Regine Thiriez. Barbarian Lens: Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor's European Palaces. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach Publishers, 1998. xxiii + 191 pp. $68.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-5700-519-0.
Reviewed by Steven A. Leibo (The Sage Colleges and State University of New York-Albany)
Published on H-Asia (January, 2000)
It was particularly interesting to be reviewing this book over the Millennium New Years. Why? Because the topic chosen by Regine Thiriez, a study of photography in nineteenth century China, would have been considered by main stream historians to be a relatively esoteric subject for most of the 20th century. After all, as all professional historians know, we have long worked almost exclusively with words, building our "pictures" of the past from the flow of our narratives, or for some of the more mathematically minded of us, with statistical charts. Our books only rarely included photographs and when they did often publishers had more to do with their selection than the scholars who wrote the words.
But all that is about to change. Sure, there will still be narrative histories in the future, but we all know that due to technological changes and the evolving tastes of our audiences, many more of us will become involved in presenting our future musing on the past with a wider range of presentation materials. More and more often our words will be accompanied by more click able access to supporting materials from primary sources to music and image.
In fact, it seems almost certain that historians of the 21st century will be as deeply involved in the search for and scholarly study of "images" as previous historians were involved in the search for documents. Thus, just as one often needed a good understanding of graphology to do our work --so commonly trying to read handwritten documents -- knowledge of the scholarly study of photographs will become fundamental to the future training of historians. In short, the age of the image, now more than ever coupled with the written word, has arrived.
With that said let me say that all historians of China now have a major debt to pay to Dr. Thiriez for her masterful study of the world of photography in nineteenth century China. Much more than the work suggested by her title, the book studies far more than Qianlong Emperor's European palaces. Dr. Thiriez helps us enter the world of photography as it was first arriving in China during the nineteenth century and in doing so teaches her readers a great many of the technical photographic issues that we will all need for projects yet to come.
The book itself is broken down into twelve chapters, conveniently subdivided into sections - early photography in general; the Beijing and the European Palaces; photography of the European palaces; and the individuals, often from the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, who more often than not were the sites' earliest admirers and photographers.
The author's discussion of the Western Palaces, originally designed by the Jesuits for Qianlong emperor, is in itself particularly interesting. Apparently they served not as residences but rather as museums of a sort -a place where one could view Western artifacts and perhaps imagine being in the West. Especially fascinating is the discussion of the use of the Western palaces as sort of a reverse Chinoiserie. Apparently elite Chinese would dress up in Western clothing at the palaces while surrounding themselves with Western motifs just as their European cousins showed similar interest in Chinese styles!
But, as is well known, the palaces did not survive the nineteenth century, and these collections are photographs not of the palaces at their height but in the years and eventually generations after their destruction at the hands of the Anglo-French armies who captured the area during the Arrow War. It was during the latter stages of the struggle, readers will recall, that the imperial summer palaces (which included the European palaces) were burned down on the orders of Lord Elgin. In fact, even before the English put the entire complex to the torch, both French and English troops looted them. Interestingly, when word later reached Europe of their destruction, the news was received perhaps differently than what Lord Elgin might have hoped. Victor Hugo himself commented "We call ourselves civilized, and them barbarians; here is what Civilization has done to Barbarity"
An attractive element to the work is Dr. Regine Thiriez's discussion of the photographers themselves, especially those hearty souls who found themselves living in Beijing during the late nineteenth century and photographed the ruins. For this reader her discussion of these men in the context of their roles as employees of the Maritime Customs Service was particularly important. Regine Thiriez makes it very clear just how different the men of the customs service were from so many of the other westerners, from missionaries to soldiers and diplomats who lived in nineteenth century China. Customs men were expected to not only recognize their responsibility to the Chinese government, but learn its languages and customs. Rather like members of some sort of commercial professorate they were even expected to publish and were promoted for their efforts!.
And if the above were not enough the book itself is especially fun for anyone who has ever done historical research because the author has revealed the actual struggles she experienced tracing down her sources: In fact, "the historian as detective" is a major feature of the book, a subject all research historians understand and that few actually reveal in the writings. Clearly, for the professional historian that will be another major attraction of the work. Clearly this is a work which has many dimensions and one which a very large number of historians are likely to profit from. I recommend the book highly.
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Steven A. Leibo. Review of Thiriez, Regine, Barbarian Lens: Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor's European Palaces.
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