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Visualizing Qing Diplomats in the West


Jenny Huangfu Day is the author of Qing Travelers to the Far West: Diplomacy and the Information Order in Late Imperial China(Cambridge University Press, 2018) and the editor of Letters from the Qing Legation in London [Wanqing Zhuying shiguan zhaohui dang’an] (Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2020). She teaches East Asian history at Skidmore College, New York. 

In the decade before the Qing established its first legations in Europe and the United States, it sent out a few investigatory missions staffed with mid-level officials to prepare for the dispatch of long-term resident ministers. The gentleman who led the first mission of 1866 was Binchun, a retired magistrate with personal connections to the Zongli Yamen, the newly created central office to handle foreign affairs. In Qing Travelers to the West, I wrote about how members of the Qing’s early missions imagined, poeticized, circulated, and consumed information about the West, and how these earlier strategies of conceptualizing the West changed when the permanent legations were established.

Figure 1: Cover image of ‘Qing Travelers to the Far West’.

Just as the Chinese used these travels to gather information about the West, Western depictions of these early missions – in sketches, photographs, watercolour paintings, and texts – made rounds in metropolitan and local newspapers and some were exchanged in private collections, making them excellent sources in what nineteenth-century Europeans considered important about the Chinese.

Before we examine some of these images and texts, it’s worth mentioning that Binchun and his colleagues were quite aware that they were being documented in Western media, even though they might not be clear just how they were being portrayed and why the Europeans held such a fascination with their images.

Binchun wrote in his journal: ‘Months before our arrival, newspapers of each country began making noises, and when we are here, many people ask to see us or make sketches of us. A few days ago when we were in Paris, merchants kept the films of our photographs and sold prints at fifteen silver dollar per portrait.’[1] His poems attributed the attention they received to his own charisma and the civilizing influence of Chinese culture, and he used the mission’s popularity to forge important personal connections. The Chinese were not being passively observed, but negotiated their appearances and to the extent possible, positioned themselves in ways to take advantage of it.[2]

British journalists subjected the mission to constant and minute scrutiny, but for quite different purposes from what Binchun seemed to think: it was important to know exactly what the ranks of the Chinese were in order to know what level of accommodation they were entitled to. According to the Birmingham Daily Post: ‘The study of buttons is essential to an accurate appreciation of Chinese life … We have scanned their costumes from their skull cap to their thick-soled shoes; and round the outside of their flowing robes, back and front, without being able to discover the all-important sign of rank about them.’ Speculations about the precise ranks of the commissioner and his suites occupied the British press in the few days, and the ‘great mystery’ was eventually solved after members of the mission made a formal appearance in official attires, complete peacock feathers and buttons.

Visual portrayals of the mission confirmed the anxiety about the status of the Chinese, highlighting the features mentioned in Birmingham Daily: notably, their officials robes, the peacock feathers and ‘button’ decorating the commissioner’s hat, the court beads, the embroidered symbol marking one’s place in the official hierarchy, the woven waist-sash. All members of the mission were depicted with their long, braided queues made emphatically visible.

Figure 2: Binchun and the Tongwenguan students at a French salon, 1866, Le Monde illustré, May 19, 1866.

Indeed, to have their peacock feathers shown, Qing commissioners were probably often asked to look sideways when being photographed in studios, instead of gazing directly into the camera and engaging the eyes of the beholder. This visual strategy can be seen in many well-publicized photographs the early missions.[3]

Figure 3: A portrait of Binchun, ca. 1866, courtesy of Tong Bingxue.

Figure 4: Anson Burlingame with two Chinese co-envoys, Zhigang and Sun Jiagu, and the Tongwenguan students, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Whether intended or not, such visual strategies of portraying the Chinese in their early missions to the West confirmed many existing impressions about the Chinese: that they were extremely status-conscious, fond of social gatherings, and typically gave only somewhat innocent – if not childish – responses to what they saw, depicted by terms such as ‘delighted,’ ‘disappointed,’ ‘disapproved,’ or ‘taken aback.’  In the following image, taken in Stockholm, the juxtaposition of the Qing mission, seen as a moving relic of an ancient and static culture – and the monumental glass-roofed ‘crystal palace’ at the Kungsträdgården, an industrial hall designed by the great architect Adolf W. Edelsvärd, sums up these impressions well.

