Pictures tell story of modern China

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2011, 12:00am


A collection of rare photographs taken around the time of the 1911 revolution has provided new insight into Chinese life after the last emperor was overthrown.

China in Revolution: Nineteen-Eleven and Beyond 1911, which was launched yesterday at the University of Hong Kong, brings together 300 rare images - amassed after a year of ardent searching at major archives and libraries around the world.

'These images constitute a highly complex, highly nuanced story told by missionaries, adventurers, travellers, merchants, diplomats and all kinds of other people,' said Hong Kong-born photojournalist Liu Heung Shing, the book's editor.

Liu, 1992 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography for documenting the fall of the Soviet Union, led a team of experts using the latest digital technology to revive the images without altering the source. One-third of the pictures in the book are being seen for the first time. These include the Arrow Pavilion being set on fire by the eight allied powers in the siege of Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion, and the Chinese mission to Berlin, led by a prince, delivering an apology for the killing of a German minister. The mission was shunned by Kaiser Wilhelm II for six months.

Liu expected the new, multi-angle visual account of the 1911 event would provide a new experience for visitors, especially for the Chinese.

'Chinese in general are very unfamiliar with the language of photography,' he said. 'They treat pictures merely as old photographs. But they are so much more than that. Photographs can describe our lives and I look on them as our common collective memory.'

Liu said many exhibitions concerning 1911 were about such things as Sun Yat-sen's calligraphy or his letters. 'How are these things relevant to someone born in 1990? They want to see the daily life, events and social conditions, and this is the language photography is most suited for. This is where it is at its best and most powerful,' he said.

Liu hoped the book would help generate a rethink on China in the modern period from an angle of China being the world's second largest economy, and not the usual humiliated victim of the colonists.

A six-week exhibition featuring 86 images from the book, entitled 'The Road to 1911: A Visual History', began yesterday at the University Museum and Art Gallery. After Hong Kong, the exhibition will tour the mainland, with the Beijing show kicking off on September 22.