The Foreign Missionaries Who First Turned a Lens on China
This is the second article in a series on “Old Photos,” a Chinese-language publication that collects images of the country’s modern history. The first article can be found here.
While soliciting contributions for my publication “Old Photos,” I once received an album from a museum worker. The album was actually a black, hardback accounting book, and on each page were affixed two or three photographs of varying sizes. There must have been around 200 in total, the vast majority of which were taken in and around Yantai, a port city in eastern China’s Shandong province, in the early 20th century.
A note the size of my palm was stuck to the other side of the hardback cover, explaining that the photos were confiscated from a foreign missionary working in the area when the Communist Party reunified China in 1949. In the early 1980s, the museum from which I eventually received the pictures retrieved them from the archives of the local public security bureau.
Christian missionaries began preaching in significant numbers in China from the 16th century and deepened their presence here as European colonial powers expanded their interests in China during the mid-to-late Qing Dynasty. By the late 1800s, many missionaries were capturing everyday life in China on archaic cameras.
At the time, Chinese people were wary of foreign missionaries. One Westerner at the sharp end of that guardedness was Anna Seward Pruitt, an American who came to eastern China’s Shandong province in 1887. After more than 50 years working and living there, Pruitt and her husband, whom she met and married in China, eventually left in 1938, during the Sino-Japanese war. In “The Day of Small Things,” an account of her stay in China published nearly a decade before her departure in 1929, Pruitt spoke of the typical way in which ordinary Chinese people treated her and her husband:
“A very few most enlightened individuals recognized us as human beings, and supposed that we had come from afar to make merit for ourselves by doing charitable deeds … But to the great majority of Chinese we were ‘foreign devils,’ shockingly unlike anything they had ever seen before. White faces, prominent noses, blue eyes, light hair, were not human characteristics as they knew them. The stories that we kidnapped children and made medicine from the hearts and eyes of our victims were everywhere current and widely believed.”
Foreign missionaries in China have always faced misunderstanding and hostility, especially when they had just arrived. The missionaries-cum-photographers who took the pictures below, however, clearly enjoyed a friendly relationship with the locals.
The collection can be split up roughly into two categories. The first consists of the day-to-day preaching and social activities of the church, such as running the orphanage, printing religious texts, and interacting with local officials. The second type documents local customs and lifestyles, and captures funeral processions, bridal sedan chairs, and village theater.
Very few Chinese people owned cameras at this time. Of even greater value than the photographs themselves was the fact that the missionaries were focusing the lens on what Chinese people considered extremely mundane, looking at Chinese life from a foreigner’s perspective.
This photograph from eastern Shandong is a snapshot of a farmer as he wheels his wife and children to his wife’s family home for a visit. In the photo, which dates from the early 1900s, two bags of grain are seen piled on the front of the single-wheeled wooden cart. The farmer’s child and wife sit behind them. In the wife’s arms is an even younger child. The farmer’s entire life probably sits on that cart, the clatter of its wheels cutting through the rural serenity as it trundles along the rugged country track. Unremarkable though it is, the image is a snapshot of the era’s living conditions in eastern Shandong, where wooden carts like the farmer’s continued to be used as late as the 1960s and ’70s.
Facing the missionary’s lens in this photograph is an unnamed local official in the Qing Dynasty dressed in everyday garb. He stands outside a single-story house with glass-paneled windows and doors — much more expensive furnishings than the white paper most families pasted over their windows at the time. Many local officials from the Qing dynasty, the Republican era, and even post-1949 China probably walked through the door, distinguishable only by their changes in outfit — from magua jackets like the above, to long, flowing changpao robes, to the zhongshan suit made famous by revered revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, and finally, Western-style suits and trousers.
This is a folk band from Yantai. Three men are playing the sheng, a kind of wooden flute, while two others — the second and fifth men from the left — are playing the suona, a woodwind instrument currently under threat. The third man on the right is playing a kind of cymbal called naobo.
Given that the image appears alongside photos of weddings and funerals in the album, we can surmise that a missionary took this picture while photographing a ceremony. In the past, any family with the means to do so would invite folk ensembles to such special occasions. In the background is a rather grand-looking house, an indication of the family’s wealth and status.
Amateur musical troupes were often hastily assembled. The band leader would receive an invitation and bring the players together on short notice, then pay them and disband the group once the gig was over. More talented bands might develop a reputation in the surrounding areas and become more professional, traveling and performing at events out of town.
These last two photographs, also from Yantai, were taken at a slightly later date, in the 1910s and ’20s. This woman on the left, with her side to the camera, wears a finely pressed aoku — a kind of cotton-padded jacket and trouser combination. Her hair is tied in a bun, signifying that she was married. Traditionally, on the day of a girl’s wedding, relatives would be invited to alter her hairstyle before she entered the bridal sedan chair, undoing her braids and replacing it with a bun. After that, she would not be allowed to let her hair down ever again.
The woman on the right, posing with her face to the camera, is wearing a pair of rather large, pointed shoes covering feet that were once bound and then released after foot binding was outlawed. Locals called referred to this phenomenon as having “corn cob feet” — probably due to the maimed shape of the feet after the bandages were removed — and later as “liberated feet.” The Chinese government abolished the practice of foot binding in 1912, although it persisted in certain areas well into the 20th century. This photo captures a period of transition, when bound feet — a centuries-old practice — is giving way to au naturel feet.
China’s official history books tend to focus primarily on grand narratives, such as the rise and fall of dynasties, war and conquest, or palace intrigues. We rarely delve into the minutiae of ordinary people’s daily lives. But though pictures like this were mundane at the time, I believe they are much better at capturing the realities of our ever-changing culture.
Translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A view inside an orphanage run by missionaries in Yantai, Shandong province, in the early 1900s. Courtesy of ‘Old Photos’)