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Chris Courtney on Wuhan in the Time of Cholera


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.

Water carrier, Early Twentieth Century, Banister Collection Ba04-35, © 2008 Peter Lockhart Smith

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.

The Water Tower and Ma Lu, Hankow (Wuhan), Stanfield Family Collection, js02-130 © 2015 John Stanfield

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.

British Universities and Schools Luncheon Club garden party, Ruxton Collection, Ru-s177 © 2008 Penelope Fowler

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.

Anti-Japanese public hygiene banner, Wuhan, 1938 Miscellaneous Collection Bi-s165

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.’

Woman inoculated in the street, Shanghai Malcolm Rosholt Collection, Ro-n0779
© 2012 Mei-Fei Elrick and Tess Johnston

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.

Commemorating John Thomson: Edinburgh to install a Bronze Plaque


Jamie Carstairs, who manages the Historical Photographs of China Project, nominated John Thomson for a plaque in Edinburgh.

The independent plaques panel at Heritage Environment Scotland (HES) announced yesterday that a plaque to commemorate the Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921), is to be installed in Edinburgh. This will be one of seventeen to be installed ‘celebrating noteworthy individuals from Scottish public life’. HES describe John Thomson as a ‘towering figure in nineteenth century century photography, acclaimed for his photography in China’. This is a welcome accolade for him, also celebrating the capital’s significant contribution to Scottish photographic history.

The cast bronze plaque is to go up outside 6 Brighton Street, Old Town, Edinburgh, the tenement building where the Thomson family moved to live in an apartment in 1841, when John Thomson was four years of age. He lived there until he left for Singapore in 1861.

The wording on the plaque is to be:

LIVED HERE 1841-1861.

Many thanks to Deborah Ireland, Terry Bennett, Richard Ovenden and Michael Pritchard for advice and help with factual information, and to Roberta McGrath for help liaising with the residents at 6 Brighton Street, who are also to be thanked for the granting of their permission for a plaque to be affixed to the building. Messages of support for the nomination (which formed a part of the nomination) were received from the above, and also from Betty Yao, Nick Pearce and Roddy Simpson.

The messages of support included:

John Thomson’s photographs provide a rich and lasting visual record of the Far East. They are loved, admired and appreciated by people of all ages and from diverse backgrounds.’ Betty Yao MBE

John Thomson was a master of the art. The photos he took in the Far East set standards of excellence against which other practitioners are judged. He is particularly revered in China, where he is considered to be China’s most important nineteenth-century Western photographer. When he returned to the UK in 1872, after a ten-year tour of the East, his fame earned him the moniker of ‘China Thomson’.’  Terry Bennett

It is very fitting that the house where John Thomson lived in Edinburgh, whilst studying at the Watt Institute and School of Arts, is to be marked. He gained a life diploma there in 1858 which enabled him to attend Chemistry classes (today this institute is part of the Heriot-Watt University) and it was the knowledge he gained during this period which propelled him forth into the world to become the leading travel photographer of the Victorian age.’ Deborah Ireland

‘John Thomson is internationally important and the pioneering images he created in the Far East, especially China, England and Cyprus continue to be widely exhibited and the focus of admiration, interest and study.’ Roddy Simpson

Manchu lady and child. Photograph by John Thomson (negative number 701). Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain

The idea to nominate the great Scottish photographer John Thomson for a plaque originated during research to restore his grave in south London, in which it became apparent that he was not publicly commemorated in Edinburgh. HES described the nomination application as ‘exemplary’ and concluded that a plaque ‘might raise the profile of John Thomson and interest in documentary photography as a whole’.

Thomson is often on display in other ways. An exhibition Siam through the lens of John Thomson 1865-66 runs on until 17 May 2020 at Chester Beatty, Dublin. These marvellous large reproductions, made from scans of Thomson’s superb negatives held at the Wellcome Collection, epitomise the ‘power of picturing’. There are hopes for a similar exhibition in Edinburgh next year.

Thomson is generally considered to be the best of the nineteenth century foreign photographers in China. His magnum opus, Illustrations of China and Its People, was published in four large volumes in 1873-4, and featured 200 of his photographs along with his droll, perceptive contextualisation. Thomson is also well-remembered for his photographs in Street Life in London, a ground-breaking and influential publication that arose from a collaboration with journalist Adolphe Smith in 1877. Thomson was a member of the Royal Photographic Society from 1879 and gained the Royal Warrant (‘By Appointment to…’) in 1881. It is fitting that a heritage plaque is to be installed in Edinburgh just before ‘China’ Thomson’s centenary year in 2021.