Figure 5: “The Pin Mission, Stockholm, 1866”. HPC ref: Ha-n01.

Interestingly, these caricatures of the early Chinese travellers to the West, simplistic and condescending as they were, have been embraced by modernist Chinese intellectuals in the reform era – and at present – to show how far China has come along, or has yet to go, towards becoming ‘modern.’ Images of these early travellers to the West, created through the lenses of nineteenth century Western photographers, came to embody the steps China took to walk out of its supposed late imperial isolation and arrogance. Whatever its historical validity, the trope of the Confucian gentleman ‘stepping forth onto the world’ has been widely circulated in the Chinese public sphere, often as a subtle critique of the nationalist, or anti-Western, policies of the People’s Republic of China.

As Qing diplomacy converged with contemporary Western practices and moved towards the permanent legation, the value of Qing representatives as spectacles of the orient also declined, as it was replaced with direct consultations with Foreign Ministries. The role of the diplomat thus differed fundamentally from that of the traveling mandarin by design. Diplomatic negotiations were often conducted in private meetings, in writing or through telegraphy, with little fanfare and publicity. From 1877 onward, the most publicized images of Qing diplomats were standard head portraits similar to those of European statesmen, not visual stories exhibiting them on site.

From the 1880s onward, hardly any visual representation of Qing diplomats could be found in Western newspapers, and when they appeared, the Chinese were not depicted as spectators, but as diplomats and statesmen.

Figure 6: Portrait of Marquis Tseng (Zeng Jize), early 1880s, courtesy of Tong Bingxue.

Figure 7: French political cartoon depicting Zeng Jize playing cards with Jules Ferry as an allegory of their intense negotiations in the months leading up to the Sino-French War. ‘Le monde parisien’, 1883.

So the image of the traveling mandarin gazing the West in wonder came to an end with the Qing’s dispatch of resident ministers and consuls. This change was as much a reflection of China’s changing diplomatic structure, as it was a media artefact of how the Chinese came to be documented by the press.

[1] Binchun, Cheng cha biji (113.

[2] Day, Qing Travelers to the Far West: chapter 1.

[3]  I argue that the name ‘Burlingame Mission’ has tended to downplay Chinese agency in the mission.

Ruins of Macau in Historical Photographs of China collection – part three


Dr. Helena F. S. Lopes is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Department of History, University of Bristol. This posting is the final part of a three-part series on the ruins of Macau. You can read part one here and part two here.

Hotel Estoril, Macau, c.1975. HPC ref: Aw-t515.

Another image in the ‘20 colour slides of Macau scenery’ series has a rather more subtle connection to 1940s Macau when compared with the statue of Ferreira do Amaral addressed in part 2. In fact, the building depicted above is essentially associated with the post-war period.

This is a view of the Hotel Estoril with its now gone bilingual neon sign: Hotel Estoril / 愛都大酒店. The building’s origins go back to the early 1950s, though the present-day ruin dates from the 1964 reconstruction and expansion. It is often described as Macau’s first ‘modern’ casino-hotel owned by Stanley Ho’s Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau (STDM).

Those responsible for the building’s appearance illustrate the deep connections between Macau and other colonial port cities in China. The building was designed by Macau-born, Hong Kong-based architect Alfredo Victor Jorge Álvares and a particularly iconic feature is the large mural in the façade designed by Oseo Acconci, an Italian sculptor who arrived in Macau precisely in 1940 after working in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The nude female figure in the mural – considered a rare example of Futurist art in Macau – has generated its fair share of controversy, as has the case for preserving the hotel, which remains abandoned since the 1990s and is planned to be redeveloped as a new Central Library.[1]

At present, Macau has the largest gaming industry in the world. This snapshot of this relatively ‘young’ local ruin, whose golden days lasted less than a decade (until the Casino Lisboa outshone it from the 1970s) but which can be seen, in a way, as pioneering the casino resorts now seen throughout the territory, is perhaps a fitting way to end this three-part series on some of the changes and continuities, rebuilding and disappearances, one find represented in the HPC Macau photographs.

