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Reversing Robert Capa’s gaze: Wuhan, 1938


Ooo, look: our eagle-eyed Project Manager Jamie Carstairs spotted this wonderful photograph taken in 1938 by Robert Capa in Hankou (Wuhan) and recently published in MAGNUM China (Colin Pantall and Zheng Ziyu, eds, Thames & Hudson, 2018):

Robert Capa, CHINA. Hankou. July-September, 1938. Men, seen through a window, walking through street after the air battle between Japanese and Chinese fighter planes. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

This is one of a number of striking photographs Capa took during his two stays in the then temporary capital of Nationalist China during the Japanese invasion. But why are we excited? Because of this photograph, which we scooped up from ebay last year. Robert Capa: we now know where you were.

Banner outside the headquarters of “L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS”, 69 Jianghan Lu, Wuhan, 1938 (Bi-s162)

Whoever the photographer was, we can tell from this that Capa’s photograph was taken from within the headquarters of L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS (‘France: Belgium: Switzerland Returned Students Association’). This was on Wuhan’s Jianghan Road, at no. 69 in fact (江漢路六十九號). This was a prominent long thoroughfare stretching from the Yangzi riverside, and remains today a major pedestrianised shopping street in the city centre.

Wuhan fell to the Japanese in October 1938. The Nationalist capital was re-established at Chongqing, yet further along the Yangzi river. Capa had long since left. The Association will have relocated too. The fate of the men he caught on film as they walked along the street on this sunny day in 1938 was probably bound up with the terrible course of the capture of the city and its brittle history during the occupation.

In and outside the combat zone: The Regimental Museums Project (2)


Dr Andrew Hillier completes his introduction to The Regimental Museums Project by discussing some of the more nuanced aspects of military photography and the importance of regimental archives.

Aside from Felix Beato’s photographs of the Second Opium War, referred to in the first blog, and similarly brutal images surrounding the Boxer Uprising, photographs could often bring out the more complex aspects of Britain’s presence in China, for example, the fact that the 1st Chinese Regiment comprised, as rank and file, mainly Chinese subjects, who were required to fight against their fellow countrymen, under the command of British officers. [1]

New recruits to the 1st Chinese Regiment learn drill, 1900. Courtesy of the National Army Museum, NAM. 1983-05-42-4. From an album of 52 photographs taken and compiled by Captain C.D. Bruce (West Riding Regiment), acting Major (1st Battalion Chinese Regiment). © National Army Museum.

Photographs also show how, outside the combat zone, the military could also be engaged on a range of civilian tasks, albeit these would generally have an underlying strategic purpose. The Royal Engineers, for example, in the aftermath of the Uprising, took part in an extensive programme, rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed during the conflict, including bridges, railways and railway stations and, for a time, running the railway between Peking and Shan-hai-kwan (Shanhaiguan).) Whilst this was to ensure troops could be speedily deployed, it was also to protect the interests of British bondholders in the Tianjin-Mukden railway.

This improvised locomotive was the product of the Royal Engineers No 4. Company of the Bengal Sappers and Miners, under Captain H.R. Stockley. The engine, named ‘Grasshopper’, had been cobbled together under the supervision of Sergeant A. Tinkham, who was engaged in the reconstruction of Boxer-destroyed railway tracks in and around Fengtai, Peking (Beijing) in 1900. HPC ref NA06-16: a photograph from an album (WO 28/302. China. Boxer Rebellion) in The National Archives. Crown copyright image reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England.

Later, as Britain sought to reduce its imperial role and civil war in China intensified in the 1920s, , so government policy wavered between maintaining neutrality and using military force if that was seen as necessary to protect British interests.

Shanghai Volunteer Corps at a street barricade. HPC ref AL-s12. Comprising a multi-national militia under the control of British soldiers, the SVC, which was mobilised, for this emergency, in September 1924, included a Chinese company.

Scots Guards & Shanghai Scottish Pipers, HPC ref AL-s04. The Scots Guards arrived in Shanghai on 2 July 1928 and were based there until 20 January 1929 as part of the British Shanghai Defence Force which was despatched in late 1926 when the National Revolutionary Army of the Guomindang occupied central China during the Nationalist revolution.[2] Note the Chinese on-lookers for whom this was not only a routine ceremonial but, in the highly-charged circumstances of the time, a powerful demonstration of British military capacity.

If these images depict the military presence on a public level, many collections also bring out a more personal aspect of regimental life – both the soldier’s daily routines and also his interaction with the local people and his surroundings.

Acrobatic display by Somerset Light Infantry soldiers, c. 1913. HPC ref JC-s056. The sort of photograph that soldiers will have sent in letters home.

Whilst the camera’s ‘imperial gaze’ was not always welcome for those being photographed, many images reflect a lively curiosityt and show how photographs could articulate a new form of cultural understanding.  Enclosed in letters home, they would also be a way of maintaining contact with family and friends as well as importing the experiences into the regimental record.

