A century is but a twinkle in the eye of a polity spanning some three millennia, but in the short century since more than three thousand years of imperial rule in China was swept away to be replaced by republicanism of a sort, that nation has undergone both triumphs and turmoil perhaps as monumental as those of all the earlier ages. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

China’s revolutions, of which there have been many, never completely changed the system until the one in 1911 did away with the system altogether. How China got there and what the consequences have been are detailed graphically in this marvelous compilation of images drawn from a wide range of sources assembled for an exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History in 2011.

Historical studies of the so-called Republican Revolution of 1911 rightly deal with politics, military engagements, social change, international relations, and consequences both positive and negative. What all that looked like from the ground up is documented in this exhibition catalog of images gathered by staff and advisors of the Hong Kong Museum of History, itself a vast and important repository of historical records not only of Hong Kong but also of greater China.

The ideal of discarding the old and instituting the new did not begin or end with the revolutionary movement fomented by Sun Yat-sen. The reform movement of 1898 was a brief and unsuccessful attempt of the reformers Kang Youwei and Liang Qiqiao and the Guangxu Empeor to regain imperial power from the emperor’s impervious aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, and to modernize China in a last-ditch effort to save it. Those reformers who did not escape Cixi’s wrath were executed, but imperial rule barely survived the Empress Dowager.

Following the success of the 1911 revolution in discarding monarchy and foreign rule, what replaced a centralized but corrupt political system was factionalism, regionalism, warlords, international encroachments, and humiliations—-the situation in China for much of the 20th century. What goes around comes around, even in Chinese politics: Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution(文化大革命,1966-1976)had as one of its purposes ridding China of the “four olds,” namely, old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Old buildings, old family histories, old cemeteries, old photographs—-almost anything pre-dating the establishment of the so-called People’s Republic also were fair game for destruction, particularly at the hands of the youthful, impressionable, and hysterical Red Guards. Yet today corruption, cronyism, environmental degradation, intolerance, inequality, class clashes, and political intrigue are as rife as in earlier years just at a time when China is beginning to look backwards for inspiration.

We might see much of the process and the consequences of the 1911 revolution in our minds’ eyes, but we also can see them in printed reality in this exhibition catalog. The exhibition’s organizer, Osmond Chan, and his staff mined repositories worldwide to identify and assemble visual images that never before have constituted a whole. Upon publication, this exhibition catalog immediately went out of print and now is being republished in a second edition. Far more than a coffee table book, this compilation arranges the images in chronological and thematic sections that are introduced by succinct but intelligent texts. All of the images are credited on the pages in which they appear and are labeled in both Chinese and English, supplemented by relevant maps. The large format catalog is bound as a soft-cover tome, making it easy to use. Its table of contents deserves particular notice, as it delineates the topics covered and how they are treated; sections and sub-sections feature copious illustrations:

  • Introduction
  • Foreign Invasion and Domestic Crisis: The Emergence of Nationalism
    • Supplementary Topic: Satirical Cartoons on the Foreign Powers Carving up China
  • Hong Kong: Origins of Reform and Revolution in Modern China
    • Witness to History: Lee Yok-tong, Merchant from Siyi
    • Supplementary Topic: Street Scenes of Hong Kong as Seen by Kang Youwei and Dr. Sun Yat-sen
  • The Path to Self-Strengthening: Reform or Revolution
    • Witness to History: Chinese-American Tom Leung
    • Supplementary Topic: Armed Revolutionary Uprisings through Pictorial[s] of Current Events
  • From Late Qing Reform to the Revolution: Preparations for Constitutionalism and Railway Nationalism
    • Witness to History: George Ernest Morrison, Reporter from The Times
    • Supplementary Topic: Fascinating Scenes of the New Army in Training
  • 1911 Revolution: From the Wuchang Uprising to the Republic of China
    • Witness to History: Francis Eugene Stafford, Commercial Press Photographer
    • Supplementary Topic: Hankou: Largest Battlefield of the 1911 Revolution
  • Woodblock Prints and Pictorials: Spreading News of the Revolution
    • Supplementary Topic: Late Qing China in the Eyes of Foreigners
  • Towards Republicanism: New Era of the Chinese Republic
    • Supplementary Topic: Student Campaigns During the May Fourth Movement
  • Key Figures During the 1911 Revolution [brief biographies with photos]
  • Road to the Revolution: Major Events of China in the Late Qing Period [a chronology]
  • Acknowledgements

Any number of the illustrations in this catalog are well-known to historians but just as many were previously known but to a few. The list of contributing libraries and archives can but suggest the depth of untapped photographic documentation of China’s modern history, such as the Sidney Gamble Collection at Duke University Library; the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle; the Stewart Lockhart Collection of the National Library of Scotland; John Swires & Son, Ltd. archives; the Library of Congress; Harvard-Yenching Library; the Giles-Pickford Collection at the Australian National University Library; the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales; the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University; the Chicago History Museum.

“En Chine : Le gâteau des Rois et…des Empereurs,” Petit journal, 1898. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE HARVARD LIBRARY“En Chine : Le gâteau des Rois et…des Empereurs,” Petit journal, 1898. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE HARVARD LIBRARY

The organizers of the exhibition and the editors of this catalog have done prodigious research to identify and secure relevant images. Their having assembled them into this book saves other researchers the trouble of having to do it themselves. Moreover, the source of each image is noted alongside the image itself, eliminating the annoying need to flip back and forth to learn where a particular image is held or what it represents.

But this book is more than a visual retelling of the demise of imperial rule in China. Other historical developments are recorded as well. On page 87, for example, a single-sheet calendar for 1912 is reproduced. The accompanying text, on the previous page, notes that Shanghai merchants ...”were passionate about celebrating—-and making money from—-the success of the 1911 Revolution, producing colour stamps, woodblock prints and publications...” Another image, on p. 92, reveals that after the revolutionaries had seized Wuchang, they issued bamboo entry and exit passes to the city. Again, on p. 121, we learn that the American Francis Stafford, in the employ of Shanghai’s Commercial Press at the time of the Revolution, “...introduced modern printing technologies such as photographic printing plates and three-colour overprints, triggering the great progress that was made in China’s book industry.” Photographs and graphic illustrations are supplemented by images of documents, calligraphy, medals, maps, flags, guns, scrolls, etc.

Li Hongzhang at 74 sui. Courtesy of the Harvard-Yenching LibraryLi Hongzhang at 74 sui. Courtesy of the Harvard-Yenching Library

The 1911 Revolution was not a single revolution but, rather, several revolutions on several fronts—-political, social, economic, cultural. For those of us who were not present at the creation of the Republic, this book fills a gap in our knowledge and experience and will delight us as well.

Raymond Lum is Librarian for Western Languages, Harvard-Yenching Library, and is Book Review and Resources Editor of TransAsia Photography Review.