Historical Chinese Postcard Project: 1896 - 1920


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Topics in Chinese Postcards

Authors: Régine Thiriez
Date: May 2004

Generally, the themes treated by early postcards can be sorted in three traditional genres of 'topography', 'customs', and 'portraiture'. These themes, found everywhere, derive strongly (but not exclusively) on photographic traditions established since photography was born in 1839.

This is true also in China, with the added feature that early postcards were, in general, made for a Western public both in China and abroad. The China they reflect is that seen by the West, with all its positive and negative undertones.

At geography level, early postcards broadly cover the same areas as 19th century photography, which shows almost exclusively areas with some foreign population. The Treaty Ports*, the only places open to international trade and still where most of the foreigners leaved, were scattered along the coast or rivers. Several colonies had also been claimed by foreign powers. These places were prime subjects. From north to south, the places best covered by postcards were Shenyang
(Mukden) and Lüshun (Port-Arthur) in Manchuria; Beijing; Tianjin; Yantai
(Chefoo); Qingdao; Shanghai; Hankou; Xiamen (Amoy); Canton; Macao; Hong
Kong; and the area along the border with Tonkin (North Vietnam). Few inland areas were shown at that point, although exceptions are found along the railroad lines in Hubei and Yunnan, or mission territories--both of which were Western interests.

Reflecting this reality, a fourth genre is discussed here, 'TheWest in China'.

The major publishers of postcards were in Tianjin, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hankou, and Hong Kong. [See 'Publishers']

1 - Topography

After a first, international stage of "colonial style", Western architecture took a more nationalistic appearance. A striking example is the Shanghai Bund in its 1890s stage. Churches are another example. The French in particular dotted the Chinese landscape with a string a neo-gothic church steeples, including in cities where it looked for commanding sites previously used by important architecture, such as the governor's yamen in Canton, or the city god temple in Tianjin.
[to be developed]

2 - Scenes of Chinese Life

Typical scenes of exotic cultures are a favorite subject in the West, and as a consequence, of postcards. Exotic did not always mean far away however, and postcards everywhere show the local version of small trades or various modes of traditional dress.

The market was not a local one, and Chinese photography, and later postcards, produced from the start for the West. The scenes most illustrated were those that had an immediate resonance in Western customs, things that could be understood because the viewer was familiar with the custom shown. In general however, the topic of life outside the public space was banned, and this agrees with the Chinese idea of privacy. The most popular topics included barbers, musicians, and all forms of land or water transportation. Eating was also shown for the valuable pastime it was, from tea house to sidewalk businesses, and ambulatory restaurants where everything including the customer's seat could be carried on a single bamboo pole or other portable apparatus.

A special category of images shows a negative side of China. The infamous trio of opium smoking, bound feet (shown naked) and harsh justice are a stereotyped image of China which goes back a long way but reveals more about the Western amateurs than on China itself.

Series of postcards of customs illustrated a wide variety of occupations. They might be numbered, an incentive for collectors to get the whole set. The scenes included (1) photographs made in the street, often for this purpose, but also (2) many older scenes produced by photographic studios as photographic prints for albums, sometimes as far back as 1865. This means that the customs shown may be somewhat obsolete, or not practiced any longer in the same way at the time the postcard was purchased. However, there are no other particular problems with the first kind, although the second one needs to be discussed.

Most of the older scenes were studio creations which, whether they had been shot indoor or outdoor, were set up. This means that the photographers actually created the image, that they decided not only what the action was, but also how it was performed, by whom and with what paraphernalia. Which raises the question is of how realistically or "exactly" they reflected Chinese customs. Based on multiple examples, the answer is: very well in the 1870s, but possibly less accurately in the 1890s.

3 - Portraits:

Many more postcards of women than men were produced in China, reflecting universal market trends which makes beauties a more desirable subject than men. Also, most of these portraits seem to show people in large cities, particularly Shanghai, Tianjin, Canton and Hong Kong, as well as expatriate Chinese.

Postcard publishers often recycled studio portraits as "types" of people, adding captions such as "Chinese women" or "a Chinese family". Not only was the identity of the subject thus obliterated, but many of the portraits actually show prostitutes of various rank, a particularly numerous population in Shanghai and Tianjin which was for professional reasons a keen customer of the photographic studios. In fact, Chinese prostitutes (or courtesans as the higher-ranking ones are known) dressed with apparent propriety, showing their profession -- if at all -- only in subtle details such as a man's fan, a cut flower (the euphemism used to name them, see cn00020), their name embroidered on their clothing, or the excessive wealth of their attire (see the girl in cn00016, for example). However, the Chinese caption - if any - is more informative than the Western-language one, especially when the women were local celebrities (see cn00004). Another clue to the women's class is the photographer himself when he is known, or the place the photograph was taken. It is certain in any case that most people in the West were not aware of the women's identities, as the senders and/or recipients generally appear respectable (see cn00019): the author saw one sent by a French missionary to a nun in Paris.

The format of photographic portrait of Chinese was set on the China coast in the 1860s, and experienced few variations until the 1910s when a local, Chinese, style took over. The standard setup included a table on which several objects were displayed: tea cup, flowers, water pipe and clock are extremely common, real antiques are much rarer. Sometimes a large white vase of uncertain usage was set on the floor. By 1900, studio portraits were shot in front of painted backdrops with "exotic" settings, in either the chinoiserie or European style. The most typical item is the table, which changes shape, often adopting in Shanghai a modern, Western, three-legged round shape with a fringe or table cloth.

A number of the postcards show Chinese women living abroad, especially in Indochina. They can often be identified through the unusual combination of clothing (correct items that should not normally be worn together).

Biblio: Thiriez (2004), "Imperial China in Postcards"

4 - The West in China (to be completed)








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