SUBSCRIBE TO CHINA
Photographs by Luther Knight;
Photos courtesy of John E. Knight and Wang Yulong
Photo captions by Wang Yulong
In June 1910, Luther Knight, then a 31-year-old American chemistry teacher, decided to go to China. Born in Iowa, Knight became obsessed with the Eastern country while working on his master’s degree. At the time, the United States was witnessing rapid industrial development while on the opposite side of the planet China remained in the final throes of the feudal Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It was a turbulent time as old and new thoughts clashed. After a millennium of operation, the imperial examination system was abolished in China. Reformers of the Qing Dynasty had already been experiencing Western education for a decade. In 1910, the Qing government dispatched a delegation to the United States to recruit teachers for Sichuan Higher Academy, the predecessor of today’s Sichuan University. Knight considered it an opportunity of a lifetime.
Four months later, Knight arrived in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, where he served as a professor of chemistry and mathematics at Sichuan Higher Academy. He also taught courses on geology and mineralogy. He imported the latest Western knowledge and teaching methods. Each week he taught for 26 class hours. Of course, he was highly paid compared to most of his neighbors: His monthly salary was 300 silver dollars at the time when a single silver dollar could support an ordinary Chinese family for a month.
Knight took a large 4”x 5” camera with him to China. It produced salt prints but required full manual control and long exposure. Every picture took at least ten minutes to snap. Even so, Knight shot a tremendous quantity of photos of China, mostly in Chengdu. In many of his photos, the Chinese people appear particularly curious because they had never before encountered a camera in their lives. Knight preferred to photograph ordinary people: Food stalls, barber shops, children chasing each other through a bustling market, white radishes lining roadside stalls, students in class, farmers working the fields and Chengdu police officers equipped with modern German equipment.
In 1911, Knight was hired by the Qing government to conduct a geological survey in western Sichuan’s Garze and Aba areas. At that time, western Sichuan remained virtually untouched by modern civilization. Along with a dozen porters and bodyguards, Knight took a sedan chair to mostly-Tibetan plateau areas and took photos of the living Buddha, peasants in rags, and a Kangba vendor and his son carrying goods.