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Singing girls, an aviatrix in furs and the delicate beauty of the Last Empress: Fascinating photos of Old China taken by missionaries in the last year

Monday, September 17, 2012

Serene: A boat sails down a river in the Jiangsu province of China in 1946. The placid scene belies the rebellion, occupation, civil war and natural disasters of the previous half-century

In the momentary respite between the ravages of the Second World War and the resumption of civil war in June 1946, a Chinese fishing junk drifts down a placid river with the sun setting behind the hills.
Showing a country on the cusp of historic change, it provides a fitting end to this extraordinary series of images charting life in the world's largest nation during the late-19th and mid-20th centuries.
This was a period which saw the decline of the ruling Qing dynasty and the abdication of China's last emperor; a European influx and a Chinese exodus; a domestic rebellion and a foreign occupation.

Former US president and civil war general Ulysses S Grant meets Chinese viceroy Li Hung Chang in Tianjin, 1879. The two enjoyed friendly relations and discussed how to develop China and improve her trade with the world

A Russian soldier talks with Chinese camel owners in Beijing in 1901. Beijing was one of the many Chinese cities that remained under occupation by foreign powers in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900

From the mid-nineteenth century, an increasing number of Christian missionaries and western travellers were making their way East. To many Chinese, their presence was a major grievance, but if there was one thing these foreign devils were any good at, it was photography.
This is just a tiny sample of the vast repository of pictures built up by westerners in China around the turn of the century. They provide a glimpse of everyday life that would have been overlooked by the official photographers of the dying imperial regime.

The whipping or flogging with a paddle, known in Chinese as 'bastinado', was one of the many forms of corporal punishment employed in Qing China to maintain civil obedience

And in many instances, the story of the person behind the camera is just as fascinating as the subject itself.
After his second term as President of the United States, Civil War general Ulysses S Grant travelled to China as part of a world tour to drum up political support.
The general was received in Tianjin in 1879 by viceroy Li Hung Chang, a giant of a man with 'a keen eye, a wide head and a large forehead' who spoke 'with a quick, decisive manner'.

Li Hung Chang was a moderniser, 'not afraid by railways and telegraphs, and anxious to to strengthen and develop China by all the agencies of outside civilisation'.
But many of his countrymen did not share his openness to Western influences. Over the previous decades Christian missionaries had tried to convert large numbers of Chinese. Moreover, European powers had staked their claim to Chinese territory and forced punitive trade agreements on the country.
The most infamous of these was the treaty of Nanjing. The 1842 agreement protected the right of British merchants to sell vast quantities of opium, and widespread addiction to the drug was having a destructive effect on all levels of Chinese government and society.

In the final years of the 19th century both drought and flooding in rural areas made the population restless. The weak reformist government was overthrown by a regime that shared the people's antipathy towards foreigners. In 1900, rebellion broke out and armed groups of 'Boxers' laid siege to foreign embassies in the capital, Beijing.
The Boxers practised martial arts and claimed supernatural invulnerability towards modern armaments. When they reached the foreign legations in Beijing, American, Russian, Japanese, British and other European troops were brought in to crush the rebellion.

'Ladies of the Palace' photographed by Frank Carpenter and his daughter Frances. The picture shows the rich detail of court fashion during the last years of the Manchu Qing dynasty

Captured Boxer fighters were executed or subjected to exemplary punishments, and Beijing and other cities remained under foreign occupation to suppress any further disturbances.
But if the foreign occupiers acted with brutality, the ruling Qing dynasty was not known for its benevolence. The pictures below show the punishment meted out to lawbreakers, and the bridges used by the police to patrol city roofs at night.

Early 1900s Chinese children were hardly ever at ease enough to unabashedly play in front of a western photographer. They were either too scared, shy, or mesmerized by the whole process.
But one rare image successfully captures that. In a collaborative effort, five boys acrobatically form the head of a dragon, showing how traditional folklore and myth were inculcated into the Chinese psyche at an early age.
The picture is attributed to Herbert Ponting, the intrepid photographer who would document Captain Scott's last, ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.

The hardship of the country: Workers stand barefoot at the mouth of a coalmine in the hills of rural China

The bustle of the city: Hong Kong's Queen's Road on Chinese New Year's Day 1902

The Chinese labourers in this South African gold mine show the global reach of Chinese emigrants, driven from their homeland by famine and social upheaval

A toy vendor shows off his wares in San Francisco's Chinatown around 1900. Immigration controls and strict marriage laws meant that the two Chinese children in this picture would have been an unusual sight

On a Washington airstrip in 1939 Colonel Roscoe Turner presents Chinese aviatrix Hilda Yen with the aeroplane that would nearly kill her in a crash a month later

A military vehicle makes it way through a mountainous region of the Jiangsu province, 1946

source: dailymail