A portrait of John Thomson FRGS, FRPS, aged about 60, reproduced in ‘The Wide World Magazine’ in 1898, in an article about him by Arthur E. Swinton, entitled ‘Queer Sights in China’.

For a brief outline of John Thomson’s photographic career, useful links, and some of his photographs, see

See also the blog on the British Photographic History site.

Happy birthday to us!


Our copystand in action: this is where it happens

It’s our birthday! Fourteen years ago today, Historical Photographs of China welcomed its first and longest-standing employee, Project Manager Jamie Carstairs. A professional photographer, sometime cheerful bookshop assistant (so he told us), TEFL teacher and graduate of the postgraduate Photojournalism programme at the University of Wales, Jamie also had experience of working with collections of historic photographs.

Since then, we – he, largely – have digitized some 50,000 different prints, negatives, and album pages, drawn from 154 collections, most of them lent to us by families with historic ties to China. They have come from Bristol, from across the British Isles, continental Europe, Canada, Australia, India, the United States, and of course China.

A collection in the raw: the Banister family’s, Bishop and all.

We now have 21,304 images online (and on the third iteration of our platform), most recently the first samples of an album largely focusing on Fuzhou in the late 1860s and 1870s, which we will tell you all about soon. We have organised exhibitions in Bristol, Bath, Durham, and London, Nanjing, Hong Kong, Chongqing, Beijing, and in Spain. We can be found on BBC Sounds, and on film.

The project has always run on a shoestring. Sometimes we have had two of them, once, you could say, we had four shoestrings, but mostly we shuffle along with the one. Support has come from the British Academy, Swire Charitable Trusts, AHRC, the University of Bristol, Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation, and the Worldwide University Network. Do feel free to add your name to this list and don’t forget to send us a cheque: we won’t be offended, no really, we won’t be.

It is roughly 30 years since I got the first glimpse of what became the project, on a trip to talk to a British man who had worked in inter-war China. In an apartment in Bourne End, gorgeously decorated with items he had brought back from China, he reminisced and, from time to time, to reinforce a point, reached over to a bookshelf and pulled out an album of photographs. These he showed me and so here we are, thirty years on from that, and 14 years on from Jamie’s arrival in 13 Woodland Road.

So thank you for your support*, for using the platform and all the words of encouragement we have received over the years, and thanks especially to: Shannon Smith, Alejandro Acin, Rosanne Jacks, Grania Pickard, Helena Lopes, and the Research IT team at Bristol, who have all worked on the project, not forgetting Andrew Hillier, Emily Griffin, Monika Lucas; to Christian Henriot and Gérald Foliot, who provided our first platform and long-term support; Chang Chih-yun, and the team supporting our Shanghai Jiaotong University-hosted mirror site; to the University of Bristol’s Special Collections team and Public Engagement squad, and to librarians, deans, fellow-historians and many others — Deidre Wildy! Caroline Kimbell! — who have supported us in different ways over the years.

* Last call for your help – the HPC survey closes soon…  We would like to hear your opinions of the Historical Photographs of China site, about how you use it, and how it is useful to you – to help us plan its future. We invite you to complete this short survey:

Jamie in Suzhou in 2011

Ready for action at an outreach event at Bristol City Museum

The green boxes shown here in the University of Bristol Library Special Collections contain materials donated permanently for archiving.

We used to work in one of these, but are now housed in the University’s Arts & Social Sciences Library

Wuhan’s Yellow Crane Tower: Resistance and Resilience


Our latest blog comes from Dr Yang Chan, Shanghai Jiaotong University. A graduate of Hunan University, Dr Yang was awarded her PhD at the University of Bristol in 2014, and then worked at Wuhan University, before moving in 2017 to Shanghai Jiaotong University where she is now Associate Professorship in the Department of History in 2017. A historian of wartime and post China, her first book, World War Two Legacies in East Asia, China Remembers the War, was published by Routledge in 2017.

