Haunting portraits of a lost China

A Scotsman's pictures from the 19th century are finally going on show in Beijing.

By Clifford Coonan
Wednesday 03 July 2013 04:41

Her eyes are looking away from the camera, a bride in a costume of heavy silk and intricate floral work, a young woman whose future is secure but who knows she can only expect a life of drudgery. The Scottish photographer John Thomson captured these mixed feelings in the 1870s on a glass plate, and the photograph, near left top, is one of the startling images in a new exhibition of his work that opens in Beijing on Wednesday.

She is a Manchu, one of the warrior tribe that conquered the Ming rulers and founded the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, ruling China until it collapsed in 1911. The Han people they subjugated have largely absorbed the Manchus, but the exhibition of 148 images gives a rare insight into the daily lives of that disappeared ruling class of northern invaders.

Edinburgh-born Thomson was a pioneer of social documentary photography, fascinated by China and South-east Asia. Such was his expertise on China that he became known as "China Thomson". He was not the first Western photographer to document China in the 19th century, but he was the first to document the country so extensively, travelling from Formosa (Taiwan) to Fujian and along the Yangtze.

Thomson's work is particularly revealing about the lives of women in China, from humble boatwomen in Canton, modern-day Guangdong, to the Manchu ascendancy with their elaborate hairstyles.

"His work contains so many pictures of people, especially women, at a time in the late Qing when women didn't go out often and were very much out of view. He must have been an incredible communicator to get this access," said the curator Betty Yao, who is based in London. Yao, who was born in Hong Kong, has spent four years assembling the show. "I was charmed," she said. "The photographs are very relaxed – posed in some cases, but we can see how Thomson was a precursor of photojournalism."

Thomson's communication skills led him into the home of Mr Yang, a rich Chinese man fascinated by foreign things. One image from Mr Yang's courtyard shows three women – two Manchu and one Chinese, highlighting the elaborate hairstyles of the Manchu women and the "golden lilies" or bound feet of the Chinese woman, near left bottom, who was subjected to the restriction of the growth of women's feet in the belief it made them more beautiful. The Manchu women's feet were not bound.

In a book he published about his travels at the time, Through China with a Camera, Thomson describes how women spent a lot of time smoking and gambling, but only after spending years learning the etiquette to follow these habits in a polite way. His vivid descriptions match the stated aim of his photographs: conveying "a general impression of the country and its people as we find them now-a-days".

The exhibition starts a four-museum tour of China at the Beijing World Art Museum next week and will tour the UK next year.

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