Workshop Overview

This workshop explores photography's decisive role in shaping China’s image for both internal and international audiences. Early European, Japanese, and American colonial photography of China’s east coast featured the unchanging nature of people, place, and things. Studio photography often included costume and props to signify profession (large farmer’s hat, rickshaw cart), suggesting a marketplace of pre-modern, handmade commodities. Dramatic studio lighting evoked 18th century engravings of theatre, ritual, and festivals popular in emerging European ethnography. Ninteenth and 20th century Shanghai street photography captured an immobile local population as irrelevant observers to the active foreign commerce; Shanghai’s economic boon happens in spite of local residents. In elevated, bird’s eye views, foreign companies are busy transporting goods on long, winding thoroughfares; bridges linking city divisions; and harbor docks. By the 1890s, photos of Shanghai’s Bund—one of the city’s most frequently photographed scenes and one of the top-ten photographed sites in China in the 20th century—conveyed the city’s productiveness generated by the International Settlements.

Local time was at a standstill in international imagery of China, but not so in Chinese pictorial and verbal depictions of similar spaces. Shanghai writers and photojournalists highlighted change in social and urban space and emphasized the emergence of new (xin) cultural practices (Lee, 2000). By the 1920s, popular serials such as Liangyou (Young Companion) enthusiastically feature the bustling pace of the city with movie theatres, dance clubs, and cutting-edge fashion. Beyond the material, Shanghai writers suggested the psychological dimensions of the dawning of a new era—a modernity that is at odds with the static description of coastal culture in European photography. Locally produced, Chinese photo spreads often juxtapose Shanghai’s modernity with the pre-modern space of its interior or the primitive pace of life in other countries such as Vietnam to convey the city’s international dimensions.

The early 20th century image of Shanghai, Hong Kong, etc. as prosperous urban centers had traction in colonial photography. Shanghai’s population—dutiful (yet passive)—is depicted in scenes of embroidering ladies in mission sewing clubs and as grateful recipients of America’s wartime milk donations. This contrasts with late 19th century-early 20th century photography of Guangzhou and Hong Kong as spaces of destitute squalor sparsely enriched in select pockets by foreign (opium) business. Later, post-Boxer Rebellion photography of Tianjin and Beijing (ca. 1900-1901) conveys these urban centers as criminally abject, warranting the brutal punishment meted out by treaty port officials. Punitive photography of coastal cities became part of China’s image. The question remains: Did China’s own early 20th century mass media internalize the negative, colonial view of its emerging urban culture? This conference will bring together scholars who will address this question exploring the relationship of coastal photography to China’s own neo-colonial photography of the ‘primitive’ interior.