Qing Dynasty Photography

I blundered into a bunch of old photographs of China by a Chinese photographer, and I’m geeking out over it so much I’ve just got to share my favorite images from the batch, and some observations about them. Inspect everything carefully and ask questions, and these photos have a lot to teach about history. If you want to play along, look for patterns, think as much about what you don’t see as what you do, and be ready to make inferences. Engage your brain. Everything’s more fun that way.


About the Artist

Lai Afong, a very sober and scholarly-looking photographer in a nice silk shirt.

The photographer himself, around 1870. Although it’s getting rickety after two Opium Wars, a civil war on the scale of WW I in terms of death toll, and a bunch of really unfair trade concessions, that’s still a solid 30 years or so before the Qing Dynasty finally collapses like a late-game Jenga tower.

This is the only photograph I know of of the photographer himself, known to us here and now as Lai Afong. Very very few Chinese family names have two syllables, and when you look at the card, the first character on the left is Fāng, which is his real surname. “Ah” in this case is a familiar-toned prefix. Here’s a biography from the History of the Three Kingdoms to show you how this works (scroll down and expand the first note if you don’t want to read the whole thing although you’ll be sorry you didn’t – history is awesome). I ♥ Lü Meng, and you should too. Back to the photography! In any case, Fāng was active from the 1860s through the 1880s, until his death in 1890. I like these images so much because most of the other photographs we have of China at this time are taken by people who aren’t Chinese, and this means that in their photos we see the Qing Dynasty through literally foreign eyes. Fāng, however, can show us much more than that, and his subjects seem a lot more at ease. He also gets photographs of people that foreign photographers can’t, and, as everybody twigs to what the new technology can do for them, and the portfolio develops around demand, there’s suddenly lots of insight to be had by historians about just how fast people will adopt new technology, how they want to be seen, and what Fāng’s marketing strategy was like for the successful studio.


Portraits and Landscapes


Beardy brit soldier and his wife, presumably, on an old card-style photograph.

Based on the photography tech, the man’s uniform and beard, and the woman’s updo and the profile of her dress, I’d guess this was made around 1867. Not quite a full-on 1870s bustle, yet, but we’ve passed the low bun hairdos of the first half of the 1860s.

This one’s a stand-in for all of the other visiting-card portraits and landscapes from the studio. There are lots of these, especially early on. Fāng seemed to market his skills toward the foreign market, and take portraits and landscapes that people might want to send home. Since a photography studio exists to create photos people want to buy, Fāng’s output always existed in tension between pandering to whatever foreigners wanted to see in China (literally and metaphorically), and what his rapidly expanding Chinese clientele wanted to see in themselves.


The Hairdresser

A barber (or photographer's assistant playing a barber) in the studio with props, shaving another man's head.

I picked the barber example for a reason. Pay attention: this is all going to be very, very, important.

Of the photos that seem to be aimed at foreigners, there’s ones like this, showing everyday events or occupations. In the context of a book written by outsiders looking in, who don’t know and don’t care what the haircut is about, the meaning might boil down to something like: Their hair is different. Look how different their hair is. (Different is bad and inferior.)

Let’s try to rectify that a little, and talk more about the context of the hair in a big-picture kind of way. I can’t know how much of this was wrapped up in this photograph, because I’m not Fāng, but I can give you a broad historical overview. Hairdos are about identity. This is true for the people who used the queue to caricature and segregate the Chinese outside of China, and hairdo-as-identity is certainly true inside China. Traditionally, Han Chinese culture looked on the human body as a gift from one’s parents. To harm any part of it was a violent act against the parent-child bond. Before the Qing Dynasty, cutting or shaving hair was simply not done. To have your hair cut was an assault on your ties to family and society. Similarly, tattoos or body modification were out. The Qing Dynasty was ruled by the Manchu, and when they conquered the Ming Dynasty, they imposed the queue haircut on the Han ethnic population, forcing the men to shave the front half of their head to the crown, and braid the rest as a test of loyalty. If you were a man, having a full head of hair was a flagrant statement of Ming loyalist intentions and therefore high treason and a capital offence.  So, hair-cutting during the Qing Dynasty carried a heavy cultural and historical burden.

….Aaaaand you just read this from a modern American who’s so white I’m having completely un-ironic and un-exotic bratwurst and noodles for dinner tonight (11/17/2018), although I do have a very solid college background in East Asian history. I hand-picked all these pictures, so they’ve been pre-filtered. BY ME. PRANK’D!! Everything has a source, everything is a source, and everything has a point of view. Your teachers do, your movies, video games, and books do, your parents do, bus drivers do, I do, you do, there’s no avoiding it, so be aware of it. Again: engage your brain.