[1] Sonia Nunes, ‘Macau’s Futurist Woman’, Macau Closer, Dec. 2015; Philip Feifan Xie and William Ling Shi, ‘Authenticating a Heritage Hotel: Co-Creating a New Identity’, Journal of Heritage Tourism 14/1 (2019); pp. 67-80; ‘New Macao Central Library to be built on former Hotel Estoril site’, Macau News 10 Sept. 2020.

Ruins of Macau in Historical Photographs of China collections – part two


Dr. Helena F. S. Lopes is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Department of History, University of Bristol. This posting is part two of three-part series on the ruins of Macau. Part one can be read here.

Ferreira do Amaral statue, Macau, c. 1975. HPC ref: Aw-t524.

In one of the ‘20 Colour Slides Of Macau Scenery’ (c. 1970s) in the Colin and Janet Andrew Collection held at the University of Bristol Special Collections (DM2818/3), sharing promotional space with old temples and new hotels, one finds a site of crucial importance to discussions on ‘disappearance’ and public commemoration of Macau’s colonial past: the controversial statue of João Maria Ferreira do Amaral.

A Portuguese naval officer, Amaral served as governor of Macau from 1846 until 1849. He undertook a series of measures aimed at curbing Chinese power in the territory and asserting Portuguese colonial control. From closing down Chinese customs houses to clearing graves to build roads, his actions met with fierce Chinese resistance which led to his killing in 1849 outside the Macau border. His death escalated tensions between Chinese and Portuguese authorities, which reached the point of military confrontation. Macanese army officer Vicente Nicolau de Mesquita played a leading role in ensuring a quick Portuguese victory with significantly outnumbered forces in the Passaleão/Baishaling incident. Amaral and Mesquita have remained divisive figures: hailed as colonial heroes by some, criticised as colonial oppressors by others.[1]

In 1940, almost a century after Amaral’s assassination, bronze statues of the two men were installed in Macau. At the time, China grappled with the overwhelming effects of the War of Resistance against Japan while the Portuguese Estado Novo dictatorship, capitalising on its Second Word War neutrality, celebrated its imperial history in an international exhibition in Lisbon (the Portuguese World Exhibition, whose architectural legacy remains highly visible today). The placing of these statues in prime locations in Macau (Mesquita’s near Leal Senado, Amaral in a square named after him near where the Hotel Lisboa and the Bank of China skyscraper would later be built) in this particular context has been seen as a way ‘to secure the territory’s neutrality through the means of re-affirming a Portuguese identity.’[2] A more critical reading would, however, note the symbolic act of colonial humiliation at a time when Chinese anti-imperialist activism had more pressing targets. By 1940, Macau – itself a site where the Chinese anti-Japanese resistance was active – was no stranger to the massive disruption caused by the Japanese invasion of China. A significant number of Chinese refugees moved to the neutral territory during the conflict.

The statues of Amaral and Mesquita, by Portuguese sculptor Maximiano Alves, showed the men engaged in positions which seem to glorify, with masculine assertiveness, their role as defenders, by violence if necessary, of Portuguese colonial rule in Macau: Amaral riding a horse while brandishing a whip to, according to an information plaque in the statue’s current location ‘defend himself against his aggressors’; Mesquita drawing his sword while standing. They stand alone, their opponents invisible. Yet not a century went by before their presence was deemed too uncomfortable to remain standing in a post-colonial Macau. Mesquita’s statue was removed first, in the late 1966 clashes that saw Portuguese colonial authority in Macau contested and constrained in events whose wider context had links to the Cultural Revolution in the mainland (but which had specific local dynamics as well). A photograph taken the year before the statue’s toppling can be seen here. Amaral’s statue remained in place beyond the 1960s, but was dismantled in 1992 and shipped to Lisbon, at the request of the then director of Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. The decision to remove the statue before the handover and the figure of Amaral as a symbol of contrasting perspectives on the territory continues to generate discussions and being reimagined in cultural productions (for example novels and an opera).[3]

