Culture | Stunning rare images of late imperial Beijing
Thomas Child. No. 154. Ming Tombs Avenue of Stone Figures. c.1870s.

Peking in pictures

‘Qing Dynasty Peking: Thomas Child’s Photographs’ is a remarkable exhibition of some of the finest photographic records of pre-revolutionary China

October 7, 2016 8:00 AM (UTC+8)

Astonishingly few early photographs of China survived the upheavals of the last century – decades of political ferment, wars and Mao Zedong’s destructive Cultural Revolution saw to that. Of those that did, some are the only records of buildings and sites that were later altered or destroyed.

Qing Dynasty Peking: Thomas Child’s Photographs, now showing at New York’s Mishkin gallery until October 25, is an exhibition of some of the finest images of late imperial China in existence. Curated from the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection by Stacey Lambrow, it features a selection of 40 original 19th Century albumen silver prints by Child.

An Englishman who worked in Beijing as a gas engineer, Child’s images date from 1871-1889 and constitute the earliest comprehensive photographic survey of the ancient city and its environs. They depict the architecture, monuments, people and culture of “Peking” during the early years of photography and offer a unique glimpse into China’s rich cultural past.

The New York exhibition is the first time these images, which survived because they were taken out of China and later turned up in auctions, have been shown publicly in the United States. Here we present a selection of Child’s pictures.

Bride and Bridegroom

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The couple in this image – Zeng Ji Fen (left) and Nie Ji Gui – were only recently identified after their octogenarian great grandson, now living in Queens, New York, saw it by chance. The bride is the youngest daughter of the Marquis Zeng Goufan, an eminent high-ranking late Qing dynasty official. Nie ji Gui later served as Shanghai’s Governor from 1890-1893. Zeng, who was 24 on her wedding day, in 1875, and who died at the age of 91, lived through the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer War, the fall of the Qing dynasty and two world wars. She had 13 children, 72 grandchildren and 38 great grandchildren.

Bridal Chair

In this photograph Child documents the ancient Chinese custom of the bridal sedan chair. Traditional Chinese weddings still retain this tradition. The passage in the chair represents the brideÕs transition from childhood to adulthood and from one family to another.
By ancient custom, bridal sedan chairs – carried by male porters – were used to transport a bride to her wedding. On arrival she would be helped down by a woman who had been “lucky” in marriage. Some Chinese weddings still retain this tradition.

Wedding Reception

Wedding Reception Room
This image shows a courtyard arranged for a wedding reception. “Every possible acquaintance and friend is invited to the feast,” wrote Child.

Stone Figures at the Ming Tombs

This is a view of Spirit Way at the Imperial Tombs outside Peking. The avenue lined with solid stone sculptures, symbolizes the road leading to heaven. It is lined with twenty-four animal figures, twelve standing and twelve recumbent.
This is a view of Spirit Way, at the Imperial Tombs outside Beiing. Lined with 24 animal figures carved from solid marble, in addition to 12 human sculptures, the avenue symbolizes the road leading to heaven. The camel and elephant sculptures represent the vast territory controlled by the court.

Marble Pailou at the Ming Tombs

This magnificent memorial arch at the entrance to the Ming Tombs outside of Peking is the largest and most famous archway in the capital and one of the greatest in China.
This magnificent memorial arch at the entrance to the Ming Tombs remains one of the most recognizable imperial landmarks in the Chinese capital.

Mongolian Lama

This is one of the earliest photographic portraits of a religious figure in Peking. In the 19th century, the term ‘lama’ referred to any Tibetan Buddhist monk or teacher. This image is among the earliest photographic depictions of such sacred objects, and provides a valuable record of religious practice in the period.
This is one of the earliest photographic portraits of a religious figure in Beijing. The lama and his pupil both hold prayer beads and bundles of sutras in their laps, while on the table are various sacred Tibetan ritual objects and bronze sculptures, including a figurine of Kali, the goddess of Time, Power, and Destruction.

Mud Idol, Peking

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A statue of one of the Four Great Heavenly Kings, who were said to watch over the four cardinal directions. Here, the guardian of the North holds an umbrella as a symbol of his sovereignty.

Last Lock of the Grand Canal

This is a rare view of the most important canal in Peking. Throughout the Qing dynasty, the Grand Canal, an important route between northern and southern China, was crucial for the transport of grain and other commodities to Peking.
A rare view of the imperial city’s most important canal, which took its current form during the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD). The canal was crucial for the transport of grain and other commodities to the city.

Moat, Imperial City

This is an important early view providing a glimpse of the Forbidden City from across an imperial moat. Child’s photograph shows 15th and 16th-century Chinese fortification systems which do not exist today.
A glimpse of the Forbidden City from across an imperial moat. Most of the walls and canals were dismantled and filled in after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911; the few that remained were destroyed at the behest of Mao Zedong.

Tobacco Shop

Child captures this dramatic street scene in front of an enormous and ornate wooden late Qing dynasty tobacco shop in the quarter of Peking known as the Chinese City.
Child captures a dramatic street scene in front of an ornately-fronted late Qing dynasty tobacco shop in the quarter of Peking known as the Chinese City. He wrote: “The most important part of the shops in Peking is the outside, much ingenuity is concentrated on the shop front, and large sums are expended in elaborate decoration.”

Porcelain Pailou, Hall of Classics

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The famous glazed archway at the entrance to the Imperial Academy (Guozijian) is a masterpiece of Chinese architecture. Visible through the pailou is Biyong Palace, which Child referred to as the ‘Hall of Classics’.

Tsung Li Yamen (Foreign Office)

Foreign office.
Established in 1861, the Qing government’s Foreign Office served as a bureaucratic agency dealing with the requests from foreign ministers. Child notes that the characters above the entrance mean “Great Prosperity at Home and Abroad.”

Jade Belt Bridge

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Jade Belt Bridge, or Moon Bridge, is on the grounds of the Summer Palace on the western shore of Kunming Lake. The elegantly arched bridge permitted passage of the Emperor’s dragon boat.

“Wan-Shou-Shan,” Summer Palace

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This is a view of the Seventeen Arch Bridge on the grounds of the Summer Palace. The bronze ox in the foreground, cast in 1755, was positioned overlooking Kunming lake in the hope of preventing floods.

Fountain Gate

Yuan Ming Yuan. Summer Palace.
In 1709, the Qing emperor Kangxi began the construction of Yuan Ming Yuan, or the Garden of Perfect Brightness, a garden retreat modeled on the grand palaces, gardens, and fountains of Europe. Much of the garden was destroyed in the Second Opium War, from 1856-60. Child took this photograph of Fountain Gate in Yuan Ming Yuan before it was further destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901).

Qing Dynasty Peking: Thomas Child’s Photographs is at the Sydney Mishkin Gallery on 135 East 22 Street, New York City, until October 25

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