China is one of the oldest civilizations of the world and among the few that invented writing. The earliest Chinese dynasty, the Xia, dates back to 2000 BCE. China had witnessed a long period of imperial rule under dynasties like the Qing, Ming and Han. During the reign of Qing dynasty, which lasted until 1911, many foreign powers took control of China’s trade.
The Portuguese were the first to establish a foothold, followed by the Spanish, British, French and Japanese. The Boxer Rebellion from November 1899 to September 1901 was a protest against European dominance and encroachment in politics, trade, religion and technology. There was significant popular resentment against the Manchu rulers who were considered "foreigners" for having let various European powers occupy significant economic zones.
As the imperial government of China failed to safeguard the country’s interests, nationalist movements gathered momentum. In 1911, the Qing dynasty was overthrown and the Republic of China was established. The Republic of China witnessed periods of warlords (1916 – late 1930s), more foreign occupation like war with Japan (1937 - 1945) and civil war between the Communists and Kuomintang nationalists until the People's Republic of China was established in 1949.
These vintage images of China provide an insight into the history and lives of the people in the turbulent early part of the century. Chinese postcards were often printed abroad or had connections to vast Chinese emigration to other parts of Asia and America.Hartung’s Photo Shop,
a German firm based in Peking, was one of the leading establishments for studio portraits and images of Beijing. An originally German woman, Hedda Harrison Morrison,
worked there for many years as a photographer.
Another major publisher was Raphael Tuck & Sons in London which produced various China postcards
as part of its extensive international series between 1900 and 1910.
The Librairie Francaise,
a library and a publishing house established by Henry Coston also supplied postcard images of China among major enterprises like its "Documents and Testimony" and the monthly magazine “French Readings.” As with a number of early postcards, paintings like those of Beijing in 1898 by C. Wink
made for some of the most beautiful early imagery.
Major Chinese publishers were of course based in Hong Kong, like Lau Ping Kee.
Some postcards were made by Chinese immigrants abroad. The individual portraits
where the different colors and parts of a person are assembled from hand-cut stamps, for example, were actually made by Chinese immigrant workers in the US. This unusual form of postcard manufacture is unique to Chinese-made postcards a century ago.
The history of photography and early image publishing in China remains a vastly under-researched field, but given the growing interest in the past among contemporary Chinese, this situation is unlikely to persist.