Anthropology and History

Rare Photographs of China in the 1800s

China may today be a modern, bustling country – and the world’s most populated – but these images from back in the 19th century show a very different style of life.

posted on 04/14/2011
Michele Collet
Scribol Staff

Great Wall of ChinaPhoto: Herbert G. Ponting

This image of course shows The Great Wall of China, a fortification that was begun in the 5th century B.C. and completed in the 17th. The part we see these days was built during the Ming Dynasty, as the oldest parts have essentially disappeared and been rebuilt, replacing the original material of rammed earth. It now stretches 8,851.8 km (5,500.3 mi), with approximately 2,232 km of that natural barriers such as hills and rivers.

Timeless as this structure may seem, China today is a bustling modern nation, one whose cities have every modern convenience. Despite its political differences with the West, it has risen to become a leading world nation and is poised to become the biggest economic power on earth. But back in the 1800s life was very different from the world of high speed trains, communications technology and McDonalds outlets in major cities. Join us for a look at scenes from the 19th century that show a different China to the one we now know.

BastinadoPhoto: Ralph Repo

The Qing courts of the 19th century would often mete out punishment using Bastinade – the whipping, flogging or paddling of a convict – or would sometimes use the measure to get a confession. This image is stark in its brutality but was the reality of the time. Stretched over a punishment rack, his hands tied down and feet held, the prisoner was beaten. It has been said that some were flogged to death this way.

Chang The Chinese GiantAttribution UnkPhoto: Ralph Repo

Zhan Shi Chai traveled the world as Chang the Chinese Giant, leaving China with a wife (some biographies suggest she was just a stage wife) who died in 1871. Zhan later married an English girl and had two children, settling in her native country. He retired in 1878, and kept a Chinese tea house and a Chinese goods store until his death in 1893. Zhan’s height was advertised as being over 8 feet, but unfortunately there are no historical records confirming this, apart from his coffin, which was 8 feet 6 inches long.

MercenaryPhoto: Ralph Repo

Artillerymen did not have it easy, in China nor anywhere else. The men in this photo were mercenaries supplied by the British, and as you can see, they had to pull their cannons and large shot artillery by hand, rather like beasts of burden. It clearly took more than one man to move the cannons, which not only put a large number of men out of action, but meant changing positions as needed was an ordeal that might get them killed .

Example Of A Coiffure On A Tartar Or Manchu Female, Frontview, Peking, Pechili Province, China 1869 John ThomsonPhoto: John Thomson

Hairstyles at the time had a number of assists including tubes and other hardware, as can be seen in this image. The Tartar woman doesn’t look very happy – perhaps due to what looks like a painful hairdo! John Thomson was a very well-known photographer and this was likely a model of his.

Group Of Chinese Women With Fans, Canton, China c1880 Afong LaiPhoto: Afong Lai

Posing for a formal photograph, these women all carried fans, as ubiquitous then as purses are for women today. One interesting point to note is how all are dressed alike with the same pulled back hairstyle, very regimented. In the 1800s photographs were new and exciting, and people appeared very formal in them. Smiling was rare in family or studio portraits both in Asia and Europe.

Chinese Family c1875 Attribution UnkPhoto: Ralph Repo

Everyone knows about those dreaded family portraits where everyone sits around and tries to look as if their pose is natural, but in the 1800s they didn’t even attempt to make the situation lifelike; instead the furniture was set out in a semicircle as seen here. A few clues to the people’s lifestyle can be found in the photograph. It looks like four wives are in the family, for example. The wooden footstools were used in affluent families of the time to keep feet off cold floors, and you can see that little boys didn’t like sitting still for photographs any more then than they do today!

Pekin, Walls of the Tartar City  By WH JacksonPhoto: William H. Jackson

Peking (Beijing) was the walled city of the Tartars, and you can see the long, seemingly endless wall heading away from the fortress. Almost pulled down in the 1960s to make way for a second ring road around the modern day city, a large portion in fact escaped destruction. It was then ignored until 2002, when a decision was made to rebuild this historical architectural treasure from the Ming Dynasty. The 1.5 km section now encloses an open park.

