J.S. Pughe, A troublesome egg to hatch. Published April 6, 1901 in Puck, v. 49, no. 1257. Chromolithograph.
Following a trend that had started in the late 1800s, Western photographers were sent abroad to create images that would record and show foreign countries. Such photographs, oftentimes created through an imperialist and colonial lens, contributed to the creation of stereotypical views of non-Western countries. China, for instance, became seen as a backward and violent country on the brink of collapse. The photographs taken during the Boxer Rebellion, the war that broke out between Western powers and China in the early 1900s, reveal this tendency and make us reflect on the role that photography plays in the creation of identities.
The name Boxer derives from an erroneous translation of the name Yihequan (or The Harmonious and Righteous Fists), a secret society formed in northern China around 1898. The movement, whose members were mainly peasants skilled at martial arts, was characterized by strong xenophobic and anti-imperialist tendencies. Since the mid-1800s in fact, resentment had grown towards foreign imperialist attempts and the privileges granted to Christian missions on Chinese soil. The Boxers directed their violence towards missionaries, Chinese Christians, foreign diplomats, and legations in Beijing.
James Ricalton, His Some of China’s Trouble-makers: Boxer Prisoners Captured and Brought in by the 6th US Cavalry —Tientsin, China. No. 63.
As the rebellion unfolded, the Chinese government and the Qing Empress Cixi realized that the Boxer could be exploited to eradicate the economic, military, and territorial privileges that foreign powers had in China. Yet, the Chinese hopes were short-lived. A coalition of Western troops, well-equipped and technologically more advanced, soon managed to capture the capital. By 1901, the Chinese government was forced to surrender and accept a series of humiliating concessions.
The images produced during the Boxer Rebellion capture the understanding Western powers had of China. Employed by Underwood & Underwood (New York) to make stereoscopic images of the Far East, the American photographer James Ricalton (1844-1929) arrived in China in 1900. His photographs show an array of underfed and weak unskilled laborers and soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilian casualties. His Some of China’s Trouble-makers: Boxer Prisoners Captured and Brought in by the 6th US Cavalry — Tientsin, China. No. 63 is arguably one of the most famous shots of the war.
In a caption, Ricalton explained that the men were obviously Boxers because one had been found with a weapon. He then claimed that “By far the larger part of the population of the empire is of this low, poor, coolie class. […] Tomorrow they may be shot—but, whether it is bambooing, shooting, or beheading, one fellow decides he will have a smoke.”
Henri Meyer, China: the cake of kings and… of emperors (En Chine: Le gâteau des Rois et… des Empereurs). Published January 16, 1898 in Le Petit Journal.
The recurring brutality that appeared in such photographs strengthened the idea that Chinese society was violent and ruled through physical punishment. Criminals, soldiers, and unskilled laborers were indistinguishable and therefore the same. Appearance and professions defined the character of a person.
Satirical magazines and newspapers gave ample space to cartoons and strips that, although with less violence, conveyed the same biased perspective. In 1901, the American magazine Puck printed “A Troublesome Egg to Hatch,” a cartoon that showed the rulers of the Western powers involved in the war trying to hatch a large egg called “China.” Two years before, a French sketch showed Western kings and emperors in the act of splitting the ‘China-pie.’ Behind them, a horrified but powerless China was portrayed as a stereotypical Qing official with long nails and a queue hairstyle. Both cartoons reveal once again how China was perceived in the West: a weak yet valuable country ready to be exploited by many contenders.
Xunling (1874-1943), The Empress Dowager Cixi in the guise of Avalokitesvara, 1903-1905. Glass negative.
The self-perception that China had after the defeat of the Boxer Rebellion was greatly influenced by Western images. It had become clear that modernization was needed, not only to reassert control over its own territories, but also to be seen as a major player in the international political arena.
Empress Dowager Cixi decided to employ the same weapon that the West had used against her: photography. Over the course of 1903-04, the Empress commissioned a series of celebratory portraits that were to be given to foreign diplomats and dignitaries. As historian David Hogge noted, in a moment of turmoil and instability, the Empress’ photographs were “a strategic response to the Qing court’s need to construct a more favorable public identity.” Her images were an attempt to create a more positive view of China, one that diverged from what the West had been portraying since the end of the nineteenth century: a backward, weak, and violent country.
Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.
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