a short illness in Shanghai in January 1931.[xi]

Apart from the odd snippet of information, we know little of his life after he left Szemao. It is clear from his talks, including one he gave on the BBC radio in 1922, that he never lost his fascination for the region and its people, but, although he served as Assistant Commissioner at Tengyueh (Tengchong), Yunnan, from 1909 to 1911, he does not seem to have taken any further photographs, another puzzle in the life of this enigmatic Customs man.

On one view, Carey was a typical late Victorian explorer, seeking and recording archaic peoples before they became extinct and gathering information to further Britain’s empire project. If photography was one way of asserting power over these people, collecting and displaying their costumes at an International Exhibition was its logical extension. However, with its complex ethnic mix, the borderland of Yunnan had its own special characteristics and was a region where the Qing was still powerful. Whatever view is taken of Carey’s methods, not least the concealment of his intentions when taking photographs and collecting costumes, he had a genuine interest in these people, who were so very different from the Chinese, and the preservation of their identities.  Far from wanting ‘to insinuate alien forms of practice into their everyday life’, he believed that their culture needed to be respected and preserved. But that was not because, applying Darwinian principles, he saw it as evidence of ‘primitive man’. On the contrary, he saw it as vibrant and existing in its own right but in danger of being absorbed and hybridised by the rapidly- expanding Chinese population and of losing its own ‘geographic imaginary’. The problem was that one of the main threats to their identity stemmed from the demarcation and imposition of new borders in Yunnan, an exercise in which the Chinese, British and French were all engaged.[xii]

Where to draw the line between what was acceptable scientific inquiry and racial condescension will always be problematic. As Sadiah Qureshi has emphasised, this was ‘a period when who could be a legitimate contributor to the making of natural knowledge and what counted as science were being re-forged’ and recognising this ‘pliable disciplinary landscape’ allows for a better understanding of ethnological and anthropological practice at this time. This, I suggest, is the context in which we should look at Carey’s explorations and the work he carried out.[xiii]

Much of Carey’s life remains a puzzle, not least, why he first joined the CMC only as a member of the Outdoor Staff. Moreover, for all his ethnographic interest, there remains the question of how this apparently gregarious young man should have not only survived but, seemingly, relished his four years in such a remote out-port. It is a truism that travel is a form of self-discovery and it may be that, in seeking to understand these alien cultures, he found a way of understanding himself.[xiv] If so, this may explain why he then stopped taking photographs. When he left Yunnan, he may have decided he no longer needed his camera.

[i] For the first blog, see http://visualisingchina.net/blog/2018/03/29/with-a-camera-in-yunnan-the-ethnographic-expeditions-of-frederic-w-carey-rgs/.

[ii] See the map in the first blog. Save where otherwise stated, quotations are from the paper read on his behalf to the Royal Geographical Society, ‘Journeys in the Chinese Shan States’ The Geographical Journal (15) May, 1900, pp. 486-515.

[iii] Hart later acknowledged that Vapereau made ‘an excellent job’ of planning the China Pavilion and its display, Hart to Campbell, 4 October 1896 (1038), Fairbank, The I.G. in Peking.

[iv] Chine: Catalogue Special des Objets Exposes dans La Section Chinoise à L’Exposition Universelle de Paris, 1900 (Paris: Charles Noblet et Fils, 1900), p.104 and see also pp. 91 and 133: https://archive.org/stream/chinecataloguesp00unse#page/100/mode/2up/search/szemao

[v] Hyungju Hur, ‘Staging Modern Statehood: World Exhibitions and the Rhetoric of Publishing in Late Qing China, 1851-1910’, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, (2012), pp. 2-7 and 11-35, especially, p.34.

[vi] Exposition Universelle Internationale de 1900 à Paris: Rapport général administratif et technique, Vol. 5, (Paris: 1902), pp. 48-49, which also includes photographs of the China Pavilions. https://archive.org/stream/expositionuniver05expo#page/48/mode/2up/search/chinoise  The China Pavilion is not mentioned in Richard D. Mandell, Paris 1900: The Great World’s Fair (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967).

