The art of photography was introduced into China in the latter half of the 19th century. Soon afterward, photo studios first popped up in the country’s colonial treaty ports and later in cities further inland. The mysterious new trade allowed many curious Chinese to examine everyday life across the country.
Many of us feel self-conscious in front of the camera. As late as the 1970s, many Chinese people, especially those living in remote regions, refused to be photographed out of superstition. Traveling deep into eastern China’s Shandong province at the end of the ’70s, a journalist for the provincial pictorial magazine was surprised to find that his interviewees flatly refused to have their pictures taken, for fear that the camera would bewitch them and suck their blood.
Nevertheless, photography soon found a place in people’s lives. Before the advent of the digital camera — and, later, the smartphone — wealthy families and those from social classes that the government deemed favorable often marked festivals and family reunions with a trip to the local photography studio.
Since 1996, my magazine — simply titled “Old Photos” — has published countless family portraits taken during the 19th and 20th centuries. They allow us to catch a glimpse of the everyday lives of Chinese people during the course of the country’s tumultuous recent history.
A photograph of a peasant family in Yantai, Shandong province, taken by a foreign missionary in the 1920s. Courtesy of ‘Old Photos’
The photo above, taken by a foreign missionary in the 1920s, depicts an ordinary peasant family in Yantai, a city in eastern China’s Shandong province. As a mark of seniority, the eldest members of the family are seated in the foreground. The white-bearded patriarch touts a rough-hewn walking stick while seated, almost like a bishop’s scepter. From the small size of his wife’s feet, we can deduce that they were bound when she was a child. China officially banned foot binding in 1912, though the practice continued in some areas until the Communist takeover in 1949.
Flanking the elderly couple are their son and his wife. The identities of the women in the back row are not clear, but it is evident that men are in the minority in this household. The baby being cradled in the back row is probably a girl; if she were a boy, she would generally have been held by her mother or grandmother in the front row. This more privileged position symbolized that the family had a male heir; sometimes, a boy’s penis might even be exposed to make his status absolutely clear.
Back in the 1920s, a family with few men would have been at a social and economic disadvantage. Although some men were periodically corralled into the war effort, most provided their families with an additional labor force and offered protection in times of peril. Traditionally, Chinese families have given higher status to sons than to daughters. Apart from the beaming young girl in the middle, the rest of the family have somewhat dour expressions. Perhaps it was because the missionary’s idea to snap an impromptu photograph of the family instead of giving them time to dress up in all their finery and go to the local studio.
The image at the head of this article, taken in 1931 in what is now Longkou — a coastal city in Shandong — depicts three generations of a family, all male and traditionally dressed — the adults in long-sleeved robes known as changshan, the children in simple jackets called guazi. The man seated in the middle is the great-grandfather of the photograph’s owner and the head of the family; his eldest son stands on the far right, and his second son — the owner’s grandfather, who was unwilling to share his name — stands on the far left. The youngest son is second from the left, while the two young boys are the eldest son’s children.
The great-grandfather spent his young adult years teaching at a local private school and preparing for the keju — the grueling civil service examinations that enabled China’s best and brightest to win jobs at the imperial court of the Qing Dynasty. But in 1905, before he could realize his dream, the keju system was abolished. The eldest son had an opium addiction and died soon after this photo was taken. The third son, meanwhile, took to gambling, frittered away most of his money, and lived a somewhat mediocre life.
The second son, however, traveled to northeastern China sometime in the 1920s, when he was only a teenager. There, he opened a hosiery factory, which, by the time the Japanese invaded in 1931, was bringing in lots of money. According to his grandson, he happily provided financial support for his downtrodden family members; in Chinese tradition, it was considered both responsible and virtuous for a successful family member to take care of his relatives when they fell on hard times.
When the Japanese occupied Manchuria in the 1930s, they brought the cotton industry under strict control. As a result of a sudden shortage of cotton thread, the second son’s hosiery business closed down. Although he pursued other ventures in the cities of Beijing and Tianjin, none were successful, and he eventually returned to his rural hometown to farm the land.