The only Han Chinese people involved here are Fāng and his studio, and a large number of his clients. They decide how we look at what we’re looking at in any given photo, even if the subject matter was picked by someone else. Even if we can’t know everything about these photos completely, we can still see the world through his lens. Speaking of which…


A Street in Canton

A deep, narrow street lined with tall signs, and people walking in the road.

I love street scenes. Trying to get the film exposure times right for this picture must have been tricky.

You awake and alert yet? Good. We’re just warming up. The historian in me loves all these photos, but the artsy side loves this one the most. Composition, motion blur, light levels, all of it just comes together perfectly. Fāng had an incredible eye. Back to the history, though. Look carefully, and you’ll probably be most struck by what you don’t see. There are no women at all in this picture. Maybe they’re hiding, out of sight, or maybe they just wouldn’t be out on the street in the business district. Either way, we’ve learned something about this time and place and culture – public life is an all-male social universe. Protip: you might be drawing on your own cultural framework right now to try to interpret what this means, or even make some inferences about how the rest of Qing Dynasty society operates. Resist the temptation, and be patient. If you draw on your own experience while trying to understand a different place, time, and culture, you’re literally looking at the wrong evidence. Gather as much as you can of the history you’re actually trying to learn about, and do your best to meet it on its own terms.


Two Officials in Summer Uniform

Two gentlemen sit for a portrait.

A couple of officials, in summer uniform. Infuriatingly, I can’t quite make out what’s on the embroidered badge on the front of their robes. If I could, I’d know what rank they were. If it were in color, you’d be able to tell from the round ball on the hat. I’d guess they’re relatively high ranking, though, because of the peacock feather dangling from the hat bobble – those could only be worn as a decoration granted by the Emperor.

Pretty soon, people started to sit for portraits. Although there’s still plenty of pictures of Fāng’s studio having staged meals, pretending to gamble, or cosplaying accountants, the pace of portraiture of local people really picks up. This particular set – two chairs, and the stack of books on an end table – is particularly popular. You’ll see it later.

In the meantime, let’s talk briefly about what these gentlemen do for a living, and how they got there. In order to be an official, you had to pass a grueling entrance exam. Basically, they locked you in a guarded cubicle and expected you to produce an essay. Then the essays would be ranked, and the people who had written the best ones got slotted into openings in the bureaucracy. In order to get where they are, they had to pass this bonus-boss-level essay exam. Aside from the uniforms, though, the books, writing on the hand fan, and even the long fingernails (if you work a nice cushy desk job, you don’t wear down or break your nails), imply that these are gentlemen and scholars. It’s a studio photograph: everything in front of the camera was placed there by someone who wanted you to see it.



Six women sitting for a portrait. They're probably singing women.

Advertising FTW! Given her more matronly hairdo, I’d guess the woman seated on the right is in charge, and the group portrait is her idea. Also, note that they wear both pants and skirts, either/or, and sometimes at once.

The caption on Wikimedia commons says “courtesans,” but that’s not a very precise term, and, unfortunately, the English language – for abundant historical and cultural reasons – doesn’t have a lot of nuance in this particular area. Meanwhile, across East and Southeast Asia – for equally abundant historical and cultural reasons – there are a massive diversity of female (and frequently male, and also third-sex) entertaining jobs that English-speakers struggle to define. All of our words that even vaguely approach the idea seem to imply prostitute, on some kind of spectrum between least-fancy to most-fancy, when this isn’t really the same.

Clearly, just one word – courtesans – isn’t going to cut it. Given the caption, the haircuts, how nice their clothes and jewelry are, the very tiny bound feet of two of the women, and the savvy studio portrait, I’d guess that these are a troupe of high-class singing-women, and they planned to use the picture to advertise. Singing-women were entertainers, prized for their beauty, artistic accomplishments, and refinement. There might be sex-for-pay involved, there might not, depending on the class of singing-woman and her relationship with the client. Ideally, a singing-woman might be able to catch the long-term patronage of a wealthy man, and even enter his household as a concubine.

“Concubine.” Guess we’d better cover that, too. Okay. So. Marriages between men and women (note qualifier, *hint hint*) in China at this time were (at least potentially) polygynous. One man could marry several women, as long as he could afford to pay the bride price for them, and for their upkeep. There wasn’t the same idea of legitimate vs illegitimate birth as there was in Europe, because women were ranked by seniority in the household, and children inherited the relative status of their mothers in addition to their place by birth order. The highest-ranked son, usually the firstborn son and/or the firstborn son of the primary wife, succeeded to lead the family when his father died. (In the case that the firstborn son wasn’t the primary wife’s, she often adopted and raised him as her own.) Most men could only afford to marry one woman, though, and some men couldn’t afford to marry any women at all, usually those who were extra sons from poorer families. Men also generally married women later in life than women married men, providing a little demographic padding for the sex imbalance to sort itself out. Here’s an example of a couple of paragraphs from the Liji (The Book of Rites), in the book Nei Ze (the Pattern of the Family), that lays out the customary ages of marriage for men and women (paragraphs 80 and 82, respectively). The Chinese Text Project strikes again! Also, note that men are expected to marry at thirty, and women at twenty or twenty-three. The Liji is from the Warring States Period, contemporaneous with Ancient Greece (although it was still very much regarded as an important morality guide a couple of millennia later), and so don’t believe a word of that “people always married way young in the past” nonsense. Blanket statements Just Won’t Do.