[vii] Robert A. Stafford, ‘Scientific Exploration and Empire’ in Andrew Porter (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire, iii. The Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 294-319 at pp. 295- 302.

[viii] Lo Hui-Min and Helen Bryant, British Diplomatic and Consular Establishments in China, 1793-1949, vol. 2, 1843-1949 (Taiwan: SMC Publishing Inc. 1988), p.399. Many thanks to Robert Nield for this reference.

[ix] “‘With a Camera in Yunnan’, A Lecture delivered by Mr Fred W. Carey, FRGS, 2 April 1903”, The Journal of the Camera Club (17) November 1903, pp. 138- 145.

[x] North-China Herald, 24 May 1924, p291, ‘Notable Work in Famine Fighting’, NCH, 18 August 1923, p.449.

[xi] Obituary, NCH, 1 January 1931, p.50.

[xii] James Hevia, English Lessons: The pedagogy of imperialism in nineteenth-century China

(Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 21; Sao Saimong Mangrai, The Shan States and British Annexation (Ithaca, NY., Cornell University, 1965), Amiria J.M. Henare, Museums, Anthropology and Imperial Exchange (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.210; see also the report of Carey’s talk in Ningbo, ‘The Hundred Tribes of S.W. China’, NCH, 16 February 1922, p.434.

[xiii] Sadiah Qureshi, Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), pp. 270-284, quote at p.280.

[xiv] Cf. Douglas Kerr and Julia Kuehn, ‘Introduction’, in Kerr and Kuehn (eds), A Century of Travels in China: Critical Essays on Travel Writing from the 1840s to the 1940s (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007), pp. 1-11 at p.5.

 

‘With a Camera in Yunnan’: the Ethnographic Expeditions of Fred W. Carey, RGS

27/04/2018

PART 2 – COLLECTING AND DISPLAY

In this second blog, Dr Andrew Hillier explores how the International Exhibition in Paris (1900) provided this young Customs man with the opportunity to collect local costumes in Yunnan but how their acquisition and display raises further questions about imperial activity in China’s borderland areas.[i]

In Search of Costumes

Having developed at least some understanding of the people to the south of Szemao (also spelled Semao or Ssu-mao, now Simao), in March 1899, Carey set off once again, this time ‘striking south-west, through a region never before traversed by Europeans, along a road followed by cotton caravans coming up from Bulma’.[ii] Travelling without ‘a comrade’, his caravan comprised seven pack-animals with two muleteers, a servant, a coolie who carried his ‘snap-shot camera’, and a soldier – ‘a picked man from the Prefect’s Yamen’ to whom he entrusted his shot-gun.

The main purpose of this more extensive expedition was to gather ‘as much interesting material as possible’ for the International Exhibition due to be held in Paris the following year. Although, as on previous occasions, Sir Robert Hart (the Inspector-General of the Chinese Maritime Customs) played a part, the Zongli Yamen (roughly, the equivalent of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs), appointed a French diplomat, C.E. Vapereau as Commisaire-Général to oversee its organisation.[iii]  Whilst the expedition provided Carey with the opportunity to put his knowledge of Yunnan’s diverse cultures to good effect, it also raises questions as to whether this was a further exercise of imperial power, particularly given the methods he used to obtain the items.

Almost immediately, he was negotiating to purchase ‘the pretty costume of the “Hua Yao Pa I” women’ but, as he explained in his RGS paper, he had to do so ‘without exciting suspicion as to [his] motives’, as they did not want them to be removed from the village.

The ‘pretty costume’ of Hua Yao Shans, exhibited in Paris at the International Exhibition. Frederic Carey Collection, FC01-26 © 2011 Ann Kinross.

