Visualizing the Middle Kingdom: A Century of Early China (Street) Photography

If you’re into different cultures and continents, this is a great visual journey back in time: Visualizing China, a British-funded project to allow users to explore and enhance more than 8,000 digitized images of photographs of China taken between 1850 and 1950. It’s a tool for researchers, students and photographers alike who are not only interested in the photographic record of China during this period, but also in early photography techniques.

Strictly speaking, this is China street photography from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, a project made possible by a collaboration between scholars at the University of Bristol, University of Lincoln, the Institut d’Asie Orientale and TGE Adonis, this project aims to locate, archive and disseminate photographs from the substantial holdings of images of old and modern China held mostly in private hands overseas.

You catch a glimpse of what the revolution destroyed. You’re shown a Shanghai that is moving fascinated professional and snapshot photographers alike.

Picturing China 1870-1950
The images capture the city tramping on foot, ferried in sampans, seated in rickshaw or on wheelbarrow (or pulling or pushing them), taking its trams and the motor buses.

They came to the city on foot, by rail or steamer. Jostling the busy thoroughfares are shop signs and massive billboards; Sikh police marshal people along.

China’s cities and their peoples embraced “modernity” as the collected photographs from across the country show: they walked and rode it (real vehicles and imagined ones), and caught it on camera as they went.

Take your time, simply select an image to get more details, or search for other images of any other Chinese city.

There’s a dedicated blog and a companion book to the project: Picturing China 1870-1950: Photographs From British Collections.

A rural woman with a toddler: This charming portrait is one of scores of similar ones taken by Shanghai detective William Armstrong, in the Taihu region west of Shanghai. The project welcomes thoughts about his motives in making this puzzling series of portraits. A detective might be thinking about recording criminal “types,” but these seem very unlikely candidates. Why did he take them? | 1923-1925 (estimated)
“Death by ten thousand cuts.” Lingchi was a most feared punishment, carried out while the miscreant was still alive, for treason and crimes against the family. | 1900-1905 (estimated)
This striking photograph, with strong diagonals in the style of Alexander Rodchenko, may well be the work of an unidentified Chinese studio photographer working in the racy, cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930s. The precise combination printing and the masterly control of light and shade makes for a somewhat surreal and tipsy, triple view portrait — surrealist photography being very much about “evoking the union of dream and reality.” The original print is small (less than 2×3″). The portrait sitter could look at this photo of herself gazing at herself — a witty, even post-modernist, at any rate modern play on self-regard and on portrait photography itself. | 1930s
Silk filature or factory, Shanghai: A filature was an establishment for reeling silk from cocoons. There were many such factories in Shanghai and they must have employed several hundred children. Silk was of course a luxury item for the wealthy and much exported. This sobering image, complete with fingerprint, brings to mind the campaigning work “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis, one of the earliest publications of photojournalism documenting squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. | 1900
A man kneeling in front of a grave is about to be executed by a Japanese soldier holding a sword surrounded by many military witnesses. | 1900-1930 (estimated)
Original photograph purchased in a junk shop, Jing’an district, Shanghai, 2010. It can be assumed that the photograph was taken in a photographer’s studio in Shanghai. | 1951
Tram, rickshaws, republic flags and a Chinese policeman at the corner of Qipanjie Street (now Henan Zhong Lu) and Canton Road (now Guangdong Lu). Teahouse on the right-hand side. | 1920s (estimated)
Port of Shanghai | 1911-1912
A snapshot of a busy thoroughfare in Changsha, capital of Hunan province. The men are not sporting the “queue,” so this is a post-1911 shot, and the flat cap on the left dates it perhaps to the 1920s at least. Changsha had a tumultous time in the republic. It was the scene of bloody purges targetting the Communists in early 1927 as the revolutionary alliance between the Communist Party the Guomindang collapsed; it was held briefly by Communist forces in 1930 and besieged and briefly held by the Japanese. | 1910-1930 (estimate)
A self-conscious, provocative, “modern” woman, not shy of the camera, and breaking several conventions. | 1920s