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China, Missionary photographs, images, Chinese Christians, Catholic, Republican Era


The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, once wrote that, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” And Confucius noted: “Study the past if your would define the future.” Thus, to effectively prepare for the future, the past must be recovered, and among the most untouched sources of China’s late-imperial and Republican Era history are the many Western missionary archives, which contain large repositories of important imagistic history of Chinese persons and culture – political, artistic, religious, architectural, and scientific. This paper approaches historical questions regarding Sino-Foreign cultural relations and exchanges by exploring how missionary photographs help us better understand China’s long association with Western missionaries, especially in the realms of cultural and religious interchange. While there are an increasing number of scholars who are interested in what missionary archives provide in the area of textual history, too few have conducted an exhaustive inventory of which archives hold large collections of historical images, especially images that center on the more diurnal aspects of the lives of common Chinese. Using selected examples of historic photographs, this paper offers a preliminary overview of the photographic 2 collections held in six Catholic missionary archives: the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Rome, Jesuit Archives in Rome (ARSI), China Province Jesuit Archive in Taipei (CPJA), Franciscan Archives in Rome (ACGOFM), Taiyuan Diocese Archive 太原教區檔案館 in Shanxi (TDA), and the comprehensive collection of the Maryknoll Mission Archive in New York (MMA). Aspects of the Sino-Foreign exchange narrative can be discerned from these historic photographs, foremost, that the relationship between missionaries and native Chinese appears to have been more affable than is often emphasized in scholarly works. Photographs suggest that common missionaries and common Chinese developed strong and abiding friendships, despite tensions between national leaders. Among the collections discussed in this paper are the some 600 plates produced by the Italian missionary, Leone Nani, PIME, (1880-1935) who extensively photographed aspects of late-imperial and Republican Era China: soldiers, magistrates, men, women, rich, poor, children, and the elderly. Nani’s photographs were so moving that many were later published in newspapers and featured in European exhibitions. The photographic collections discussed in this paper provide an extraordinary testimony to the lifestyles of China at a time of transition.


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