A friend once asked which image most moved me during my 22-year editorship of “Old Photos,” a series of Chinese photography books. Although I have published thousands of pictures, one of them — a shot of a kindergarten teacher playing with a group of children on a lawn — particularly stands out, I replied.
The photo, seen at the head of this article, was taken in 1935 at Ginling College, a well-known school established by American missionaries in 1915 that today is part of Nanjing Normal University in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. I love how the winter sun illuminates the delicate features of the beautiful young teacher, while the smiling faces of the children around her are utterly carefree.
From a technical perspective, too, the image is practically perfect. Its composition is well-proportioned, and it captures a certain immutable energy in the whirling movements of the children and their well-defined facial expressions. But the real reason it touches me so deeply is because it tells a tender story of daily life in Republican China. The subjects in this photo probably didn’t know that, two years later, the country would be consumed by the Second Sino-Japanese War, and then World War II.
The Republic of China refers to the historical period that followed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the rise of the Kuomintang (KMT) government, and finally the Communist reunification of China in 1949. For ideological reasons, the post-1949 government has taken a somewhat selective official approach toward the Republican era. As a result, many people on the Chinese mainland associate the period with social decay and submission to colonial powers.
Most Chinese learn the official interpretations of historical events during the late Republican era: the brutal acts of the Japanese invasion, the valiant resistance by Communist soldiers, and the rampant corruption in KMT-controlled areas, for example. But we learn much less about more mundane events in Republican China, such as education, business, and the lives of average people. And if our knowledge is sparse, then photographic documentation is even sparser.
Thankfully, over the past four decades, China has begun to open up to the outside world, and many images from this era have resurfaced. Many photos present a rich, multi-dimensional picture of the evolution of Chinese society in the first half of the 20th century.
The image above was provided by Qin Feng, a famous Taiwanese collector and photographic historian. In 1928, the KMT moved its capital to Nanjing; from then until 1935, when the photo was taken, locals enjoyed a period of relative stability. Had the Japanese not expanded into the region two years later, the country’s 20th-century history might have been completely different.
This next photograph, taken in 1936, depicts residents of Zhenjiang, a city in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, standing before the window of a Popular Education Center — a government-sponsored mass teaching initiative. A young woman wearing a floral qipao dress and two small girls in her care have paused to look at a poster; the woman appears to be explaining something to the children. The slogan written in traditional Chinese characters across the window display reads: “Raising and caring for children is the responsibility of both parents and teachers.”
A woman and two girls gaze at a slogan in the window of a Popular Education Center in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province, 1936. Courtesy of ‘Old Photos’
The taller girl standing on the left is called Huang Yongmei. In 1999, when she was 70 years old, she contributed this image to “Old Photos” and published a memoir with us. We lost touch after that, and unfortunately I don’t know her whereabouts today.
“It was the autumn of 1936,” Huang recalled. “I was 7 years old and a pupil in second grade at the [Popular Education Center] primary school. My father died when I was 4, after contracting an acute illness while he was teaching out of town. My mother watched over me and my younger sisters at our family home in Zhenjiang, where we depended on each other for everything.”
Huang’s school was located in a Confucian temple less than 100 meters from her home. “The young, modern principal, Mrs. Wang, was the wife of a man who studied abroad,” Huang explained, although she didn’t remember where he had studied. “She would stand at the lectern and demonstrate how to brush our teeth, or tell us about how Japanese militarists were brainwashing Japanese children with ideas about invading China.”
In the temple’s main hall were displayed a collection of small clay figurines of characters from classic tales in the Chinese canon. “There were also models and pictures used for education about personal hygiene,” Huang continued. “Most fun of all, the education center would screen movies on weekends for local residents. Being able to watch [Charlie] Chaplin’s slapstick performances back then — silent though they were — was hugely enjoyable.”
“In those days, my uncle worked out of town. That year, when he came back to visit family, he brought my aunt and cousin to see us one Sunday. I was so happy to take them to see my beloved school,” Huang concluded. “As we approached the window display, the poster caught the attention of me and my cousin. We stopped and took a closer look, while my aunt gave us an explanation. I listened, enraptured, while my cousin locked her eyes on the small children in the painting. Seeing our expressions, my uncle spontaneously — and unbeknownst to us — took a shot with his camera.”
Huang’s early life was rocked by losing her father, yet unlike previous generations, this did not mean she missed out on school. The Popular Education Center instructed children in both Chinese and Western educational principles, passing on both traditional Chinese culture and knowledge considered more “modern” — for example, personal hygiene.
Teachers and students pose for a group photo at a girls’ primary school in Li Village, Wenshui County, Shanxi province, January 1937. Courtesy of ‘Old Photos’
Rural schools, too, were encouraged to embrace new educational strategies. The above group photograph, captured in January 1937 in Wenshui — a county in northern China’s Shanxi province — shows both staff and students at a girls’ primary school in Li Village.
The woman sitting upright in the center of the shot is probably the school principal. Her smart clothing and confident aura make me think that she probably received a “modern” education, a privilege that would have been denied to most women at the time. Similarly, all the female students in the photograph are smartly dressed and proper-looking. A traditional Chinese saying exhorts us to leave the best buildings for educators and students, and the carved beams and painted rafters behind this group indicate that local villagers took that to heart.
The presence of the female headteacher is made more arresting by the four men at her side. Due to the patriarchal nature of Chinese society, senior men tend to pose front-and-center in most old photographs, while women are usually relegated to the background. This image goes against that custom and hints at early visual representations of female emancipation. That’s one reason why I like this shot so much: Often, social progress is revealed not through the bedlam of concerted political campaigns, but through the gradual changes seen in life’s inconsequential details.
Left: A hand-painted film poster is seen in Changchun, Jilin province, 1948; Right: A drummer performs at a bar in Changchun, Jilin province, 1948. Courtesy of ‘Old Photos’
Apart from the few years of peace prior to the Second Sino-Japanese War, the majority of the Republicans’ nearly 38 years in power passed in a state of unrest. Yet social upheaval was by no means a constant fact of life; although they were living in turbulent times, most people still passed their days as they had before. These two photographs above were both taken in 1948 in the northeastern city of Changchun. One is of a hand-painted movie poster, while the other is of a drummer performing onstage in a bar.
By the late 1940s, the civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang was coming to a ferocious conclusion. Changchun was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Communist soldiers; in the city, tens of thousands of garrisoned KMT soldiers were losing contact with the outside world, residents were subject to constant curfews and spot checks, and famine was looming.
People in Changchun couldn’t escape the rumble of distant mortar fire. But this didn’t stop them from, say, screening the latest Hollywood blockbusters, or listening to a local jazz band. Before the drummer took to the stage, he still wore a favorite Western-style suit, still slicked back his black hair, still immersed himself totally in keeping time with his fellow musicians. His kit is a little too simple, consisting only of a bass drum, snare, and hi-hat. Yet compared with the distant thunder of army gunfire, his rat-a-tat rhythms belonged to civilians in the streets, reminding them that a different life — a peaceful life — was still possible.
Translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A kindergarten teacher leads a group of children in games on the campus of Ginling College, Nanjing, Jiangsu province, 1935. Courtesy of ‘Old Photos’)