The Yellow Crane Tower (Huanghelou 黄鹤楼) is probably the most famous landmark in Wuhan. Located at the confluence of Yangzi and Han rivers, it was built originally as a military watch tower during the Three Kingdoms period in 223 AD. In the course of history, it gradually became a well-known scenic spot. The Yellow Crane Tower has been destroyed many times and rebuilt, repeatedly, across the centuries. The present version is based on a Qing Dynasty reconstruction, which was destroyed by fire in 1884. The photograph below was taken by a studio owner in Wuhan, just before this first disaster).

The Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼), Wuchang (Wuhan). Photograph by Pow Kee, whose studio was to the right of the pagoda. A scan of a magic lantern slide © 2019 Royal Asiatic Society. Historical Photographs of China ref: RA-m122.

Numerous men of letters visited the Yellow Crane Tower, and composed poems which are still on everybody’s lips today. The verse of Tang Dynasty poet Cui Hao 崔颢  provides one example (translated by Peter Harris) :

Long ago someone rode away on a yellow crane;
All that’s left here, pointlessly, is Yellow Crane Tower.
Once a yellow crane has gone it won’t come back again –
The white clouds will be empty, endless, for a thousand year.
Across the river in the sun are the trees of Hanyang in rows,
And scented grass on Parrot Island growing thick and lush.
But whereabout is my home village, in the evening light?
Seeing the misty waves on the river I grow disconsolate.

Other renowned authors include Cui Hao’s contemporary, the poet Li Bai, the national hero General Yue Fei from Song Dynasty, and Chairman Mao Zedong. These literary and artistic works had transformed the Yellow Crane Tower into a cultural symbol of Wuhan and even China as a whole.

During the second Sino-Japanese War, Wuhan became the centre of Chinese resistance between 1937 and 1938, as the Nationalist government and people from the Japanese occupied areas took refugee there. In these days, the Yellow Crane Tower was the centre of China’s war mobilization effort. In front of it, politician’s speeches were given, demonstrators were assembled, battlefield news was broadcast, and ‘anti-Japanese’ murals were painted on the walls.

An anti-Japanese banner, Wuhan, 1938, during the Sino-Japanese War. Historical Photographs of China ref: Bi-s162.

After the fall of Wuhan, peculiarly, the Yellow Crane Tower was protected by the Japanese Imperial Army and its puppet Wuhan municipal government. It was lauded as the symbol of the shared culture of China and Japan, and the ‘Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere’. As Tang Dynasty poems were beloved by the Japanese for centuries, the Yellow Crane Tower was well-known in Japan; and thanks to the travel notes of Wuhan written by Japanese writers from the Meiji Restoration onwards, Japanese people were further fascinated by it. Nevertheless, for the war-torn Chinese people who never yield to neither the cultural hegemony nor the military strength of imperial Japan, the Yellow Crane Tower had nothing to do with Japan at all. Imperial Japan’s plan of changing the symbolic meaning of the tower eventually failed.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Wuhan is suffering a different, but equally serious war at the moment. We despair at hearing bad news and tragedies daily, but at the same time, we are also touched by many other stories showing the glory of human nature. For instance, a Tang Dynasty verse was written on parcels of medical supplies donated by Japan: ⼭川异域 风⽉同天 (Although the mountains and rivers are different, we share the same wind and moon). Most Chinese people are moved by the beauty of the language and the heart of their neighbours in the East. This kind of human nature – compassion and selfless assistance to those in need – can definitely serve the Sino-Japanese friendship much better than the ‘constructed’ Yellow Crane Tower.

Finally, the Yellow Crane Tower has experienced and overcome countless difficulties in its history. Just as with this long-surviving landmark, we’re sure that, with the resilience of Wuhan people and the assistance from their compatriots and the international society, Wuhan will resist the virus heroically and recover from this disaster soon.

Reference: Zhao Huang, ‘Reconstruction of Power Around Yellow Crane Tower during the War of Resistance Against Japan’, Urban History Research 2017 (2) 赵煌 : ‘抗战时期中⽇围绕黄鹤楼的 记忆之争与权⼒重构’, <城市史研究>2017 (2).

Wuhan photographed


Over the past month Wuhan has been much-discussed, but its history is still largely misunderstood. I wrote about its long and intimate relationship with world markets in this blog post. It was of course, like most of the Chinese treaty ports, opened up as a consequence of conflict, and the exercise of foreign might.

