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 theme of this program originated with the discovery of a hitherto unknown collection of 4000 photographs taken by the Jesuit, Joseph de Reviers de Mauny, in 1932.  It was in the course of iconographic research on the French concession in Shanghai that we came across a collection of photographs in the records of the Œuvres Pontificales Missionnaires in Lyon.  This is an outstanding collection in terms of both quality and homogeneity.  In 1932, Father de Reviers was sent to China for ten months in order to review the Jesuit presence since the first Mission in Jiangnan, a century earlier.1  Father de Reviers, who was neither a missionary nor a Sinologist, carried three cameras with him in lieu of notebooks.  As the delegate of the Œuvres Pontificales, he traveled throughout the territories of the Mission and carried out an enquiry among the missionaries on the propagation of Christianity.

Compared with other travelers in China during the 1930s, Father Joseph was a remarkable reporter whose pictures show both ethnological value and a passion for photography as such.  There was no lack of brilliant photographers who traveled in China, but they always took pains to find the right setting and perfect lighting conditions and they had their preferred subjects. Donald Mennie can be seen to have been an aesthetic photographer, Thompson was a portrait artist, Hedda Morisson was a genuine ethnologist while Sidney D. Gamble, the most famous of them, brought the common people of Peking to life.

Father de Reviers however was not a professional.  As an amateur photographer, he shows us a China that is usually hidden from view.  The originality of these holdings lies in their homogeneity.  Shanghai's hinterland, the Jiangnan region, had been chosen since 1842 as an area of evangelization.  Located in an amphibious zone that was a meeting point between rural and river populations, it was one of China's richest agricultural regions.  Here, the distinction between peasants and fishermen became blurred because the interpenetration between farmland and the river network was the very condition of the existence of this floating population.2 Jiangnan enjoyed the benefits of a network of canals branching out from the Grand Canal, the major communications axis built in the 5th century during the period of the Sui and Tang dynasties to irrigate the provinces, convey grain from the South to the capital and unify the North and South of China economically if not politically. There is a distance of 2,000 km between Hangzhou and Peking and on this long fluvial corridor lives a floating population that Father de Reviers’s camera recorded in all its forms.3

These visual records have no equivalent.  It can be said that Father de Reviers invented the art of thematic reporting.  These holdings are invaluable as a heritage because no one before de Riviers dealt with this subject so thoroughly.  The essential subject of his pictures is the "water peasants " whose daily activities are studied with all the minute attention to detail that the explorer would bring to it.  Father Joseph was very well organized.  He annotated, dated and identified the photographs of every place he visited, providing invaluable information for the historian.  He developed his own negatives (on glass plates or gelatin film) which he then glued to cardboard sheets and numbered according to the stages of his journey.  The “jubilation” with which he started taking photographs as soon as he arrived in Shanghai called for qualities of self-withdrawal, self-effacement and a desire to tell stories rather than to "do" History.   For historians who make use of visual records, here is a source that will allow us to review or at least compare the written sources which often evoke a famished and poverty-stricken rural population with the alternative reading offered by the photographic sources.

This corpus is complemented by his travel notes, testimony by missionaries and historical monographs.  Father Joseph relied on the network of Jesuit missionaries installed in the region, to penetrate an area that had been little traveled by foreigners.  A few specialists in river navigation had written on the Yangzi and drawn pictures of it, but no one had written on the Jiangnan region: Joseph Needham was interested above all in naval techniques. William G.Worcester minutely studied the different types of junks in all of China's estuaries while Jacques Audemard described the ingenuity of this hydraulic society.4  By contrast, studies on the actors of this region are rare or even non-existent.  Chinese historians have published a few works on the major technical construction that is the Grand Canal, but here again its inhabitants are often missing.  What needs to be done therefore is to correlate the visual, economic and cartographical data.  There are very old maps, especially in Chinese.  They help us follow the development of this major artery from the 5th century up to the present day when it is being planned to divert the waters from the South to the North.5  As a hydraulic society, China has always sought to control its rivers and irrigate the country on a continental scale.  The history of the peasant-boatmen is therefore part of the basic history of the Chinese people.

These holdings are a source of knowledge about the specific composition of this population that has lived for generations on sampans.  It gives us a full corpus on a region that has been little studied and has its own religious, social and trade practices, even its own beliefs and gods.  A multitude of crafts appear through these images: peasants, fishermen, boatmen, hawlers and polemen.  They also tell us about the place of women who played in essential role as boatswains.  The children too took part in all the activities on board.  The glimpses of these families living on the same sampan cannot but evoke Lao She's novel, "Four Generations Under One Roof".  The social organization of this population is little known.  Economic activity has to be analyzed through the crafts and inter-regional trade.  The know-how involved in traditional techniques of fishing and navigation has been little studied.  A few works have dealt with these questions and we will have to refer to regional monographs, especially in Chinese, to analyze the economic aspects.6 More broadly, this special population living to the south of the Grand Canal will have to be situated in the context of the development of the rural population during the 1920s and 1930s.

1 Hermand Louis, Les étapes de la mission du Kiangnan, 1842-1922 et de la Mission de Nankin, 1922-1932, Zikawei , Shanghai, Imprimerie de la Mission, 1933.

2 Buck J.L, Land and Civilisation in China, Chicago, 1937 ; Tsu Xavier, La vie des pêcheurs du bas Yangzi, 1952.

3 Dodgen Randall A, Controlling the Dragon : Confucian engineers and the Yellow River in Late Imperial China, Honolulu, University of Haiwaii Press, 2001 ; Leonard Jane Kate. , Controlling from afar: The Daoguang Emperor's management of the Great canal crisis 1824-1826, Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1996; Wang Nora, Vivre et travailler en Chine sur le Grand Canal en 1935, 1980. Présentation d’une exposition réalisée à Nice en 1980 ; Gandar Dominique, (Le P.), Le Canal Impérial : étude historique et descriptive, Shanghai, Variétés Sinologiques N°4, Imprimerie de la Mission Catholique à l'orphelinat de Tou-Se-We, 1894, 78 p.

4 Needham Joseph, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. IV, part 3 Civil Engineering and nautics. William Worcerster, Junks and Sampans of the Yangzi, 1971; Audemard Commandant Louis, Les Jonques chinoises, Rotterdam, Museum Voor Land en Volkenkunde enhet Maritiem Museum, Prins Hendrik, 1966. 6 volumes.

5Yunhe quantu, Atlas du Grand Canal, undated, maps of the XVIIth century?

6 Dabry de Thiersant P., consul de France, membre honoraire de la société d'acclimatation, La pisciculture et la pêche en Chine, Paris, Librairie G.Masson, 1872, 195p., (51 plates)

Page modified on 28 March 2006