Positioning Photography in China: Liang See Tay and Elite Subjects

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When examining the arrival of western photographers to China in the 19th century, men wielding cameras, armed with a revolutionary means of image-reproduction, one might assume that they were the first modern projectors of China to the world. However, as we will explore in this essay, it was native Chinese photographers who reinterpreted the imported technology to serve their own visualization purposes. The Chinese indigenization of the modern medium of photography “reclaimed” it as local image production, rooted in traditional art forms and practices.[i] Indeed, the resistance to this western gaze in the form of technological empowerment lies in this indigenization and recontextualization of the photographic medium to the Chinese cultural environment. This process is typified through Liang See Tay’s photographic reimaginations of Prince Chun Xian and Li Hongzhang, two Chinese men of great importance and grandeur, both at home and abroad. Because this essay focuses on the photographs made of these men, it is important to note that their stature made them singular photographed subjects, giving them the power to manipulate their projected images by directing the photograph’s meaning.

Photography’s arrival in China

The advent of photography in China coincides with one of the most painful periods in the country’s modern history: the first Opium War (1839-1842). The social inequity and military weaknesses marking the Chinese political system in the nineteenth century facilitated the European powers’ expansionist and colonialist goals. The bloody Opium Wars culminated in the treaties of Nanjing (1842), Tianjin (1858) and Beijing (1860): the Chinese empire was forced to pay indemnities and to open numerous ports to western powers, and to grant freedom of movement on its territory to foreign missionaries.[ii] This forced opening of China, which had previously limited outside visits to Hong Kong, Macao, and the five treaty ports,[iii] allowed foreigners to reside in Chinese communities beyond the previous limitations. With this influx came foreign technological innovations, among which photography soon became favored for documenting this little-known, “exotic” land.

After China’s “opening up,” Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Guangzhou remained the favored destinations for foreigners to open photography studios: their large expatriate communities and advantageous southern or central border locations ensured continuing profits from sales of portraits and scenic photographs. Early western photographers soon became established and respected, like Milton Miller, one of the most revered portraitists of the nineteenth century with a studio in Guangzhou. However, perhaps the most important contribution made by these early western photographers to the development of photography in China was their training of native photographers.[iv] As Cody and Terpak remark in their fundamental study of early Chinese photography, many of these early photographers were painters by trade, producing popular western-style paintings for tourists visiting Chinese coastal cities.[v] In this period of the 1850s, photography was expanding into mainland China, and becoming a more and more lucrative venture.

As photography grew in popularity across the mainland, many native photographers left the coastal cities and established studios elsewhere. One of the most important Chinese photographers of this period, active in the 1870s and 1880s, was Liang Shitai, commonly known as See Tay. See Tay was an export painter, a form of painting that blended western and Chinese pictorial techniques to produce pictures for foreign markets. He learned photographic techniques from foreigners, and soon opened his own studio in Hong Kong. Several years later he moved to Shanghai, where he announced he was going to begin printing portrait photographs on stone, ivory, and silk screens. This imported technology of printing photographs on traditionally Chinese materials would grow to become a distinctive feature of Chinese photography studios. By this time, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), a massive rebellion led by the theocratic Taiping Heavenly Kingdom against the Qing empire, had ravaged much of southern China, including areas surrounding Shanghai. After it was suppressed in 1864, the photography trade flourished in the city.

As See Tay grew more affluent and respected, he opened another studio in Tianjin, and soon received several important government commissions, gaining acclaim for his work. Famously, he photographed portraits of the Prince Chun Xian, the father of the Guangxu Emperor, as well as Li Hongzhang, China’s foreign minister and foremost diplomat of the late 19th century. See Tay’s photographs serve as distinctive signs of the cultural assimilation of the photographic medium into traditional Chinese visual expression.

Prince Chun: a Chinese patron of photography

Prince Chun Xian belonged to the Manchu imperial family’s innermost circle. He was the father of the Guangxu Emperor (1871-1901) and brother-in-law of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). While often described as an overcautious, inactive figure by historical sources, Prince Chun greatly embraced the revolutionary new art form of photography, most famously through the various pictures taken of him by photographer Liang See Tay.[vi] These images demonstrate a different side of the prince: an active, creative force, challenging and reimagining photographic norms.