The fact that it was a site of foreign residence and trade, means that it often crops up in photographs in our collections. You can find about 460 searching for Wuhan in our advanced search, including probably the earliest photograph taken in the city, this portrait of the Manchu Governor-General Guanwen 官文 taken in December 1858.

This collection continues to grow, and last week we received an unexpected donation of a small album from the daughter of a couple working with the China Inland Mission from 1923-1926. While the bulk of the collection consists of photographs taken in the hill-top summer resort of Guling (Kuling), there are a number from Wuhan showing (we think, but we may well be wrong) the floods of late August 1926. Wuhan was repeatedly afflicted by flooding, and the devastatingly destructive floods of 1931 form the subject of Chris Courtney’s 2018 book The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood (Cambridge University Press). Sometimes the echoes from history sound familiar. Flooding in Wuchang in 1924, one Shanghai headline pronounced ‘A Flood caused by “bad government”‘. Here are three of the images, the first and second forming a before and during of the scene.

We will be copying all these photographs and adding them to the website, but for now these pages of this small album, until last week in the hands of the family, show yet again how globally interconnected Wuhan has long been.

Chang Ning on Cultural translation: Gambling Cultures


Dr. Ning Jennifer Chang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. She has just published her first book, Cultural Translation: Horse Racing, Greyhound Racing and Jai Alai in Modern Shanghai (異國事物的轉譯:近代上海的跑馬、跑狗與回力球賽). Here she introduces the book and its main arguments.

Cultural Translation explores how culture was ‘translated’ through a study of three imported Western sports/gambling in the colonial setting of Shanghai. They were, namely, horse racing, greyhound racing and jai alai (also known as Basque Tennis). The book shows these sports all experienced deviation and re-interpretation in China in very different ways.

A man leading a horse past the ‘CASH SWEEP’ betting booth, Peking races, Beijing, c.1925-26. Oliver Hulme Collection, OH02-62.

Historical Photographs of China contains a great many photographs of racing life, with images of racing and race days at Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Tianjin, Qingdao and Hankou. Racing was a leisure activity, but it was also about display and it was a business. As the photograph above of a horse being led by its owner at Beijing’s race course in about 1925 indicates, it was also about gambling: the windows in which racegoers could enter the Cash Sweep can be seen in the background.

Tiffin on the re-opening of the Chinese Jockey Club in Oct. 1935. (Quan Guo Bao Kan Suo Yin (Source:

We know that racing clubs played a prominent role in the colonial world but less well-known is the fact that not only the Chinese elite, but underworld figures such as the leaders of the Green Gang saw such clubs as tools for social navigation. After the establishing in Shanghai of first an International Racing Club, at Jiangwan, and later a Chinese Jockey Club, they became proud club members. When joint meetings between the clubs were held, British gentlemen had to rub shoulders with Chinese gangsters. The class identities of the British club were thus redefined to an unknown degree.

Famous gangster, Du Yuesheng, leads in Merry Memories, winner of the Ladies Purse at the Chinese Jockey Club meeting on 6 June 1935. (

Madame Du presents the Ladies’ Purse to Charlie Encarnacao, the winning jockey. (

No doubt quite a few of the Chinese elite and even gangsters embraced British racing culture. Not only did they follow British rules strictly, they registered their clubs at Newmarket in England to prove their authenticity. When examining spectator behaviour in these sports, however, my work has revealed a gradual development in spectator behaviour from watching to betting. When jai alai was staged, spectators even found a way to Sinicize it. They managed to establish a forecast theory by borrowing from traditional Chinese betting knowledge, leaving Western theory of probability no room to act.

Afternoon greyhound racing in Shanghai. (

Betters watch jai alai attentively from behind the wire netting. (

By demonstrating this deviation and re-interpretation, this book argues cultural translation was not a simple phenomenon of localization. Instead, it was a result of a complex seesaw battle between cultures. The direction and degree of its deviation depended on how powerful the cultures were. For example, China had a longer and stronger tradition in gambling, so the spectators managed to re-interpret these sports in the Chinese way. On the other hand, the British empire no doubt played a more important role in the colonial setting in Shanghai. The British way of racing captured the attention of the Chinese elite and even gangsters.