Arriving in Panang, he was keen to buy a costume belonging to the Akka women, which included an elaborate head-dress. Again, they were reluctant to part with it because it was vested with religious beliefs but, eventually, the headman relented. The next morning, ‘followed by a crowd of villagers, [he] appeared, bringing a complete dress with the hat’, telling Carey that nearly all the women in the village had been engaged in making it over-night.

A similar request a few days later in the Kawa region was rebuffed, but he struck lucky in the market at Meng Lien, where he ‘obtained several curiosities, including the gala dresses of the Kawa and Lohei women’ and purchased ‘without difficulty’ another of the Shan costumes, ‘trimmed with silver and elaborately embroidered’. As before, he covered an extraordinary distance, taking short cuts which were too steep for the mules, snapping pictures as he went and compiling notes and short vocabularies of key words of the various languages he came across. After thirty-three days, he was back at the Customs House, boasting a large collection of items.

The International Exhibition

These had to be transported, first by mule and then by river to Shanghai, for onward shipment to Paris. The catalogue for the China Pavilion lists seventeen items of tribal clothing as coming from the area around Szemao, most of which presumably emanated from Carey’s efforts.  They are identified simply by reference to the name of the particular tribe – for example, costumes de femme Shan: tribu Lu: Ētats Shans Chinois – and without any ethnographic explanation or context, save in the case of the Kawa, where a distinction is drawn between tribu civilisée and  tribu sauvage.[iv] Participation in previous exhibitions had been opposed by the Chinese elite, because they had no say in the selection of the items to be displayed, many of which were chosen (principally by the CMC) with an emphasis on their ‘primitive’ aspects. However, the Paris exhibition was different. As we have seen, Vapereau had been appointed by the Chinese government, and this was with a view to displaying the progressive aspects of the country’s industry and culture. [v]

If there was a problem, it was in the lack of any explanation in the catalogue in relation to the items that were displayed. Divorced from their context and deprived of their spiritual or ‘superstitious’ significance, these emblems of tribal identity lost their original meaning, but it is unclear how they were perceived by visitors to the Pavilion and what new meaning they may have acquired.

The costume worn by the ‘Pa-I’ or ‘coloured bodice’ Shans and exhibited in Paris, consisting ‘of a turban embroidered with gold thread, a short tight-sleeved jacket, a long white petticoat, and a coloured skirt’. In the RGS article, the photograph is captioned, ‘Pa-I’ Shans Playing at the love-game of throwing coloured balls’, Carey adding that he was ‘pelted with the love-missiles whenever[he] appeared in the valley. Frederic Carey Collection, FC01-08 © 2011 Ann Kinross.

Akk’a woman, Shan States. Another of the costumes exhibited in Paris. Frederic Carey Collection, FC01-02 © 2011 Ann Kinross.

Whilst press coverage of the exhibits seems to have been limited, the traditional Chinese buildings were praised, even if it was the French who received the plaudits, one review stating that ‘la section Chinoise etait admirablement presentée par M. Ch. Vapereau’.[vi]

‘Le Palais Chinois’ from Le Panorama: Exposition Universelle [de] 1900 (Paris: Librairie d’Art, 1900). Note the depiction of ‘Chinese visitors’. Image courtesy of University of Bristol Library, Special Collections.

However, just as the Exhibition was opening, news was arriving of the Boxer Uprising and these events, culminating in the Siege of the Legations, must have overshadowed any interest in the China Pavilion. They probably also overshadowed Carey’s paper, which, timed to coincide with the Exhibition, was read to the RGS in February 1900.  Reflecting the Society’s position as an important imperial institution, a number of speakers, in the ensuing discussion, referred to their time in the region, a Major Yate speaking of his work demarcating the border and annexing the southern Shan states. Published in the Society’s journal, the paper and the discussion implicitly reinforced the legitimacy of Britain’s presence to the south of the border and its right to explore and map those parts that remained China’s sovereign territory and classify the peoples living there.[vii

An Abiding Interest

Worrying though the events of the Uprising were, they did not diminish Carey’s interest in the region and its peoples. He continued to travel extensively, photographing festivals, funerals and exotic female ‘fashions’.