The Qing court’s relationship to modernization and western innovation is complex. On the one hand, the imperial family was publicly viewed as overly traditional and deluded by their own status on the world stage. The traditional imperial worldview, with China as the Middle Kingdom and colonial powers as barbarians, was crumbling after the Opium Wars “opened up” China to the West.[vii] After the Taiping rebellion, several social changes took place in the Qing empire, perhaps most significantly embodied by the Self-Strengthening Movement (自强运动 ziqiang yundong) of the 1860s. The general goal of the movement was learning imported technologies from foreigners and incorporating them into Chinese society so that China would be able to eventually surpass them. By the time of the Self-Strengthening Movement, there are records of high-ranking Qing officials’ growing interest in photography as an exemplar of those western technologies.[viii] Prince Chun proved to be one of the most important figures in the changes of the era. He catalyzed projects such as constructing the first railway in China, establishing the first nationwide telegraph network, and modernizing the Qing army. During this period, photography became one of the technologies precipitating reform: Prince Chun was one of its most important patrons.[ix]

Prince Chun’s first photographic project, an ambitious series of portrait photographs of officials participating in a major naval inspection, was directly inspired by the legendary Han dynasty Xuan Emperor’s (91-49 BC) portrait display of meritorious officials.[x] This project of commemoration, linked directly to traditional memory and legend, clearly demonstrates the historical inspiration and continuity for which photography was harnessed. Painting, so closely interconnected with the development of photography in China in the latter half of the 19th century, played a key role in this project of past and present. Prince Chun commissioned a painting, Riding the Wind at Bohai Bay 渤澥乘風圖,[xi] based on the photographs and sketches created during the inspection. This painting featured the three leaders of the inspection, which included the prince and the diplomat Li Hongzhang, sailing the Bohai Sea, among representations of fantastical islands recalling traditional Chinese tales of immortals.[xii] Thus, new western technology integrated with indigenous visual representation and storytelling to create a record of this naval inspection.

These intimate ties between photography and painting in 19th century China are even visible within the naming of photography itself. Early words for the medium included “painting the verifiable image” (xiezhen), a word still in use in Japanese (shashin), but obsolete in China. The word is rooted in Chinese painting theory, demonstrating the central place of painting in new photographic vocabulary.[xiii] As reflected in early Chinese photographers’ professional transition from painting to photography, the popularization of photography tied into the Chinese painting tradition. Photography was often regarded as a reinvention of the painted medium. Oliver Moore in his article provides examples of material evidence showing the photographic idiom as borrowed for older art forms, such as painting and woodblock printing. Figure 1 shows a lithographic portrait of Zou Boqi (1819-1869), a mathematician from Guangzhou and China’s first known photography researcher. This portrait merges a photographic image of Zou’s head with a brush-painted body.[xiv]

Fig. 1. Portrait of Zou Boqi (1819-1869). Lithograph based on his photographic portrait.

Prince Chun as a hermit

See Tay was one of the photographers Prince Chun had employed on his naval tour. He was greatly impressed by his skill and summoned the photographer to Beijing to photograph him with his family at his princely residence. The result was an album of great importance in illustrating the growing value attributed to photography by the Qing court. The album contains 60 photographs of the prince at home and in his gardens, and several of these images stand out for their staged poses and elements of traditional Chinese pictorial portraiture. For instance, in Figure 2, Prince Chun is staged feeding a deer, a traditional symbol of longevity. This self-conscious staging strongly suggests that this photograph was adapted to traditional Chinese methods of visualization.[xv] Gu notes that the prominent seals allude to the most honorable moments of the prince’s career—the naval inspection, a praising tablet he received from the dowager empress—which in combination with his informal scholar’s robes suggest a hermit, a recluse from worldly affairs, whose accomplishments justify his withdrawal.[xvi] The Chinese scholar-hermit tradition, exemplified by poets like the Six Dynasties’ Tao Yuanming, abounds in pictorial representations of literati recluses living in nature. This photograph might be aiming to position Prince Chun in that long-standing image tradition. The seals might also signify, as Cody and Terpak point out, the transformation of this photograph into an official court document.[xvii] These seemingly contrasting purposes of the photograph, a private portrait of a recluse and an official imperial record, fit in with the overall Chinese tradition of hermitage. Just as the aforementioned Tao Yuanming, a hermit poet, gained great renown for his poetry even when purportedly withdrawing himself from public life, so too does Prince Chun adopt the hermit image to further his public image. The hermit-scholar who insists on his detachment often has an explicit political purpose in traditional Chinese iconography.[xviii]

Fig. 2. Liang Shitai, Seventh Prince feeding deer, albumen print from “Portraits of I-huan, Prince Ch’un, and Views of His Palace at Peking,” 1888 Washington, D.C., Library of Congress.