Photographs thus form a particularly important part of regimental archives, reflecting, as they do, not only the history of the regiment but also the careers of individual soldiers serving far from home. Similar material can also be found in public collections such as the British Library, the National Archives, the National Army Museum and the Royal Geographical Society. However, whilst those archives are secure, the future of regimental archives is more uncertain, not least because many regiments have been disbanded or merged and are having difficulty finding an identity in post-imperial and post-Cold War Britain. Whilst some collections are housed in buildings which form part of the regimental history, others are struggling to find a home or have already become incorporated in the local county archives and thus, although in safe hands, have lost that important local connection.

The former barracks of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, Berwick-upon-Tweed. Managed by English Heritage, the buildings house an excellent military museum and the regiment’s archives, which include an important collection of photographs recording its assignment in China (mainly, Shamian, Canton (Guangzhou)) in the late 1920s. Photograph by Andrew Hillier, 2018.

As with other artefacts, such as plunder and loot, issues arise as to how these photographs should be displayed, given the problematic nature of Britain’s imperial history. That debate can only take place if there is proper access to the material and understanding of the surrounding events and this is where the regimental museums have a vital role to play, precisely because of the close connection between the regiment and the events in question.

The aim of the Regimental Museums Project, therefore, is to use these collections to examine the British military presence in China and how the serving soldier interacted with the Chinese people and his surroundings. Since the military would often explore locations seldom visited by westerners, for example, for intelligence and route-mapping purposes, whilst soldiers would embark on ambitious expeditions during their leave, there can be found within museum collections a wider set of images of the country. Wherever possible, the focus will be on individuals who, whether as part of their official duties, or simply from personal interest, recorded that presence, frequently adding comments and annotations. Chance has largely dictated how these photographs, whether neatly pasted into albums or hurriedly stuffed into envelopes, have found their way into museums, and often their origins are unknown or cannot be disclosed for reasons of confidentiality. The project will, therefore, be in the nature of work in progress and will not follow any particular thematic or chronological path. Hopefully, it will raise the profile of these collections and stimulate discussion in the context of Sino–British relations and history more generally. It may also encourage readers to rummage through trunks in attics in search of mementoes of their military forbears in China.

[1] The 1st Chinese Regiment will be the subject of the next blog.

[2] Robert Bickers, Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination (London: Allen Lane, 2017), p. 64.

In and outside the combat zone: the China Campaigns Project (1)


In the first of two blogs, Dr Andrew Hillier introduces a new Historical Photographs of China initiative – the China Campaigns Project – which he is coordinating, and which will draw on photographs in regimental and national collections, to explore both Britain’s military presence in China and their wider social and cultural significance.

Many would agree with Margery Masterson that ‘the army … remains largely absent from social and cultural histories of Victorian Britain and her empire.’ [1]  Whatever the reasons, including, perhaps, a latent distaste for military imperialism, it means that a rich vein of material in regimental and national archives is at risk of being over-looked by historians.  Moreover, as museums holding these archives face significant challenges, a number are finding it increasingly difficult to make the collections accessible, both to professional historians and the general public. There is a wealth of photographs illustrating the British military presence in China but, whilst some of these can be found on Historical Photographs of China, this represents only a tiny fraction of what is potentially available.

Supported by the Army Museums Ogilby Trust (AMOT) and a generous grant from the Swire Foundation, Historical Photographs of China (HPC) is launching a project that will seek to make that material better-known and more accessible to a wider public and bring out the social and cultural implications of that presence both in and outside the combat zone. By creating links with such collections, digitising and up-loading images on the HPC web-site, where feasible, and hosting introductory blogs, the project is designed to stimulate interest in, and debate about, Britain’s presence in China and this aspect of its past more generally, as well as providing sometimes rare and distinctive views of China and Sino-foreign encounters. In this blog, I will set the scene with the introduction of military photography to China and its early uses.

The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was the first military campaign in China to be successfully captured in photographs. Felix Beato, who had already built his reputation in the Crimea, arrived in Hong Kong as the war was entering its final phase and went on to produce outstanding images of its brutality and waste. [2]  Published as engravings in newspapers and journals, copies of these photographs could also be purchased in China and later in London, and some examples, now extremely valuable, can still be found in the archives of regiments that took part in the conflict.

