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Luther Knight: Flashes of Chinese History

Photographs by Luther Knight;

Photos courtesy of John E. Knight and Wang Yulong

Photo captions by Wang Yulong


Luther Knight wears Chinese attire at his residence in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province. He constructed several Chinese-style robes for different occasions. Faculty members of Sichuan Higher Academy (today’s Sichuan University) pose for a photo. The academy boasted a strong teaching force. Among its staff were some who passed the imperial examinations, as well as some who studied in Japan.  In 1908, the Qingyang Palace Flower Festival in Chengdu was converted into a market to sell famous products from around the province. In the spring of 1911, Luther Knight took a photo of the last awards ceremony held in the market.

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.

The Xiaodongmen Wharf in old Shanghai is crowded with boats. An orphanage established by a charity organization in Chengdu in the late Qing Dynasty. Charity organizations began to sprout in Chengdu during the mid-Qing Dynasty. The orphanage in the photo was likely located in the northeastern part of Chengdu because it had a particularly high concentration of charity organizations. Luther Knight talks with one of his students on a village road in western Sichuan. When teaching at Sichuan Higher Academy, Knight developed good relationships with his students. He remarked that Chinese students were easier to tutor than American ones.

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.



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