Li Hongzhang: Chinese perspectives

See Tay gained favor with top Chinese diplomat Li Hongzhang when he photographed him meeting with American president Ulysses S. Grant who visited China in 1876.[xix] His photograph equalizes the space of the two leaders, foreign and native, emphasizing a strict visual symmetry and doubling the gentlemen’s portrait composition through conventional elements of teacup and potted plant. Li’s reputation as a “great man” in the West, along with his fame and notoriety of visual representation, below in Figure 3 allows a parity with his white counterpart.

Fig. 3. Print after Liang Shitai (See Tay), General Grant, and Li Hung Chang, Chinese Grand Secretary of State and Viceroy of Chih-Li, reproduced in “The Mandarin at Home and Abroad,” p. 147.

See Tay’s most significant portrait photograph of Li Hongzhang, Figure 4, exemplifies the photographer’s adaptation of traditional Chinese pictorial practices to photography. In accordance with the conventions of Chinese photographic portraiture, Li is shown wearing high official garb, and is sitting next to a table with an open book, a symbol of status and learning, a teacup, and a potted flower (all standard elements of the portrait formula). While western portrait conventions dictated a rigid frontal view and level gaze, with an often colonialist intent to cast locals as unchanging stereotype,[xx] photographs of Li Hongzhang by western photographers tended to emphasize a pyramid structure and Nadar-style “great men” in half-length seated images.[xxi] However, See Tay’s choices in this photograph embrace and emphasize the Chinese identity of subject and photographer. The photograph’s contrasting interplay of black-and-white tones recalls traditional Chinese brush painting techniques of black ink dissolving into a lighter greyish shade. The darker tones remain in the corners and outer part of the image, while Li Hongzhang in the foreground is flooded with bright light. The imported western lighting techniques serve to enhance this contrast, softening the subject’s physical features while creating a shadowy background. As in other photographs by See Tay, elements of this painting have been enhanced by hand, as Roberta Wue notes:[xxii] the small flowers on the plant, or the badge indicating rank that Li is wearing—this detail seems to have been painted in entirely.

As noted in Cody and Terpak’s study, this important photograph features a distinctively Chinese form of photographical inscription, that is, verbal addition to a photographic image. See Tay’s photograph of Li Hongzhang was signed with the traditional ink-and-brush (maobi) method in Chinese literary style.[xxiii] The precise, neat calligraphy identifies the photographer and time and place that the photograph was taken. This addition, while not common in photographs from the same period, clearly imitates the standard practice in traditional Chinese painting of including calligraphy inscriptions with information about the receiver of the painting as a gift. The calligraphic note, together with the manual manipulation of the photograph through painted additions and the deep black-and-white tonality, creates a visual continuity with the artistic traditions of China’s artistically rich past. These elements also serve to deepen the formality and dignity of Li Hongzhang’s visual representation.

Fig. 4. Liang Shitai (See Tay), Portrait of Li Hongzhang, 1878, albumen print. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

This photograph was one of those taken during the posing session with Ulysses S. Grant mentioned above. The physical circumstances of the photograph might explain the dynamic asymmetry in Li’s pose. Li was also said to have shared this portrait with foreign visitors. His high international regard and reputation as the leading representative of the Chinese court may have played a role in See Tay’s emphasis on Chinese artistic tradition in this photograph, as he may have been aware this image was going to be shared with international audiences.[xxiv] The blending of western and Chinese aesthetic sensibilities might be a way of appealing to foreign audiences, or to signify the new western-looking foreign policy direction taken by China.

Positioning images of Prince Chun and Li Hongzhang

While this photograph, Fig. 4, has a highly distinctive character and its subject, Li, is recognizable through his repeated representations, this is not true for most photographic portraits of the mid-19th century in China. Susan Sontag, in her famous essay on the image-world, notes that in 1970s China photography is connected and accepted through “continuity”[xxv]: traditions of seeing and a strict selection of “proper” subjects and photograph styles inform and generate the photographic image as an orderly reflection of an orderly society. Conventions of portraiture in 19th century China reinforce this observation. It is important to note the continuity and similarity shared by most portraits taken in this period in China. In fact, Roberta Wue observes that “Sontag could have been speaking of photography of a much earlier date” when writing about 1970s Chinese photographic conventions.[xxvi] Prince Chun and Li Hongzhang’s personal prestige and high status allowed them to employ experienced photographers like Liang See Tay to develop their external visualization and photographic persona.