‘The delight of the small boys … is the Dragon, a fearful animal, wonderfully made with wicker basket work and coloured cloth. Each of the vertebra …is supported by a man’. Frederic Carey Collection, FC01-24 © 2011 Ann Kinross.

Carey was also interested in simple agricultural implements, such as a water- wheel for irrigating the fields and an ingenious ‘labour-saving device’ for skinning rice, both of which he displayed in the lantern slides that illustrated his talks.

A Shan water-wheel used to irrigate the fields. Frederic Carey Collection, FC01-16 © 2011 Ann Kinross.

A rice-skinner: ‘… a wooden log, hollowed at one end, and with a piece of hard wood fastened through the other. The log is evenly balanced and a stream of water is directed onto the hollow end, which sinks down under the weight of water, empties itself and rises again. The other end falls continually onto the grain and loosens the husk’. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

After a slow start, Carey’s career was beginning to progress. In 1900, he was appointed Assistant-in-Charge and, because no consular official was prepared to serve at Szemao, he enjoyed the unique distinction of being temporarily appointed the treaty port’s consul. Even in this remote area, it was, in his words, an ‘exceptionally critical and dangerous’ time, and one in which he ‘succeeded in upholding British prestige’.[viii] In December 1901, Carey began his first period of furlough and, whilst in England, he delivered his paper to the Camera Club.[ix]  Compared to the RGS, this was a very different audience, one which would not have had the same ethnographic interest nor have necessarily subscribed to the imperial ethos inherent in the exercise. The content of the paper, however, was similar and, at a time when demonization of China was coming into vogue, the tone is relatively free of imperial condescension.

On his return, he was appointed Acting Commissioner at Sanduao, a small port in Fujian. It would be another sixteen years before he achieved his first full appointment at Ningbo. Heavily involved as co-chairman of the Chinese-Foreign Famine Relief Committee, on leaving, he was hailed as the city’s ‘best-loved Commissioner’.[x] Transferred to Swatow in 1925, Carey retired two years later. Sadly losing much of his money in what turned out to be a fraudulent investment scheme, he returned to China to work for the Fairey Aviation Company and died after a short illness in Shanghai in January 1931.[xi]

Apart from the odd snippet of information, we know little of his life after he left Szemao. It is clear from his talks, including one he gave on the BBC radio in 1922, that he never lost his fascination for the region and its people, but, although he served as Assistant Commissioner at Tengyueh (Tengchong), Yunnan, from 1909 to 1911, he does not seem to have taken any further photographs, another puzzle in the life of this enigmatic Customs man.

On one view, Carey was a typical late Victorian explorer, seeking and recording archaic peoples before they became extinct and gathering information to further Britain’s empire project. If photography was one way of asserting power over these people, collecting and displaying their costumes at an International Exhibition was its logical extension. However, with its complex ethnic mix, the borderland of Yunnan had its own special characteristics and was a region where the Qing was still powerful. Whatever view is taken of Carey’s methods, not least the concealment of his intentions when taking photographs and collecting costumes, he had a genuine interest in these people, who were so very different from the Chinese, and the preservation of their identities.  Far from wanting ‘to insinuate alien forms of practice into their everyday life’, he believed that their culture needed to be respected and preserved. But that was not because, applying Darwinian principles, he saw it as evidence of ‘primitive man’. On the contrary, he saw it as vibrant and existing in its own right but in danger of being absorbed and hybridised by the rapidly- expanding Chinese population and of losing its own ‘geographic imaginary’. The problem was that one of the main threats to their identity stemmed from the demarcation and imposition of new borders in Yunnan, an exercise in which the Chinese, British and French were all engaged.[xii]

Where to draw the line between what was acceptable scientific inquiry and racial condescension will always be problematic. As Sadiah Qureshi has emphasised, this was ‘a period when who could be a legitimate contributor to the making of natural knowledge and what counted as science were being re-forged’ and recognising this ‘pliable disciplinary landscape’ allows for a better understanding of ethnological and anthropological practice at this time. This, I suggest, is the context in which we should look at Carey’s explorations and the work he carried out.[xiii]