When the monument was removed, it seems to have been for many just a statue of ‘a guy on a horse’ located in a square where people could stroll and gather together regardless (rather than because) of the figure being commemorated.[4] Indeed, the photograph above shows people riding pass it or congregating in groups. In the background we see the Penha Hill, with Our Lady of Penha Chapel (Capela de Nossa Senhora da Penha) on top (first built in the seventeenth century, the present-day building dating from 1935).

Earlier this year, Amaral’s name came up when an advisor to the Municipal Affairs Bureau in Macau suggested changing street names associated with the Portuguese colonial period – attracting some pushback.[5] In Lisbon, Amaral’s statue was not put in storage nor exhibited in a museum but is on public display, in a small garden in a residential neighbourhood. It appears to remain fairly unnoticed. One should not overlook the power of indifference to rejecting the statue’s original celebratory purpose – perhaps that too is a peculiar form of decolonisation.

Ferreira do Amaral statue, Lisbon, 2020. Photograph by Helena F. S. Lopes. © Helena F. S. Lopes.

[1] On the contrasting meanings of the statues for Chinese and Portuguese see C. M. B. Cheng, Macau: A Cultural Janus (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1999), pp. 28-30.
[2] Paula Morais, ‘Macau’s Urban Transformation 1927-1949: The Significance of Sino-Portuguese Foreign Relations in the Urban Form’ in Izumi Kuroishi, ed., Constructing the Colonized Land: Entwined Perspectives of East Asia Around WWII (Surrey: Ashgate, 2014), p. 155.
[3] E.g. João Paulo Meneses, ‘A maldição da estátua de Ferreira do Amaral’ [The curse of Ferreira do Amaral’s statue], Ponto Final, 11 May 2011; Mário César Lugarinho, ‘Violência e Interpretação, Leituras da História de Macau’ [Violence and Interpretation, Readings of the History of Macau], Abril-Revista do Núcleo de Estudos de Literatura Portuguesa e Africana da UFF, 10/20 (2018), pp. 37-48.
[4] C. H. Clayton, Sovereignty at the Edge: Macau & the Question of Chineseness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 212.
[5] On the meanings (and lack of them) of Macau’s official street names and multiple perceptions of architectural changes in Macau see Clayton’s Sovereignty at the Edge, Chapter Five.

Ruins of Macau in Historical Photographs of China collections – part one


Dr. Helena F. S. Lopes is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Department of History, University of Bristol. This posting is part one of three-part series on the ruins of Macau.

Part two of a panoramic view of the Praia Grande (南灣), Macau, c.1868. Photograph by William Pryor Floyd. HPC ref: VH03-61.

The South China territory of Macau (澳門) was the first European settlement in the country, with the Portuguese presence there dating back to the 16th century. It returned to Chinese rule in 1999, two years after Hong Kong. Historical Photographs of China holds a small but interesting sample of images of Macau in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The images currently on the website stop in the early 1900s, but a small collection of commercially produced 35mm slides (entitled on the box ‘20 Colour Slides Of Macau Scenery’ and in Japanese ‘20枚スライドにマカオの名勝’) in the Colin and Janet Andrew Collection held at the University of Bristol Special Collections (DM2818/3) offers other views of ‘old Macau’. Amongst these slides, which date from the 1970s, we find some popular old landmarks, often featured in depictions of the city (e.g. Ruins of St Paul, A-Ma Temple) alongside what were, then, relatively new places (like the Hotel Lisboa, built in 1970, or the Governador Nobre de Carvalho Bridge/Macau-Taipa Bridge, opened in 1974). Interestingly – some of the sites promoted in the slides have since ceased to operate, becoming a kind of ruin, too.