See Tay’s visual positioning of Prince Chun and Li Hongzhang in a larger tradition of Chinese portraiture is a precise example of a larger trend within Chinese photography of the late 19th century. This traditional visuality was embraced in other ways, like in the landscape photography of Tung Hing which directly borrowed imagery from traditional landscape brush painting, and repudiated by other photography studios at the same time. Nevertheless, the blending of the imported western science of photography and Chinese painting lineage served to create an indigenized form of image-making, embraced by Qing elites like Prince Chun as a modernizing force in imperial China while preserving traditional pictorial tropes and allowing for continuity with ancient tradition. In the case of the international public figure of Li Hongzhang, the western-Chinese visual fusion reiterated the uniqueness and centrality of Chinese culture while adapting to western audiences’ customs of seeing. In both cases, Liang See Tay used his powers and penchant for physical manipulation of the photograph to add additional meanings, both political and aesthetic, to the photographed figures. It is also clear that his own background as a painter and the long-standing Chinese brush painting tradition, embraced by Qing elites, allowed him to reimagine photography in the context of painting.

A photograph itself has no history: it represents a moment in time, it “astonishes,” as Barthes writes.[xxvii] However, in these highly stylized portrait representations by See Tay, there at first seems to be no Barthian punctum, no rupturing detail that enthralls the viewer. These images are so deeply rooted in the studium, the historico-social fabric of reality, that interpreting the fixed, highly stylized poses outside of their traditional significance makes them caricatures of literati elites. Maybe, though, the exaggerated studium of these photographs is actually their punctum: the reconciliation of a traditional visual form with a new western technology. It is this fusion that forward-thinking Qing officials like Prince Chun championed and that infused the modern, international image of Li Hongzhang. It is also the uniqueness of portrait photography, which in China may seem, as Sontag observed, unary and systematic, but through photographers’ self-reflexive engagement with that tradition can become punctuating, individual, memorable, just as these images of Prince Chun and Li Hongzhang captured by Liang See Tay are.


[i] Oliver Moore, “Photography in China: A Global Medium Locally Appropriated,” IIAS, Summer 2007, https://www.iias.asia/sites/default/files/nwl_article/2019-05/IIAS_NL44_0607.pdf.

[ii] Marco Meccarelli, Antonella Flamminii, and Yee Wah Foo, Storia della fotografia in Cina. Le opere di artisti cinesi e occidentali (Novalogos, 2011), 13.

[iii] Jeffrey W. Cody and Frances Terpak, eds., Brush & Shutter: Early Photography in China (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute, 2011), 23.

[iv] Ibid, 6.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Yi Gu, “Prince Chun Through the Lens: Negotiating the Photographic Medium in Royal Images,” Ars Orientalis 43 (2013): 126, https://archive.org/details/arsorient424320122013univ/page/124/mode/2up?view=theater.

[vii] Cody and Terpak, Brush & Shutter, 44.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Gu, “Prince Chun,” 126.

[x] Ibid, 128.

[xi] Note: Unfortunately, this painting no longer exists. Gu, “Prince Chun,” footnote 23.

[xii] Gu, “Prince Chun,” 129.

[xiii] Moore, “Photography in China.”

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Cody and Terpak, Brush & Shutter, 34.

[xvi] Gu, “Prince Chun,” 131.

[xvii] Cody and Terpak, Brush & Shutter, 35.

[xviii] Thank you to Professor Luke Bender (New Haven, CT) for this insight, April 2020.

[xix] “Ulysses S. Grant: International Arbitrator,” National Parks Service (U.S. Department of the Interior), accessed March 21, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/articles/ulysses-s-grant-international-arbitrator.htm.

[xx] Cody and Terpak, Brush & Shutter, 8.

[xxi] Roberta Wue, “The Mandarin at Home and Abroad: Picturing Li Hongzhang,” Ars Orientalis 43 (2013): 146, https://www.academia.edu/6160531/_The_Mandarin_at_Home_and_Abroad_Picturing_Li_Hongzhang_Ars_Orientalis_XLIII_2013_140_156.

[xxii] Ibid, 147.

[xxiii] Cody and Terpak, Brush & Shutter, 4.

[xxiv] Wue, “The Mandarin at Home and Abroad,” 148.

[xxv] Susan Sontag, On Photography (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2019), 185.

[xxvi] Wue, “The Mandarin at Home and Abroad,” 141.

[xxvii] Roland Barthes, La chambre claire: Note sur la photographie (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), 82.