Much of Carey’s life remains a puzzle, not least, why he first joined the CMC only as a member of the Outdoor Staff. Moreover, for all his ethnographic interest, there remains the question of how this apparently gregarious young man should have not only survived but, seemingly, relished his four years in such a remote out-port. It is a truism that travel is a form of self-discovery and it may be that, in seeking to understand these alien cultures, he found a way of understanding himself.[xiv] If so, this may explain why he then stopped taking photographs. When he left Yunnan, he may have decided he no longer needed his camera.

[i] For the first blog, see http://visualisingchina.net/blog/2018/03/29/with-a-camera-in-yunnan-the-ethnographic-expeditions-of-frederic-w-carey-rgs/.

[ii] See the map in the first blog. Save where otherwise stated, quotations are from the paper read on his behalf to the Royal Geographical Society, ‘Journeys in the Chinese Shan States’ The Geographical Journal (15) May, 1900, pp. 486-515.

[iii] Hart later acknowledged that Vapereau made ‘an excellent job’ of planning the China Pavilion and its display, Hart to Campbell, 4 October 1896 (1038), Fairbank, The I.G. in Peking.

[iv] Chine: Catalogue Special des Objets Exposes dans La Section Chinoise à L’Exposition Universelle de Paris, 1900 (Paris: Charles Noblet et Fils, 1900), p.104 and see also pp. 91 and 133: https://archive.org/stream/chinecataloguesp00unse#page/100/mode/2up/search/szemao

[v] Hyungju Hur, ‘Staging Modern Statehood: World Exhibitions and the Rhetoric of Publishing in Late Qing China, 1851-1910’, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, (2012), pp. 2-7 and 11-35, especially, p.34.

[vi] Exposition Universelle Internationale de 1900 à Paris: Rapport général administratif et technique, Vol. 5, (Paris: 1902), pp. 48-49, which also includes photographs of the China Pavilions. https://archive.org/stream/expositionuniver05expo#page/48/mode/2up/search/chinoise  The China Pavilion is not mentioned in Richard D. Mandell, Paris 1900: The Great World’s Fair (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967).

[vii] Robert A. Stafford, ‘Scientific Exploration and Empire’ in Andrew Porter (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire, iii. The Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 294-319 at pp. 295- 302.

[viii] Lo Hui-Min and Helen Bryant, British Diplomatic and Consular Establishments in China, 1793-1949, vol. 2, 1843-1949 (Taiwan: SMC Publishing Inc. 1988), p.399. Many thanks to Robert Nield for this reference.

[ix] “‘With a Camera in Yunnan’, A Lecture delivered by Mr Fred W. Carey, FRGS, 2 April 1903”, The Journal of the Camera Club (17) November 1903, pp. 138- 145.

[x] North-China Herald, 24 May 1924, p291, ‘Notable Work in Famine Fighting’, NCH, 18 August 1923, p.449.

[xi] Obituary, NCH, 1 January 1931, p.50.

[xii] James Hevia, English Lessons: The pedagogy of imperialism in nineteenth-century China

(Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 21; Sao Saimong Mangrai, The Shan States and British Annexation (Ithaca, NY., Cornell University, 1965), Amiria J.M. Henare, Museums, Anthropology and Imperial Exchange (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.210; see also the report of Carey’s talk in Ningbo, ‘The Hundred Tribes of S.W. China’, NCH, 16 February 1922, p.434.

[xiii] Sadiah Qureshi, Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), pp. 270-284, quote at p.280.

[xiv] Cf. Douglas Kerr and Julia Kuehn, ‘Introduction’, in Kerr and Kuehn (eds), A Century of Travels in China: Critical Essays on Travel Writing from the 1840s to the 1940s (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007), pp. 1-11 at p.5.