The Praia Grande shown in the photograph above is part of a four-part 1868 panorama by William Pryor Floyd, an early China photographer who had his studio there before moving to Hong Kong. The bay has changed so much in the last one hundred years due to land reclamation and rebuilding that those views from the water, a common topic of turn-of-the-century postcards of Macau, are themselves images of something largely gone. As other places around the world, Macau has its share of ‘ruins of empire’ which invite meaningful discussions on the material and immaterial legacies of colonialism. Ruins are remains, they are physically present, but that semi-destructed state also evokes what has since vanished. Ackbar Abbas’ discussion of a ‘culture of disappearance’ in Hong Kong is also fruitful to understand its connected neighbour.[1]

When speaking of Macau, it is not uncommon that one’s immediate visual reference is the Ruins of St Paul, most notably the stone façade that remains of the Church of the Mater Dei (Igreja da Madre de Deus) and St Paul’s College (Colégio de São Paulo), built by the Jesuits in the 16th century and rebuilt in the early 17th century. The buildings were almost completely destroyed in 1835, due to a fire but the sculpted façade survived. The impact of natural disasters and man-made destruction has always had a more pronounced role in reshaping Macau’s landscape than military conflict.

Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Macau, 1911. HPC ref: BL02-050.

Now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the ‘Historic Centre of Macau’, the Ruins of St Paul can be found in some of the HPC photographs. The image above, dated ‘May 22 & 23 1911’, some months before the Chinese Republican revolution, is from an album that belonged to a member of ‘Pelissier’s Follies’, a British theatre troupe who toured East Asia in 1911.

It bears some similarities with a photograph taken by Scottish photographer John Thomson in 1870. The almost deserted staircase towered by the imposing façade is flanked by old buildings on one side. A solitary figure approaches the foreground, with no distinguished features, a silhouette in a land of shadows and light. The contrast couldn’t be sharper with the crowds one would have encountered if visiting the site by day in the pre-Covid-19 tourist boom days.

The ruins of St Paul are a fitting symbol of several dynamics one can associate with the territory. For a start, there is of course the Catholic presence in China, in whose rich history Macau holds a very important place. There is the much-cited coexistence of different communities and influences, even beyond the obvious Chinese and Portuguese – for example, the façade was carved by Japanese Christian refugees working under the direction of an Italian Jesuit priest. It is also testament to the history of the foreign military presence in China, as the college (which had ceased to operate when the Society of Jesus was expelled from the Portuguese empire in 1762) was later used as military barracks, the 1835 fire having started in its kitchen. Its present incomplete and hollow form can invite discussions on the exercise and legacy of Portuguese colonial power in Macau. Its restoration and marketisation as a tourist hotspot also tell a story of rebranding, commercialisation, and development in the running up to and since the 1999 handover. Little wonder, then, that the place has attracted considerable scholarly attention.[2]

St Anthony’s Church, damaged by the 1874 typhoon, Macau. Photograph by Lai Fong (Afong Studio). HPC ref: NA15-18.

Amongst the HPC holdings one finds another photograph of the ruins of a church with Jesuit connections: an impressive photograph by Lai Afong Studio of St Anthony’s Church (Igreja de Santo António) in the aftermath of the 22 September 1874 typhoon. The photograph comes from an album in the UK National Archives documenting typhoon damage in Hong Kong and Macau. St Anthony’s Church is one of Macau’s oldest churches, first built using bamboo and wood in the mid-sixteenth century, and later rebuilt in stone. It too suffered its share of destruction by fire but it still exists, its present building dating from the 1930s. Its successive rebuilding says something about the endurance of Macau’s Christian communities.

These photographs of religious ruins offer a glimpse of past versions of monuments that are still standing. But other, more recent, images in the HPC collection have arguably more obvious links to ideas of disappearance and legacies of empire, as we shall see in the second of this three-part series on ‘Ruins of Macau’.


Ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral, Macau, c. 1975. HPC ref: Aw-t526.

