The Common People and the Artist in the 1930s

An Essay in the Cultural and Social Metahistory of China through Visual Sources
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The title of this project draws inspiration from the famous work (Beijing ren trans. “Peking Man”) by Lao She (1899–1966), whose novels and short stories surely provide the best account of Peking in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the basic corpus of this line of research is not literary, it is obvious that Lao She's works, which have been extensively translated into French, constitute choice materials associated with the iconographic corpus.

The main corpus of this project actually consists of two photographic collections that are outstanding in terms of quality and homogeneity. The first is a collection made by Sidney D. Gamble, a sociologist-missionary (or missionary-sociologist), who lived in China from 1917 to 1937 and taught sociology at Yanjing University in Peking. Sydney Gamble, whose work focused on the population of the capital and its most underprivileged sections, has left a unique collection of 6000 photographs.1 These photographs have been catalogued and placed in a private foundation responsible for their preservation and exploitation. However, they have never been used as such for systematic research.2 The second set of holdings comes to us from Hedda Morrison, a German photographer who lived in China from to the end of the Second World War.3 Her collection, which has been placed in Harvard University and is entirely digitized, consists of about 5000 pictures, a large majority of which focuses on the common people of Peking.4 We shall also use photographic materials published in China itself, although they often raise problems in terms of lack of cataloguing, poor quality, multiple duplication and plagiarism.

The materials immediately complementary to the photographs are the records of the police and the Social Affairs Bureau which are an invaluable and extremely rich source firstly because the population in the capital was very closely monitored (this was something unique in China5) and secondly because of the numerous studies made by the Social Affairs Bureau on the social structure of the city.6 The social and economic data can thus be collated with spatial data (from the police) and this data can be related to maps. In particular, it is possible to consider relating these elements to Peking's "spiritual" and religious geography7 (temples, places of worship and so on which too were subjects of Hedda Morrison's camera), as well as with economic geography (in terms of the structuring of the space by different trades). We have evoked the corpus of literary documents that could be mobilized at the level of the representations of the people of Peking. The press, and especially what was called the popular press (xiaobao) that brought life to the Peking scene, offers an invaluable mine of information on daily life, miscellany and events involving the ordinary residents of the capital.

The photographic corpus chosen captures the population of Peking during two decades that followed the collapse of the Empire and the city's loss of its status as the capital of the country (1928). It sheds very new light on Peking's special social composition which, until 1912 included many categories of craftsmen, merchants, artists etc. linked to the activities of the imperial court and bureaucracy. They were the great losers in China’s passage to an absent and disorganized republic. The abdication of the Qing also literally ruined the entire Manchu population, amounting to a third of the city's inhabitants who depended directly on the dynasty. It is therefore a society in the throes of profound change (in terms of political upheaval, redistribution of wealth, the abandonment of customs imposed by the Manchus such as for example the wearing of the pigtail, the decline of the capital, changes in its spatial composition and so on) that we should try to give an account of over two decades from 1917 to 1937. It is not a history of the city of Peking that we are trying to write here. Rather, we would like to center our work on the popular categories, in using photographic material as the warp and the weft to write a story of the common people and their practices, a story of their districts and street life, a story of small crafts and the know-how of the common people.

1Peking. A Social Survey, New York, George H. Doran Company [c1921]; Prices, wages, and the standard of living in Peking, 1900-1924, [Peking] Peking Express Press [1926] ; How Chinese families live in Peiping; a study of the income and expenditure of 283 Chinese families, New York, London, Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1933 ; Ting Hsien; a north China rural community, Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press [1968] ; North China Villages: Social, Political and Economic Activities Before 1933, Berkeley, University of California Press, rep. 1963).

2 A few works have been published: Sidney D. Gamble's China, 1917-1932 : photographs of the land and its people, Washington, D.C. : Alvin Rosenbaum Projects, Inc., 1988; Between Revolutions: Photographs by Sidney D. Gamble 1917-1927. New York: China Institute in America, The Sidney D. Gamble Foundation for China Studies, 1989; Sidney D. Gamble's Photographs of China, The Sidney D. Gamble Foundation for China Studies, New York, 1999, 56 p.

3 On Hedda Morrison, see Hedda; Imhof, Herta (ed.), “Hedda Morrison's Jehol: A Photographic Journey”, East Asian History, 2001 (22): 1-128; Morrison, Alastair, “Hedda Morrison in Peking: A Personal Recollection”, East Asian History, 1992 (4): 105-118.

4 To our knowledge, only two books have ever been published: Morrison, Hedda, A Photographer in Old Peking, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, [1985] and George N. Kates, Hedda Morrison, The Years that Were Fat: Peking, 1933-1940, Oxford, Oxford University Press, [1989] . The URL of the Harvard-Yenching Library site is:

5 Alison Dray-Novey, “Spatial Order and Police in Imperial Beijing,” Journal of Asian Studies, 52:4 (November 2002 1993), pp. 885-922.

6 See Henriot, Christian, Shanghai 1927-1937. Elites locales et modernisation dans la Chine nationaliste, Paris, Editions de l’EHESS, 1991, pp. 250-251.

7 Naquin, Susan, Peking. Temples and city life, 1400-1900, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000.

Page modified on 16 October 2006