Hello, my old China! Photographs from 1860s believed to be among earliest in existence offer a fascinating insight into life in the Far East
- Images show everyday life in China and Japan during mid-19th century
- They are taken from ‘China Magazine’, which ran from 1868 to 1870
- Instead of emperors and military figures, the show everyday workers
- Fruit sellers, weavers, gamblers and street barbers are all depicted
- Today the collection sold for £12,500 – six times the auction guide price
These incredible photographs are believed to be among the earliest of their kind in existence and offer an fascinating insight into life in the Far East during the 1860s.
The images, which form part of a captivating magazine, show life in China and Japan during the mid-19th century, and portray villagers going about their day-to-day tasks.
At an auction in Cirencester today, the photographs sold for more than six times their £2,000 guide price, with an anonymous buyer winning a bidding war to purchase them for £12,500.
Close shave: A street barber carefully cuts a client’s hair in this image from China Magazine taken in the late 1860s. The photographs sold today for £12,000 – six times their guide price
Posed: This image shows three young Chinese men sitting in their home in the late 1860s. As well as previously unpublished photographs, the collection also contains articles describing life in mid 19th century China
Spending: A group of gamblers are pictured betting in the street in this photograph. Auctioneers originally tipped the collection to sell for just £2,000, but a bidding war raised the price to £12,500
Service: A military mandarin – or bureaucrat scholar – is seen in the late 1860s, while the image on the right shows a Japanese servant, or Kerai, posing for a photograph
One of the most intriguing aspects of the photographs is that they do not show powerful emperors or important military figures, focusing instead on gamblers and weavers going about their business.
Among the collection is a picture of two Chinese fruit sellers, while another shows men scrambling up a ladder and into a window.
Members of a town or village council are captured in one striking image, while in another a street barber carefully cuts a client’s hair.
A harbour scene in Hong Kong is also represented.
Auctioneers originally tipped the incredible bundle of pictures to sell for just £2,000, but a fierce bidding war among collectors raised the price to £12,500.
Important: Members of a town or village council are captured in this striking image. The men are some of the only establishment figures documented in the collection
Going about their business: Among the collection is a picture of two Chinese fruit sellers (left), while another shows men scrambling up a ladder and into a window (right)
Real life: The image shows shops and houses in Tai Ping Shan Street in Hong Kong. In 1860 Chinese writer Wang Tao said the street was full of brothels with ‘brightly painted doors and windows with fancy curtains’
The photographs are taken from the ‘China Magazine’, which began as a weekly publication on March 7 1868 and continued monthly until it reached its fourth and final volume in 1870.
The volume contains a total of 46 photos of varying sizes, but four of those are duplicates and one is a defective picture.
Apart from containing a number of photographs unpublished elsewhere, the magazine contains interesting feature articles which throw light on life in mid nineteenth-century China, with Hong Kong featuring prevalently.
Down to business: A Chinese letter writer is photographed in the late 1860’s. One intriguing aspect of the images is that they show everyday people, instead of powerful emperors or important military figures
History: A Chinese woman mends clothing in the left image, while the picture on the right shows a village elder and his son photographed in the province of Annam, part of modern-day Vietnam
There is little doubt China Magazine was the inspiration for Scottish publisher John Reddie Black’s influential and far better known ‘Far East’ news magazine, which ran from 1870 until 1878.
Historian Terry Bennett, author of a History of Photography in China: Western Photographers, noted the extreme rarity of the photographs.
He added: ‘It may also be the first publication of any kind in the Far East to incorporate pasted-in photographs.’
Port: The photograph shows the sun setting on the famous Hong Kong harbour in the late 1860s. The volume contains a total of 46 photos of varying sizes, but four of those are duplicates and one is a defective picture
HOW CHINA EXPERIENCED WAR AND POLITICAL TURMOIL DURING THE 1860S
During the late 1860s, China was ruled by the Tongzhi Emperor – a member of the Manchu Aisin Gioro clan and the tenth emperor of the Qing Dynasty.
Although the Tongzhi Emperor was formally in charge of the country between 1861 and 1875, his reign was largely overshadowed by the rise of his mother Empress Dowager Cixi – a powerful and charismatic woman who effectively controlled China for 47 years, from 1861 to her death in 1908.
Internally, the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) – a quasi-Christian religious movement led by the so-called ‘Heavenly King’ Hong Xiuquan, raided roughly a third of Chinese territory for over a decade until they were finally crushed in the Third Battle of Nanking in 1864.
Empress Dowager Cixi was a powerful and charismatic woman who effectively controlled China for 47 years, from 1861 to her death in 1908
Arguably one of the largest wars in the 19th century in terms of troop involvement, there was massive loss of life, with a death toll of about 20 million.
Towards the end of the Taiping Rebellion came the Dungan Revolt (1862–77) – a largely chaotic uprising by China’s Muslim minorities on the western banks of the Yellow River.
Infighting and the lack of a common cause eventually led to the revolt collapsing, with tens of thousands of Muslims subsequently leaving the Yellow River area and moving to south eastern Russia, as well as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Another dominant feature of the period was the arrival and massive expansion of Western colonial missionaries attempting to spread Christianity following the end of the Second Opium War in 1860.
Over the following decades Christian missions were set up in every province and major city in China, with more than 2,500 evangelists working there by the turn of the century.