[1] Ackbar Abbas, ‘Building on Disappearance: Hong Kong Architecture and the City’, Public Culture 6 (1994), pp. 441-459.
[2] E.g. Cristina Mui Bing Cheng, Macau: A Cultural Janus (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1999), pp. 83-100; Cathryn H. Clayton, Sovereignty at the Edge: Macau & the Question of Chineseness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 1-5 and passim; Gonçalo Couceiro, A Igreja de São Paulo de Macau [Macau’s St Paul’s Church] (Lisbon: Livros Horizonte, 1997); Lee Yuk Tin, Olhar as Ruínas: Igreja da Madre de Deus em Macau [A View of the Ruins: The Mater Dei Church in Macau] (Macau: Livros do Oriente, 1990); Marta Wieczorek, ‘Macau’s Heterotopias: Ruins of St Paul’s as a Spatial and Temporal Disruption’, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 20/4 (2019), pp. 312-327.

Guest blog: Visualising china in China: life, labour and loss


Anne Gerritsen is the author of The City of Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and the Early Modern World (Cambridge University Press, 2020). She teaches Chinese history and global history at the University of Warwick and serves as the director of the Global History and Culture Centre. She also holds the Chair in Asian Art at the University of Leiden.

Fig 1. Porcelain stall at a market, Beijing, c.1905. SOAS archive catalogue ref: MS 381142. HPC ref: Ru02-18.

China means many things. In the English language, the word refers both to the country and to the material that was exclusively produced there until the early eighteenth century. To some, references to ‘ceramics’ probably only conjure up images of road-side craft shops or of glass-fronted cupboards in museums, antique shops or grandparental homes. Pottery, stoneware, ‘china’, and porcelain all might have a similar set of associations. Instead of dwelling on those, I’d like to connect porcelain instead to words like dust, labour, life and death. Of course, in imperial China, beautiful porcelains were made for emperors and élites and decorated imperial palaces and temples, as well as Custom Houses, as the collection testifies. But the industry where such fine pieces were made was above all a business where people got their hands dirty. It also employed thousands of labourers, whose life and death depended both on the orders for large quantities of porcelain from the imperial court as well as the world beyond China.

Fig 2. Ceramics worker moving saggars. Photograph by Anne Gerritsen.

Filthy work

Ceramics are made from soil and water. There is a bit more to it, of course: to make good ceramics, you need clay, and to make excellent ceramics you need clay that turns into an attractive colour when it has been fired in a kiln (or else you have to cover the ceramics first with an underlayer of glaze so that the unattractive colour doesn’t show), and to make really fine ceramics that can withstand firing at a high temperature so it becomes a hard piece of porcelain, you need a kind of clay that has been kaolinized over the many centuries that the clay was under the soil, or a combination of porcelain clay mixed with pure kaolin. But basically, ceramics are made from clay and water, and when the clay dries, it turns to dust. Where ceramics are made, there is dust everywhere. One fourteenth-century official, stationed in the county seat near the biggest porcelain manufacturing centre in imperial China, Jingdezhen 景德鎮, was so disappointed to be stationed in this place that he wrote:

‘Alas, I have to remain here for three years. How come I do not have a heart of iron? Just staying here my hair will go grey early.’[1]

Fig 3. Workstation in a porcelain manufactory. Photograph by Anne Gerritsen.

Not just dust makes it an unattractive place to work, but also the smoke rising up from the chimneys: before electric ovens, the kilns for firing ceramics had to be brought up to temperatures of over a 1000°C by feeding it with wood (mostly in the south) or coal (mostly in the north), and then maintained at that temperature by maintaining it for days on end. Workers would feed the fires through the night, looking through small holes to judge the temperature by eye. The average quantity required to fire one of the big kilns in Jingdezhen in the early sixteenth century was around 9,000 kg of firewood, which all had to be floated down the river from the hillsides surrounding the town.

Fig 4. Man adding wood to a kiln next to a wall with an inscription at a tile and brick factory near Mentougou Qu, c.1933-46. Photograph by Hedda Morrison. HPC ref: Hv24-070.