A photograph of the Wu family in Chongqing, taken around 1947. Courtesy of ‘Old Photos’
Over the last century or so, the civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party (CCP) arguably had the most profound effect on Chinese families. This photograph — depicting the wealthy, intellectual Wu family in Chongqing, a city in southwestern China — was taken around 1947. The matriarch of the family takes center stage; her husband had passed away by the time of the shoot. Her son and daughter-in-law sit behind her, while her eldest daughter’s son perches on his uncle’s knee. In the back row are her three daughters. From left to right, they are called Wu Yahua, Wu Jinghua, and Wu Dehua.
Both the son and his wife — named Wu Jinghuan and Zhang Qiyun, respectively — were architecture graduates from National Central University. Based in Nanjing, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, Central was one of China’s top colleges, and it moved to Chongqing from 1937 to 1946 to avoid the Japanese invasion. (It later relocated back to its original home and is today known as Nanjing University.) Jinghua graduated in history from the same school, while Dehua graduated from Chongqing University. At the time the photo was taken, young Yahua was studying at the renowned Chongqing Nankai Secondary School. Her militaristic scout’s uniform was typical of the era.
When the civil war between the KMT and the CCP ended in 1949, China’s illiteracy rate stood at 80 percent. The remaining 20 percent included those who by today’s standard could only be considered partially literate.
Jinghua, the eldest daughter, married an officer in the KMT air force. As the Communists seized power across the Chinese mainland, the nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949. Dehua and Yahua, meanwhile, both married CCP soldiers. Due to tensions between the mainland and Taiwan, the family found itself torn in two, and did not hear of each other’s whereabouts for several decades.
Today, the family’s descendants on the Chinese mainland have never seen photos of the eldest daughter’s husband, probably because many family albums were destroyed during a succession of political campaigns that targeted people supposedly hostile to the Communist revolution. As a result, families played down their connections to Taiwan for fear of reprisals.
In 1980, when cross-Straits relations somewhat thawed, the family tried to make contact with their relatives in Taiwan. First, they published “missing family” or “lost relatives” advertisements in the Hong Kong press, and then, because residents on the Chinese mainland were still unable to visit the island, they enlisted a travel agency to go to Taiwan and seek out their relatives on the family’s behalf. Sometime in the mid-’80s, they located Jinghua’s husband. Only then — more than three decades since the separation — did they hear the tragic news that Jinghua had died of a heart attack back in the 1950s.
A photograph of the Zhang family, taken in Shandong province, May 18, 1966. Courtesy of ‘Old Photos’
This photograph, which dates back to May 18, 1966, and was also taken in Shandong, shows another ordinary working family: the Zhangs. Both parents brought their 15-year-old daughter and three sons — 13, 9, and 3 years old, respectively — to the photo studio in an unknown county seat. “For ordinary children from the countryside at that time, this would have been a gloriously happy occasion,” explains Zhang Yuhong, a descendent of the family.
Back then, the Zhang family survived on the few dozen yuan per month earned by the father, who worked as a handyman in the county seat. Yet their lives were about to change dramatically. On May 16, just two days before this picture was taken, Chairman Mao formally announced the start of the Cultural Revolution, a vast and at times violent political campaign that impacted the lives of nearly every Chinese person well into the mid-1970s. This family, like millions of others around the country, appear blissfully unaware of the profound social traumas to come.
In the late ’70s, after the movement had ended, some families revived the tradition of taking portraits at local photo studios. In the 1990s, however, the growing ubiquity of digital cameras signaled the beginning of the end for the country’s thousands of humble studios. The convenience of technology has killed much of the formality and gravitas of the traditional family portrait, as more and more people choose to simply pull out their smartphones, turn on the camera function, and carry out the “ceremony” themselves.
Translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
Correction: The outfits worn in the header image are changshan, not changchen.
(Header image: A photograph of three generations of the same family in Longkou, Shandong province, taken in 1931. Courtesy of ‘Old Photos’)