Xinhai Revolution

Superb visual record puts the 1911 revolution in context

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am

China in Revolution: The Road to 1911
by Liu Heung-shing
Hong Kong University Press

If a picture paints a thousand words, Liu Heung-shing's latest opus on China's 1911 Revolution presents at least 300,000. But for a book of that magnitude, no words will suffice to convey all the underlying dynamics carried in the 300 historic photographs, at least one-third of which are seen for the first time.

Launched on the eve of the centenary of the Xinhai Revolution, the book is in fact about more than just the gunfire that ended China's dynastic cycle.

As the title suggests, it covers the road to 1911. But it actually goes beyond the last emperor. Presented chronologically in six themes spanning from 1856 through 1928, the collection produces a grand canvas rather than snapshots of the revolution.

If the Wuchang uprising on October 10 was the climax, then the book is most effective in narrating the long crescendo leading to it, as well as the diminuendo after it. Over that stretch it enables readers to grasp the historical context of events.

It would be a misnomer to call this volume a photo account of the 1911 revolution. Liu, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, had a grand theme in mind while making an extensive search of major world museums for images for this project.

'Through the photographs brought together here, this book sets out a visual context and backdrop for the historic events of 1911, describing the daily lives, the social events, customs and traditions, as well as the upheavals and political turmoil of the period surrounding China's first republic,' Liu writes in the preface.

'Importantly, these together provide a visual experience of those times for audiences today, as well as an opportunity to reflect upon how, as a people, the Chinese were portrayed abroad a hundred years ago.'

The book completes the trilogy that the Hong Kong-born veteran journalist has put together since 2008. Unlike the first two on, respectively, the past 60 years of the People's Republic and the history of Shanghai, Liu goes much farther in space and time in this volume. The design of the book reflects both his journalistic flair and scholarly perspective, the latter involving professional input from the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong. The HKU Press provides cutting-edge quality of visuals in the final print.

The opening pages, for example, show a decree of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The spread of the original document, showing rarely seen details including the phoenix and dragon art work and the big official seals in red ink, are stunning.

While the half-page synopsis provides a concise background for each of the six themes, the pictures that follow are the main thrust. The broad selections, from beheadings to pedicures, reflect the author's aim to offer multiple angles on life in China in addition to the well-known political events. Thus under Second Opium War (1856-1860), the first chapter, there are pictures of the bloody aftermath of the storming of the Tagu Fort in Tianjin, as well as images of the racecourse in Hong Kong and priests at a grave in Macau.

Details on the destruction of the Summer Palace are placed side-by-side with family portraits of officials and common people. The latter includes a Guangzhou schoolboy, still in pigtail, holding books for the new curriculum, an image which is the cover of the book.

The mix of pictures from big events and daily life also applies to other chapters, namely The Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), The Boxer Rebellion (1898-1903), The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), The Wuchang Uprising (1911), and The Chinese Warlord Era (1912-1928). It is what Liu calls the layering of information.

'By going through that layering process, one no longer looks at history this way or that way. It's many of these things that constitute the history of contemporary China, a highly complex, highly nuanced story told by missionaries, adventurists, travellers, merchants, diplomats, all kinds,' Liu says.

In the process, quite a few discoveries were unearthed.

One is the image of the Chinese delegation led by Prince Chun (father of Pu Yi, the last emperor) summoned to Germany to convey regrets for the murder of the German minister Klemens Freiherr von Ketteler during the infamous Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The picture was taken in Hong Kong en route to Europe. It turned out the delegation was delayed in Germany for half a year awaiting the Kaiser who did anything (including hunting) but receive the group. Eventually they got down to negotiating whether there should be a kowtow. Prince Chun cabled the Empress Dowager back and forth in Beijing for instruction.

New insights are also plentiful. Images of the troops of eight nations suppressing the Boxers in Beijing and Tianjin are especially captivating. It is a rarity to see the American infantry marching inside the imperial palace, and French soldiers engaging in street fighting in Tianjin. The picture of cavalry escorting German Count Waldersee, the supreme commander of the Allied forces, entering the palace is breathtaking.

Other photos that captivate include: a refreshing one of a 14-year old Chinese girl messenger who went to Tianjin to report on the legation under siege; a revealing one of the damage to Hanlin Library, the equivalent of the American Library of Congress, by Gansu troops; and a gruesome one of the beheaded bodies of some Boxers.

Equally revealing pictures include the five ministers of the new republic taken at Central Park in New York, the abducted Pu Yi on a roof, a holy summer dance in Tibet, nuns and young girls at a Natural Feet Society missionary home, and more.

The appendix features a most useful chronology detailing major events from 1860 to 1928 that put the pictures into proper perspective. Liu and scholars have put their two cents worth into the superb essays at the front. But the true dollar worth lies in each of the pictures in this invaluable book.