Black, Chinese & White Laborers In A Gold Mine In South Africa  Frank and Frances CarpenterPhoto: Frank & Frances Carpenter

As seen in this image, many Chinese laborers worked in South African gold mines along with black and white laborers. Chinese workers had left their homeland in droves due to famine and social and political unrest, spreading their culture around the world – while taking on some of the toughest jobs!

Ulysses S. Grant & Li Hung Chang, Tientsin, China Photo: Ralph Repo

Here we see Chinese Viceroy Li Hung Chang and US President Ulysses S. Grant meeting in China 1879 at the end of Grant’s second term, while Grant was on his world tour to drum up support for a third one. Grant lost the nomination however. Richard Nixon was the first sitting president to visit China, but as we see here, certainly not the first president of all time.

Forest Temple Near Chefoo, Shantung, China c1895 William H. JacksonPhoto: William H. Jackson

A lovely temple in a quiet forest for those who wished for a special place in which to commune with their God. Probably looked after by a just a few monks, it fits in with its surroundings perfectly.

Canton, China c1880 RH BrownPhoto: RH Brown

Venice is not the only city to have canals as its streets; the Chinese city of Canton also contained a labyrinth of such waterways in the 1800s. The fortress-like building, background center, is a typical Chinese pawn shop, according to the Flickr user Repo Man. As you can see, just as in any canal city, most visits to shops took place on boats – and in fact there are vendors who sell from boats, as we see below.

Flower Boats, Canton China c1871 Emil RusfeldtPhoto: Emil Rusfeldt

These ornately carved and decorated vessels were called “flower boats”, and were essentially floating brothels. In the Memoirs of Robert Dollar, 1918, the author revealed the terrible danger of lashing together hundreds of boats: “A few days before our arrival in Canton there had been a disastrous fire in what are called the “Flower Boats,” which are used as places of ill repute. There are a great number of them made fast in rows about fifty feet apart, extending out into the water about two hundred feet. The boats are broadside on the shore and each row is made fast, side by side, the whole secured by chains and anchored at the outer side to keep them in position. A lamp exploded in one of them near the shore and the fire speedily spread. first along the shore then out, so that the inmates had the choice of being burned or drowned. It was reported that six hundred girls and two hundred men lost their lives, but the bodies recovered exceeded one thousand. Strange to say. the police prevented any one going to the rescue and the victims died like rats in a trap. No place in the world has as many boats as Canton.”

Tibetan Lhacham (Princess), Tibet c1879 Sarat Chandra DasPhoto: Sarat Chandra Das

Next, a lovely Tibetan Princess in ceremonial dress, with an ornate headdress that looks quite heavy. One point we find curious in this photo from 1879 is the sash tied around the outside of the girl’s arms. Did it suggest that as a princess she would have everything done for her and have no need to have her arms free?

Entitled: Leuchtturm im Cantonfluss (Lighthouse In The Canton River) c1891Photo: CR Hager

An incredible image showing some of the first lighthouses on the Pearl River. There is one clearly in the center and also another on the far right, but not too far away. It thus seems that here they were used rather as street lamps, to show hazards – not way out to sea but for traditional “driving” of boats on the river. From the photo restorer’s page: “One has to remember that during those days, there really weren’t any lights at night unless one provided it, and lights on the river itself delineating hazardous landmarks probably saved many vessels from smashing themselves against the various rocks or land features that were apparent in a winding river system.” A perilous period.

Examination Hall With 7500 Cells, Canton, China 1873 Attribution UnkPhoto: Ralph Repo

How times have changed! This is an examination hall with 7,500 exam “cells” where the applicants ate, slept, drank and took the exam over several days. These actually gave everyone an opportunity to get a government job or to teach if they did not do as well. Cheating was alive and well back then, so a scribe copied everyone’s answers to reduce its occurrence – and depending on the year, cheating could be punishable by death!

Cholon Actress, Cholon, Saigon, French CochinchinaPhoto: Ralph Repo

This stunning beauty’s portrait was taken in Cholon, a part of Chochinchina, and now known as the southern part of Vietnam. In the late 1800s, it was under French control. The beauty of the girl’s face is matched only by the incredible richness of her dress. She was in fact an actress with a Chinese theatre troupe.

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Michele Collet
Scribol Staff