Chinese Artillery on Peking City Walls, October 1860. Photograph by Felice Beato. The 67th (South Hants) Regiment of Foot played a major part in the final stages of the attack on Peking. This photograph is in the Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum’s archives and must have been purchased in the 1860s by someone in the regiment [3]

At the same time as professional photographers were coming to the fore, the army was recognising the potential of photography for its own purposes. The lead was taken by the Royal Engineers and, by the 1850s, Charles Thurston Thompson, the official photographer of the South Kensington Museum, was giving them instructions in the complexities of the wet-plate collodion process. [4] As a result, even before Beato arrived, Lieutenant-Colonel Papillon and two fellow sappers were photographing the British occupation in and around Canton (Guangzhou) in a semi-official capacity. [5] By the 1870s, another sapper, Captain de Wiveslie Abney (1843-1921), had become a leading authority in the field. In addition to lecturing at the School of Military Engineering (SME), he produced a best-selling manual which stressed the importance of approaching the subject with both ‘an artistic and scientific mind’. [6]

Officers also started taking and acquiring pictures for their personal use and having their likenesses recorded in cartes de visite: these would be enclosed in letters home or pasted into albums, which can still be found in regimental archives.[7] Some of these were taken in commercial photography studios that were starting to be established in China. John Thomson (1837-1921), who spent four years in Hong Kong, with extended visits to Peking (Beijing), Fujian, along the Yangzi, and Guangdong from 1868 until 1872, was perhaps the most celebrated of these early photographers. Coinciding with the work of Dr John Dudgeon (1837-1901), who published the first treatise on photography to be written in Chinese, by the late 1870s, photography had become a thriving commercial enterprise for western and Chinese studios in treaty port China and Hong Kong.[8]  Ten years later, with the introduction of the dry-plate gelatin process and the Kodak ‘point and shoot’ camera, ‘instant photography’ had also become a popular past-time for amateurs.[9]

It is not surprising, therefore, that Britain’s military presence in China from 1856 until its final withdrawal in 1940, was extensively photographed by members of the armed forces, newspaper correspondents and civilians. [10]  Undoubtedly, at times it could be used as a powerful mechanism of imperialism, the triumphalist and brutal imagery of the Boxer Uprising and War being a prime example.[11]

A damaged corner of the British Legation, Peking (Beijing), c.1901, with LEST WE FORGET inscribed on the wall. Photograph by the Photo Section of the British Corps of Royal Engineers, from an album (WO 28/302. China. Boxer Rebellion) in the National Archives. Crown copyright image reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England.

However, as we will see in the next blog, many of these regimental collections also reflect a more nuanced aspect to the military presence, showing how photography could stimulate interest in China and its culture and facilitate interaction with the Chinese people outside the combat zone. [12]


[1] Margery Masterson, ‘Besmirching Britannia’s Good Name: Army Scandals in Mid-Victorian Britain’:  Unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, University of Bristol, 2012, p.22 and the works there cited.

[2]  A selection of Beatos’ images can be found on the HPC platform; see also Jeffrey Cody and Frances W. Terpak (eds), Brush & Shutter: early photography in China (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute), 2011.

[3] See my earlier blog on this.

[4] James R. Ryan, Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1997), p.73.

[5] For the Second Opium War, including the Royal Engineers photographers, see Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China, 1842-1860 (London: Quaritch, 2009), pp.81-122. For Papillon, see John Falconer, ‘John Ashton Papillon: An amateur photographer in China, 1858-1860’, Photographic Collector, 3, no. 3, 1982, p.353. The on-line catalogue of the Royal Engineers Museum Library and Archive (REMLA) has a thumbnail image and detailed notes in relation to each photograph: to see these follow this link; REMLA 6.1: ‘Photographs taken in China during the years, 1858, 59 & 60 by Lieut. J.A. Papillon Album’.

[6] Capt. William de Wiveslie Abney, RE, Instruction in Photography: For Use at the SME Chatham ​(Chatham, 1871); a later version ran into eleven editions.

[7] On regimental cartes de visite see my earlier blog.

[8] See Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China, 1842-1860 (London: Quaritch, 2009); Bennett, History of Photography in China: Western Photographs, 1861-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2010); for Thomson, see pp. 214-256 and for Dudgeon, pp.37-55; Bennett, History of Photography in China: Chinese Photographers, 1844-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2013). See also Betty Yao (ed), China Through the Lens of John Thomson 1869-1872 (London: River Books, 2015).

[9] See my blog ‘The Kodak comes to Peking‘, and Falconer, Western Eyes: Photographs of China in Western Collections, 1860-1930, (Beijing 2008).

[10] For details of the regiments that were stationed in China and Hong Kong during this period, see A.J. Harfield, British and Indian Armies on the China Coast 1840 – 1985 (London: A & J Partnership, 1990), pp. 485-492.

[11] Cf. James Hevia, English Lessons: The pedagogy of imperialism in nineteenth-century China (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), pp. 260-281.

[12] See Robert Bickers, ‘The Lives and Deaths of Photographs in China’ in Christian Henriot and Weh–hsiu Yeh (eds), Visualising China, 1845 -1965: Moving and Still Images in Historical Narratives (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp.3-38.