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Fujian glimpsed in letters and lens

AFTER the First Opium War in 1842, which ended in the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing, China was forced to open five treaty ports - Fuzhou (Fujian Province), Xiamen (Fujian), Guangzhou (Guangdong Province), Ningbo (Zhejiang Province) and Shanghai - to free trade. Through these ports many Westerners got their first glimpse of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) China.

Following are the impressions of three Westerners in Fuzhou, Fujian Province: a missionary, a tea trader and a photographer.

The missionary

A large city with a population of 25,000, Fuzhou (also known as Foochow or Fuhchau) in Fujian Province was one of five treaty ports that China opened to traders and missionaries after its defeat in the First Opium War.

On May 31, 1850, the American missionary Justus Doolittle arrived in Fuzhou with his wife Sophia after 186 days at sea. Doolittle, then 26, would later be also known by his Chinese name: Lu Gongming.

Historical accounts showed that the young Doolittle was able to overcome the language barrier in a remarkably short time. One missionary had remarked that to learn Mandarin, one would require "a body of bronze, lungs of steel, and the temperament of an angel." What's more, the Fuzhou dialect was quite unlike standard Mandarin.

Doolittle turned out to be quite a linguistic genius. After just half a year, he was able to preach Bible verses in Fuzhou dialect and even learn a few Fuzhou songs. He wrote several books in the dialect. These include: "Exhortation to Abandon Opium" (1853) and "Introduction to Christianity" (1856).

Between 1861 and 1864 he wrote many unsigned letters as "Jottings about the Chinese" that were published in the Hong Kong newspaper, the China Mail. He was most recognized for his famous "Social Life of the Chinese" (1865), a detailed account of everyday life in China in the mid-19th century.

In 1857 Doolittle baptized his first Chinese convert, and in the same year he founded the first church in Fuzhou. Despite his achievements, Doolittle's personal life was fraught with tragedy. In 1856 his wife Sophia fell ill and died; in 1862 his daughter Nancy (from a second marriage) died of cholera. Soon his own health deteriorated, and in 1864 he and second wife Lucy returned to America, where Lucy died soon after.

Doolittle then organized the letters he had written for the China Mail into a book, "Social Life of the Chinese." He wrote in his preface: "Though specially relating to Fuhchau (Fuzhou) and vicinity, the description of many of the social and superstitious customs is generally applicable to other parts of the (Qing Dynasty) empire."

A keen observer, Doolittle took detailed notes on everyday life in Fuzhou, from marriage customs to the practice of foot binding. In "Social Life" he wrote on customs and festivals, superstitions, local religious beliefs, business customs, government and administration, the opium trade - he even wrote a section on profanities in the Fuzhou dialect.

He was particularly interested in the cultural differences between China and the West, noting that the practice of foot binding - which many Westerners consider cruelty to girls and women - reminded him of how Western women would squeeze themselves into corsets that barely allowed them to breathe.

Doolittle was concerned about the impact of opium on the Chinese, and he wrote on the hypocrisy of the opium trade in "Social Life" - "If it is the policy of the governments of Great Britain and the United States to protect their citizens in importing this drug and in trafficking in it in this empire, ought not Protestant Christians residing in those countries to be incited ... in providing the hundreds of millions of the Chinese with the Gospel ...?"

He continued: "It is a sad, sad thought that the principals, employees and agents of a few foreign mercantile firms ... annually realize a far greater amount of money from traffic in this drug than is annually contributed ... for the Christianization of the Chinese!"

The tea trader

After Fuzhou was opened to international trade, the port became a major trading hub for tea. Many Western merchants flocked there to grab a slice of the tea business.

In 1860, 17-year-old American Francis Jones went to Fuzhou to seek his American dream. Working his way up from a junior employee in a Western-owned firm, he quickly built a fortune and founded his own trading company. In 1877 his first son was born, and Jones even gave him a Chinese name: Fusheng, which means "born in Fuzhou."

Jones was also an avid collector of photographs of scenes in China. Most of his photos were bought from Western photographers, but it was also possible that he hired some to shoot scenes of the mountains and rivers in the province, as well as villages and tea plantations. In 1880, Jones boarded a ship to America with his family, his fortune and his precious photographs, and bade farewell to Fuzhou.

So how did the world come to know about his collection of photographs?

More than 100 years later, on October 24, 1986, an old man with white-blond hair turned up at the department of archives for Fuzhou City.

The 76-year-old introduced himself as Theodore Jones, grandson of Francis Jones (and son of Fusheng). He carried a heavy suitcase containing his grandfather's photo collection. He handed over 48 old photographs, saying that this was his grandfather's wish.

The photos collected by Francis Jones fall into three main categories: the buildings erected by foreigners in China, such as bungalows and churches; traditional Chinese buildings and scenes from the naval shipyard at Mawei; and landscape shots of both sides of the Min River.

The photographer

Unlike Jones and Doolittle, British photographer John Thomson spent only a short time in Fuzhou, as part of his travels around China from 1870 to 1872.

However, Thomson was a pioneer whose photos helped to bring Qing Dynasty China to the Western world. He published a total of eight books, of which five were on China. It was Thomson's work on China that won him great acclaim as the world's first social documentary photographer.

In the spring of 1870, Thomson visited Guangzhou and Macau; in summer he went to Shantou and Chaozhou in Guangdong Province; and in autumn he reached Xiamen in Fujian Province. The next spring he visited Taiwan, and in autumn he reached Fuzhou.

On December 2, 1871, Thomson took a boat up the Min River toward the city of Nanping, capturing the sights of the river along the way. On the boat he met the missionary Doolittle, whom Thomson described as being rather short and fat, and slightly dark. In 1872, he went to Shanghai, Ningbo, Jiaozhou, Beijing and Hong Kong, after which he left for Britain with his wife.

Upon his return, Thomson published his pictures on China. These include "Foochow and the River Min" (1873), "Illustrations of China and Its People" (1873-74) and "Through China with a Camera" (1898).

The first photos Thomson took in Fuzhou were that of the Mawei naval shipyard. China's first steamship, the Wannianqing, had just been commissioned, and warships such as the Yangwu were being built at the shipyard.

Thomson remarked that the buildings in the shipyard resembled the railway stations in Britain. He interacted with craftsmen, seamen and captains, and got on foreign vessels that called at the port.

In "Foochow and the River Min" - the first book ever published on the Min River - Thomson captured a great variety of subjects, including beggars, petty thieves and night soil collectors; he even followed a Western priest to a home for lepers.

There are only six surviving copies of the original edition of this book, and each copy is now worth 180,000 British pounds (US$278,000). Thomson's legacy lives on in China - the China Millennium Monument held a large-scale exhibition of Thomson's works in April this year.


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