Eternal Light on Dali’s photography across a century


Concession and behold, the start of Chinese photography


Photography was invented in the year 1839 and promptly used by expansion of the Empire's colonial territory and overseas exploration. In 1843, a French custom officer named Jules Edir made the first photography of China by Daguerreotype when he came to Guangdong for some negotiation work.

There is a popular saying of 'picture is truth'. Since late Qing Dynasty until the year 1949 of founding new China, pictures had been accompanied with the most turbulent and humiliating hundred of year. However during those years the camera failed to be used recording truth. There were repeating images full of benefit and prejudice all around every concession cities. Professional photographers chased western people’s taste for a better sale. Those amateur photographers of businessman, diplomat and engineer also came to the concessions for photography these things. Compared with late Qing Dynasty’s engraving prints, photography was merely a fresh way to highlight the unfamiliar things in the past.

If we collect all the photos of late Qing Dynasty and Ming and sort them by category and key words, we will find the most frequencies of images as beheading in Kowloon and Beijing, sailing boats, prisoners, coolies and pagodas. These images can not present China but merely of behold of everywhere subject without risks in concessions.

Today these pictures got yellowed and turned into expensive collector’s new favorite with their old memories.

A deep journey and a real China

The book History of Chinese Photography written by famous Chinese photography history researcher from British named Teri Bennett has always been regarded as Chinese photography history’s bible. One of his serial books is specifically about Chinese native photographers and shops history. However the researching position is just limited within coastal areas and southern concession ignoring Japanese photographers who understood Chinese culture best.

Teri’s researcher almost based on western museums, libraries, private collections and image mediations. His books explained a complete condition of Chinese old photograph collected in western museums and the inevitable limitation in that time’s photography.

A few foreigners had traveled and studied China in depth during Victoria time. There were 2 kinds of these few foreigners in major including scholars of geologist, botanist and sinologist as well as missionaries. Scholars used photography for science research. Missionaries lived with local people for long term to preach and help people. Therefore they were different from the passing passengers, knowing a real life in China.

A famous botanist and geologist named Joseph Rock had visited south-western China for 6 times from the year 1922 to 1932. He initially was sent by United States Department of Agriculture for seeking virus of chestnut tree in Yunnan. At the same time, he was invited by National Geographic for collecting the specimens of plant and animal. He made plenty of great photographs both in black white and in color. Although his photography record was 30 years later than Auguste Francois from France, his photography had a dramatic effect by media influence.

Rock took Yunnan as research base for the study of local people and biology. He published his articles and photos in National Geographic magazine which inspired James Hilton to create the famous novel Lost Horizon and the beautiful legend of Shangri-La.

Rock expressed his wish when he got heavy sick in his life ending: “I would rather close my eyes before the beautiful Snow mountain of Yulong than stay in the cold hospital waiting for the death call from God.”

In the same period, three Betharram priests arrived in Dali from France. They set up their missionary base and studied local languages, founded medical clinic and trained local nuns into nurses. They risked their life to cross the river and the gully to accomplish their mission. In the year 1925 a heavy earthquake destroyed their church. They determined to rebuild a new one by Bai’s craftsmen with local traditional architecture style.

The last group of priests left China in 1952 and carried 3 books of photos back with them. These precious photos recorded the daily life of Betharram priests and the believers in and around Dali instead of hot subject and compulsive shoot. There was a confidence and devotion in the Chinese people’s eyes instead of empty and dull because the photographer pressing the shutter was their familiar friends and teachers.

There were also several foreign scholars who left us precious photography around the same period when Rock and Betharram priests stayed in Yunnan. A famous archeologist named Segalen (1878-1919) had token a serial of photos for the caravan on the exploring journey from Zhengzhou to Dali in 1914. A famous anthropologist named Charles Patrick Fitzgerald had traveled everywhere in Dali, recording every moment of local lives. Manchu and Mongolia Photography Association published the East Asia Photo Album which represents customs and natural scenery of 1930’s Dali with a major section of fine images and detailed text.


Their thorough and deep observation helped us to have a look at a real China of that time.


A real image of the lost century’s history


With thirty years of reformation and opening up, China's photo collection market has a great development and variety of collection categories by material, area and subject. HuaChen Photo is the biggest theme video art trading platform in China which has accomplished a turnover of RMB14, 520,000 after 10-year’s deliberate operation.

Compared with chasing photography value, research on the history of photography and establishment of interdisciplinary system are still out of focus. China’s ten years of catastrophe and Western longtime dominant ideology to China made Chinese system of photographic history and criticism progressing in a slow pace. And in the history of world photography, there are few chapters and veins of Chinese photography. At the same time, there are no enough academic experiences and reference for domestic museums and art galleries to collect photos.

Dali museum has achieved a quick accomplishment from nothing to many varieties of old pictures collection of southwestern China since 2015. After an efficient work of sorting and collecting, the real missing part in the history of photography in China has been found and the missed puzzle was put together from the ignored areas and photographers.


Image is a mirror. When we look at the people in an image, we are watching ourselves. And we can touch every detail of beautiful Dali beyond the frame of the photos.

Looking back at Dali century ago and watching the people in the mirror, then we will clearly see the city’s origin and spirit.


About the writer

Xi Wang, studying at The University of Bolton in England for Doctor of photography, working for a joint program with The University of Bolton and British media Museum, CEO of Baohe Art Dalian.