Upper-Crust Ladies

Four women, one of them probably a maid or other attendant, sitting for a photo, all holding books.

Finally! I think I can make out cranes on the woman on the left’s robes’ embroidered border.

Given the embroidered clothes, brocade silk, and probably motifs that were restricted in use to the wives or daughters of officials, these are definitely ladies. Each of them has a book – they want you to know that they’re literate and literary, too. Given the bound feet, and the hairdos, they’re not Manchu, but probably Han. Again, everything in front of the camera was put there. You’ll also note that there are no men. All of the pictures show only men, or only women. It just wouldn’t be proper, otherwise. I don’t mean improper for the ladies only, either. It would be definitely weird for men to be seen in the company of women in public. My guess is that Fāng’s services were so valuable and in-demand in households like this that he was given special permission (with male family members no doubt present off-camera) to photograph the ladies, OR, maybe Fāng’s studio had female members – a wife or sister, perhaps – who could photograph women, since women could go where men could not. Maybe men and women saw each other in public social spheres more than these photos suggest – again, it’s what people are choosing to show us.


Two Women

Two ladies sit for a portrait. One of them has bound feet, and the other doesn't.

Another portrait of women. Note the same table with books on it as a prop. This is the same setup as the two officials, earlier.

These women seem to be roughly comparable in status, though. Nice silk clothes, pants, some jewelry. This is also taken in the studio, and it’s the exact same setup as with the officials, much earlier in this post. Note that the one on the left has bound feet, while the one on the right does not. Even at this point in time, the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, foot binding wasn’t universal. The Manchu never bound feet, and even among Han women, it wasn’t a given that every woman’s foot was bound. The extensive record of foot binding found in these photographs among high-status women might seem to contradict the earlier information that body modification was taboo. There’s a loophole, though: since your body came from your parents, it’s okay if your body is modified by your parents. Given how nice her clothes are, I’d love to know why the woman on the right has natural feet. Did she see an unexpected and meteoric rise in fortunes over her lifetime? If so, how? (Especially since foot binding was practiced in the first place as a means to aid daughters in marrying up.) Was she born into wealth, and her family just didn’t practice foot binding? There’s a story here, a very interesting one, that over-generalizations and stereotypes would erase completely.


It’s the Book Table Again

two more women sitting for a portrait at that book table. One of them is dressed as a man.

If men and women are never seen in public together, and taking a portrait together would be unheard of, who is that rather scholarly-looking gentleman?

I told you at the very beginning that this would be on the test. Men’s clothes and hat. Male posture with knees wide apart. Unbound feet. Look very closely at the hairdos, though, and you’ll find the first big clue. The person on the right has hair visible at the temple, forward of the ears. He is not biologically male. Given the feet, however, he was almost certainly raised to be male, though, from at least toddler-hood, since foot binding generally started very young, before the bones could completely calcify.

Theater actors, maybe? An example I know of from modern China is the opera actor Wang Peiyu, who specializes in wise old minister roles (laosheng roles). Here’s a nice interview, where you can see lots of examples of the roles and other biological women who have been male-role opera stars, and all the training behind Wang Peiyu’s current expertise. All 20 minutes or so are well worth it, even if you won’t understand a word. It’s also somewhat common for these actors to be male-gender off-stage too, like Wang Peiyu. Honorary men aren’t exactly unheard-of, in historical China.

In Qing Dynasty China, sex and gender aren’t invariably connected to someone’s physical attributes, but exist in interplay with social roles. Given foot binding and the existence of a rare but vitally important artificial third sex, eunuchs, the idea was to mold the body to fit the role, rather than the other way around. Virtually all of the rules we have in our culture for how sex and gender work, or even the definitions of the concepts themselves are different than what you see in historical sources. If you assume things work the same, across all places and times, you’ll be mislead.

History is fearsomely complicated and nuanced, and that’s how I like it. Don’t take my word for it, though, here’s the entire category on Wikimedia Commons, so you can look at all the pictures for yourself. There’s lots of cool stuff there that I didn’t have the time to get into.

Accountant cosplay! A wildly unenthusiastic Japanese picture bride (probably)! Blatantly inaccurate book captions! (“Each instrument has one string only,” my foot. You can clearly see at least two in the actual picture, let alone counting pegs. Yeesh, C. J. Cornish, get it together.) Go explore!