Spotlight on a closed world

 

IN 1868 PHOTOGRAPHY was a new and fairly esoteric art. China, meanwhile, was a closed book – certainly as far as most people in these islands were concerned. So the fact that a Scottish photographer went to live and work in Qing Dynasty Hong Kong for four years is fascinating in itself.

But John Thomson was no ordinary commercial photographer. He wandered far and wide, capturing images of Chinese people from all walks of life. At a time when many Chinese had never encountered a Westerner – let alone a Westerner with a camera – he travelled to the trading ports of Canton and Shanghai, to the Great Wall in the north, and deep into central China.

Tomorrow some 50 of these photographs will go on show in an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, on loan from the Wellcome Library in London, which owns some 150 Thomson images. “We just have room to show about 50, so although his pictures include lots of landscapes and buildings, I decided to focus on his portraits,” says the show’s curator, Laura Muldowney.

The result is quietly mesmerising. From street sellers to statesmen, impish children to a Mongol trader with a two-humped Bactrian camel, Thomson presents us with a range of characters whose lives we can barely imagine but whose emotional expressions are singularly familiar.

One man is having his feet attended to by a street chiropodist while another peers over a half-door, perhaps waiting his turn – and clearly dismayed by what’s going on below. A boat-dweller from southern China leans casually against a wall. A young Manchu bride in full-on headgear and robes gazes warily to the right of the camera as if glimpsing an uncertain future with her in-laws.

These relaxed poses, Muldowney explains, are themselves testament to Thomson’s photographic skills. “The Chinese really felt that you should have a frontal portrait – and a full-length portrait at that. They were very superstitious, and it was not considered good luck to have three-quarter length or profile poses. He must have really gained the trust of his sitters to get them to turn sideways to the camera like that.”

Among the most striking of Thomson’s “side-on” shots are two pictures of women from relatively poor backgrounds. One wears a headscarf and a tiny, Mona Lisa smile; the other, an elderly woman in full profile, has simple earrings and a staggeringly elegant coiffure. Thomson was, it seems, struck by the plight of Chinese women – especially married women in wealthy families, whose lives were bounded by all kinds of restrictions, both psychological and physical.

The most controversial of these was the binding of feet. In the late 19th century, China was ruled by a non-native Manchu ruling class for whom this bizarre practice was distasteful – indigenous Han women, however, were still subject to its painful procedures.

“A child’s foot would be bound as early as three years of age,” says Muldowney. “They compressed the arch and folded it under, like that” – she curves the fingers of her hand into a closed fist – “then wrapped bandages very, very tightly around it. It could be as small as seven centimetres, though more typically it was 13. It was thought to be quite erotic – this is quite disgusting now – but the smell and the size and the way it forced the women to hobble along, that was considered really erotic.”

Thomson’s photograph of a bound foot and an unbound one is, to put it mildly, chilling. In a glass case nearby, Muldowney has placed some shoes from the Chester Beatty’s Chinese collection; two pairs of the ankle supports worn by women whose feet were bound, along with a pair of beautifully embroidered Manchu slippers. Manchu women didn’t get off scot-free in the foot department: they wore wooden platform heels underneath their shoes, ostensibly to keep hems clean but also, it’s thought, to mimic the hobbling gait of their Han sisters.

A nearby case contains a tiny silk jacket that would have been worn by a Chinese boy for his first birthday celebration, along with a hat in the shape of a tiger which, it was believed, would help protect a child from attack by evil spirits. “It’s a great opportunity for us to show some of our material in an appropriate context, which we think will really bring it to life for visitors,” says Muldowney.