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See amazing scenes of 19th-century China at this photography exhibition

Some of the earliest photographs of China, on show for the first time in Beijing

Li Hongzhang, Liang Shitai, 1878. All images courtesy of the Loewentheil Collection
With our modern experience of Chinese photography often limited to skin-enhanced, eye-enlarged selfies, posed pre-wedding photoshoots and the invasive long lenses of Sanlitun photographers, it's easy to overlook China's rich photographic history. At the Tsinghua University Art Museum, however, they are putting this to right by featuring masterworks from the Stephan Loewentheil China Photography collection, in the museum's inaugural photography exhibition. Loewentheil's is believed to be the largest private collection of historical photos of China outside the nation itself, and Vision and Reflection is the first time that these photographs, all captured in China in the 19th century by both Chinese and international photographers, have been shown in Beijing.

The Yellow Crane Tower, in Wuchang, Wuhan, circa 1890

For New York-based collector Loewentheil, photography 'transports us through time and distance with an immediacy that transcends the written word' and this new exhibition certainly testifies to that. The photographs have been divided thematically and range from portraiture to daily life, trade, architecture and landscape. A window into the final decades of the Qing dynasty, they each tell a different story of the socio-political climate of the time, the treatment of foreigners and vice-versa and the imperialist consumption of China and Chinese goods, all alongside the development of this brand-new technology.

Heavenly Peace Street in Guangzhou, A Chan Studio (Ya Zhen), 1870s

Indeed, it was in the same year – 1839 – that the West both forced open China's closed ports with the First Opium War and invented the first commercial form of photography. Although the Chinese people first confronted with this form of technology feared that it would steal their spirits and, more strangely, take their children's eyes, they soon embraced picture-taking with photographic studios, photography manuals and formally posed portraits.

North Gate, Beijing, Felice Beato, 1860

This particular style of formal Chinese studio portraiture was based on traditional Chinese court and ancestor portrait paintings. It was considered opposite to the Western aesthetic and was often ridiculed by the Western photographers who couldn't understand the desired direct gaze, symmetrical posture (with both ears visible), and lack of shadow on the face (it was thought to look like dirt).

Portrait of a Seated Woman, unidentified Chinese photographer, date unknown

In fact, as the exhibition shows, the practice was more diverse than Western accounts suggest. One of the standout photographs in the exhibition is Portrait of Li Hongzhang in Tianjin, 1878, (pictured, main) by the Chinese photographer Liang Shitai. Here he creates a new hybrid visual culture, his portraits on this new medium referencing traditional painting through calligraphic inscriptions.

Great Wall with Gate, Badaling, Thomas Child, 1870s

Other must-see works include British photographer Thomas Child's incredible images of architecture, including some of the few photos ever taken of the Old Summer Palace, the Ming Tombs and the now very popular Badaling section of the Great Wall; these photographs and William Saunders' occupational shots showing 'life' in 19th-century China were lapped up by the eager West, who wanted to find out more about this foreign land.

Macau Waterfall, Lai Afong, circa 1860

Although aspects of these views are now largely consigned to the history books, there is still a sense in this exhibition of continuity, and of the timeless and pervasive human spirit – many of us have been to these photographed places ourselves and seen our own versions of these landscapes. The technology may have evolved, but the instinct to discover the world and record it through the photographic image remains just as strong.

By Helena Poole

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