A lot of labour was involved: all this wood had to be transported, dried, chopped, stored and lifted into the kilns. The clays, too, had to be dug at sites scattered in the surroundings of Jingdezhen, transported, pulverized, purified, dried, mixed, kneaded, shaped, and so on. Individual pieces of porcelain were not made from start to finish by a single potter; the whole process was segregated into separate tasks, with some doing labouring tasks like chopping wood or mixing clays, and others doing more skilled tasks like preparing pigments or painting flower patterns. It was precisely because of this division of labour that the production could be scaled up, to produce thousands of pieces of porcelain in a single firing and many millions of pieces over the centuries that Jingdezhen was the only place in the world that could produce such vast quantities of such fine pieces.


Workers came from the surrounding counties in Jiangxi and neighbouring provinces and performed mostly unskilled labour. Skilled hands were more difficult to find and even more difficult to keep; the imperial kilns desperately needed them to help fulfil the demands from the court, but private kilns offered easier work and more reward. Probably, it was precisely the ecosystem in which private and imperial kilns shared talent and resources that explains Jingdezhen’s long-term success.

Fig 5. Rice bowls at a pottery, Fujian province, c.1900-1910. Cadbury Research Library archive finding number: DA26/2/2/2 (John Preston Maxwell Papers). HPC ref: Mx03-099.

Life …

So, rather than thinking of porcelain only in the context of display, I think we should pay more attention to the ways in which porcelains were part of daily life. Kilns were scattered across the landscape throughout China, and ceramics were made everywhere, but some production sites were famous for a specific type, or ware: so, Jingdezhen was famous for its blue and whites; Yixing for its red teapots; Cizhou for its pillows, and so on. Such regional specialisation also meant the trade and transport of ceramics, and the selling of ceramics in dedicated shops.

Fig 6. A Porcelain Shop, Xiangtan, Hunan, c.1900-1920. HPC ref: Ba05-107.

Fig 7. A man having a meal, c.1910. Photograph by Mactavish & Lehmann. HPC ref: Wr-s106.

Porcelains came in all shapes and sizes, and the production could as easily be adapted to the demands for one-off pieces from emperors as to the requests for unusual shapes that came from overseas, like the butter dishes and gin bottles for the Dutch market. But the vast majority of what was produced were bowls. Shaped to fit inside the space of a hand, wide at the top to accommodate heaped rice or cool hot soup, narrow at the base to give elegance and facilitate stacking, bowls accompanied people through life.

… and death

The picture below, of an execution site in Canton, confirms that ceramics were also part of death. The notes accompanying the images explain: ‘At an otherwise innocuous pottery factory, a wooden cross leans against the wall on the right. This cross was apparently used for torture and execution by crucifixion. Called Ma-tow, this place was an execution ground for Chinese felons only.’[2] The pots standing around form merely the background to this site of executions, their presence nothing more than a feature of this space, an obstacle to clamber across to get a good look at the implements of death.

Fig 8. Place for capital punishment, Guangzhou. SOAS archive catalogue ref: MS 381233. HPC ref: HR01-086.

But pots also provided the space inhabited by the remains of human life, their final resting place in the landscape. So, rather than thinking of ceramics only in their final use-phase, gleaming behind glass in a shop or museum, we should also consider the dust and the labour that went into making them, the joys they gave when handling them, and the sorrows conjured up by funerary urns. As the many photographs in the collection that feature porcelains show: pots were part of life, labour and the loss of life.

Fig 9. Funerary urns (金塔), New Territories (新界), Hong Kong. From an album in The National Archives referenced as: ‘HONG KONG 9. Work of the Chinese and British Boundary Commissioners delimiting the New Territories, 1898 (CO 1069/452)’. HPC ref: NA22-28.

[1] Hong Yanzu, ‘Observations one autumn morning in Fuliang’ 浮梁秋曉書事三首, Xing ting zhai gao, 12a. I discuss the writings of Hong in ‘Fragments of a Global Past: Ceramics Manufacture in Song-Yuan-Ming Jingdezhen’. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 52.1 (2009): 117-152.

[2] Notes added to HR01-086, in the Ruxton Family Collection, Historical Photographs of China.