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Visual Memories of 1911
by Liu Heung Shing

February 15, 1912: Sun Yat-sen (center) poses with officials after a memorial ceremony at the Tomb of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty in Nanjing.  1911: German soldiers defending Hankou, a European concession in China.

It is not without trepidation that I approach the assignment of chronicling a history of the 1911 Revolution with photographs. This year, 2011, marks the centennial of the uprising in Wuchang, Hubei Province, which brought down the great Qing Dynasty and, with it, established what would become Asia’s first republic. But while the uprising removed the Manchu rulers, the early years of the Republic of China remained a melting pot of foreign nationals, a situation that continued for years to come.

For this reason, as I embarked on my research, so began a journey that would take me not only across the mainland of China and Taiwan, but across Europe and America too, to public and private collections spread across different continents. From Tokyo to Sydney, London to Paris, Los Angeles to New York, I viewed a wealth of original photographs which have been carefully preserved for more than a century.

On the eve of the centennial of the Wuchang Uprising, which took place in Wuhan, the provincial seat of Hubei, on October 10, 1911, this collection of photographs frames the visual context of the “humiliation and imperialism” that was then identified as the impetus driving the uprising. The images further reveal how the uprising accelerated the collapse of the Qing. Without present-day context of China’s peaceful rise and the fact that it has now replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy, generations of Chinese people who endured a profound sense of victimhood throughout the 20th Century might regard these images merely as “old photographs.” Now, however, it is possible to see that they are much more than “old photos.” Brought together as an exhibition and in this accompanying book, the collection represents visual documentation of social lives and events that have occupied a significant place in the hearts and minds of Chinese intellectuals since the May Fourth Movement.

The collection includes images from the late 19th Century showing the Second Opium War, the atmosphere inside the imperial court, and the lives of the mighty as well as the poor. They show scenes from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and the Russo-Japanese War fought on Chinese soil from 1904 to 1905. In the decade immediately following the uprising in 1911 we find images of Yuan Shikai, who failed in his attempt to anoint himself the last emperor, after which China descended into a decade known as the Warlord Era.

To examine these issues in a broader contemporary context, I invited three prominent scholars, Joseph Esherick, Zhang Haipeng and Max K. W. Huang, to share their distinctive perspectives on the 1911 Revolution. By charting its course, their words help us reflect on the event itself, its failures and achievements, and what it means to Chinese people today, one hundred years later.

Photography was invented by a Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, in 1839. In the new world brought by the age of European Enlightenment and following the Industrial Revolution, Western Europeans began more earnestly seeking territories overseas to establish new markets and procure raw materials and cheap labor, so photography evolved in its social documentation role both at home and abroad. In tandem with the writing of historians, it was used to serve each of these goals. Photography occupied a surprisingly prominent role in the activities of late 19th-Century foreign missionaries as they went out into the world to proselytize Christianity. Those who chose China as their destination would become responsible for a rich photographic archive of this period of Chinese history.

 

 

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