Historical Photographs of China

Quick guide

Welcome! Search our collections from the search box top right on this page; browse through the right-hand column; cross search this resource and two others at our Visualising China site. More search tips are in the Introduction to All Images. To find about about the project please read below, as well as our project blog.  You can also find us on TwitterFacebook, and Sina Weibo, and you can find a short film about the project here, and a BBC Radio 4 programme about us here.

About the project

A collaboration between scholars at the University of Bristol, University of Lincoln, the Institut d'Asie Orientale and TGE-Adonis, this project aims to locate, archive, and disseminate photographs from the substantial holdings of images of modern China held mostly in private hands overseas. These are often of even greater historic interest than might ordinarily be the case, as the destruction of materials inside China in war and revolution in the twentieth century, and especially during the 1966-69 Cultural Revolution, means that there is a relative dearth today of accessible photographic records in China itself. Turmoil in China, and emigration from the country, also led to the development of a large Chinese diaspora. Moreover, thousands of foreigners lived and worked in China between the 1840s and the 1950s, and many thousands more visited for longer or shorter periods. Chinese emigrants, foreign expatriates and visitors alike took, bought or otherwise acquired photographs. Many of these are in libraries and collections in the West, and in addition our research in modern Chinese history has led us to many interesting private collections. Images from private and public collections are available here.

We have held several exhibitions of our materials since 2007. 'Picturing China 1870-1950: Photographs from British Collections' took place in London, Bath, and Durham in 2007-2008. A further exhibition took place at the Grant Bradley Gallery, Bristol, from 17 January to 21 February 2009. Click here for more details about the exhibitions in England. Collaborators in Spain held an exhibition of photographs from the collection in Pamplona in November 2009. During February, March and April 2011, fifty images from Historical Photographs of China collections were exhibited in three different venues in Navarre, Spain. This exhibition in the Basque country was organised by the Red Navarra de Estudios Chinos (Navarre Network of Chinese Studies), and the Universidad Pública de Navarra (Navarre Public University). In 2013 in collaboration with communications teams at the British Embassy in Beijing, and Consulate-General in Chongqing we held two new exhibitions; and in March 2015 a selection of the images was showcased at the GREAT Festival of Creativity in Shanghai, organised by the UK government's Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

The companion volume to our 2007 exhibition, Picturing China 1870-1950: Photographs from British Collections (Chinese Maritime Customs Project Occasional Papers No.1, 2007, ISSN: 1755-6643) is now out of print. The project was also the subject of a supplement to the winter 2008 (No.46) International Institute of Asian Studies Newsletter. This can be accessed at the IIAS site, or as an Adobe Acrobat file of the entire supplement here (warning, this is a large file, 3.24mb).

The photographs archived here come from the collections of a Chinese diplomat, foreign businessmen, staff of the administrations in the Chinese treaty ports, missionaries, and officials of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. They shed light on political events such as the 1925 May Thirtieth incident, on working and social life, on treaty port architecture, commercial history, the history of dress and fashion, and of course the history of photography in China. They were taken by talented amateur photographers, by foreign snap-shotters, professional studio photographers, and others. These images were taken, acquired or bought by those living or visiting China.

These digital copies of the images are made available here for educational, reference and research purposes. As well as a variety of modestly sized collections, this project has worked with a number of larger bodies of material including photographs related to the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, diplomat Foo Ping-sheung (Fu Bingchang), holdings relating to the Shanghai Municipal Police, the G. Warren Swire collection, and the J.C. Oswald collection (SOAS).

How to use the site

This is a free, open-access site. You do not need to log in. Please use the menu on the right to select either 'All images', or images within one of the main collections. From each of these front pages for each collection you can either browse all the images, or search for specific key words. You can search for places, types of building, institutions, names, things, etc. We use both pinyin romanization, and older transliterations of Chinese words. You can also search using Chinese characters. These images are all copyrighted, and details are given with each photograph. If you wish to use an image for any purpose other than for research or study purposes, or if you require a higher resolution copy of an image, then you must contact the copyright owner. Please direct any such requests to Historical Photographs of China (hums-chinaphotos@bristol.ac.uk).


Funding for this project has come from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which funded the History of the Chinese Maritime Customs Project, John Swire and Sons, the British Academy, the Centre for East Asian Studies at the University of Bristol, the Worldwide Universities Network, and the University of Lincoln. We are also extremely grateful to our collaborators at the Institut d'Asie Orientale (IAO) at Lyon, especially Christian Henriot, and Gérald Foliot (TGE-Adonis), to Susannah Rayner, former Archivist at the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, and to all the owners of photographs who have been in touch with us.

Visualising China

Visualising China was a JISC-funded project to develop an innovative, web-based resource that allows users to explore more than 10,000 images of China taken between 1850 and 1950. It provides new tools for working with existing resources of digitised images, such as Historical Photographs of China, as well as other online archives.


Professor Robert Bickers
Historical Photographs of China project,
School of Humanities,
University of Bristol,
11 Woodland Road,
Bristol BS8 1TB,
United Kingdom.

Email: Historical Photographs of China (hums-chinaphotos@bristol.ac.uk).

Last update on Monday 4 July 2016 (18:22) by  Robert Bickers

© 2012 University of Bristol - Projet Director: Robert Bickers
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