Over on Historians at Bristol I’ve posted a short note on my search for the University of Bristol’s first Chinese graduate. It took me to Paris, New York, Beijing, and back to Bristol, or, to be precise, Horfield.
Really, if you have ever wondered what the streets of Shanghai looked like from the top of a double-decker bus, in 1940 — and I expect you may have done — try checking out the sequence in this German home-movie, which is available for viewing from the commercial site AKH Agentur Karl Höffkes. You will need to move it along nearly to the end to start at 10:45:08, the sequence is captioned ‘Shanghai im Kriege 1940’, but then why not sit back and enjoy the ride through these strangely empty streets.
Google’s Ngram viewer offers scope for some interesting experiments. Which city, for example, has had more references in the corpus of English-language books used by the Ngram tool: Shanghai or Hong Kong? The answer is: after a good opening sprint from Hong Kong, which was conceived of as a base for British commercial, diplomatic and military operations in China, Shanghai from 1855 onwards took the lead, and did not relinquish it until 1973. This lead came as its economic role started to overtake the Crown Colony, and then as north China and the Yangzi river were opened to foreign trade and residence after 1858. The key caveat — among others — would be the late 1890s, when a combination of the variants ‘Hong Kong’ and Hongkong would have propelled the British crown colony back into the lead. On the other hand, it is likely that many of those ‘Hongkongs’ will have been in the name ‘Hongkong and Shanghai Bank’. Subtracting those and their linked Shanghais, would probably change things a bit, but the overall trajectory would be the same. Shanghai took over from Hong Kong as the site of key importance to the British (or Anglophone world), and only relinquished it some time after the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.
Over on the Visualising China blog I have written about the ones that get away – historical photographs glimpsed on Ebay, sold, and mainly thereafter lost.
An upcoming Christie’s sale in London, of the Hanshan Tang Reserve Collection, includes (lot no. 96), a gorgeously illustrated copy of an album of handpainted scenes of battles in the Second Opium, or Arrow, War. This is described on p.63 of the catalogue, from which the illustrations reproduced here are taken. As it was completed before the Anglo-French assualt on north China in the autumn of 1860, it concludes on a triumphal note with the allied defeat at the Dagu Forts on 25 June 1859. Well it might, for this was a comprehensive victory for the Qing, and a complete disaster for the British forces.
The British were attempting to force their way to Beijing to secure ratification of the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, and thought the forts, which guarded the entrance to the Beihe, would be a pushover, not least as the forts had been captured a year earlier without a struggle. Then, the garrisons had simply fled. In the interim, however, the defenders had been improving their discipline, their weaponry, their defences, and their artillery targetting. The progress made was revealed, with considerable effect on 25 June. So confident was the British belief in Qing incompetence and cowardice, however, and so hysterical was the response to the drubbing received, that the only explanation many Britons accepted was that the Russians were behind it all, and must have equipped and trained the Chinese forces, if not helped out in the fighting.
Four hundred Bitish soldiers and sailors were killed, many cut down as they waded across mudflats towards the forts in a frontal assualt, and tried to negotiate pallisades. Four ships were lost. The British retreated from north China. Qing officials who opposed compromise gained the upper hand in discussions about what to do about the foreigners. Everybody settled down to coninue the war.
The Dagu forts are best known, visually, through Felice Beato’s war photography. That might serve to counterpoint the colourful images of Qing victory, for unfortunately for the Manchus, and the garrisons at Dagu, the British and French came back in August 1860, and they took the forts from the landward side. Then they marched on Beijing. Behind them they left the death and devastation caused by their more advanced weaponry, including the new Armstrong Guns that they were testing in action. Ahead of them lay the Yuanmingyuan – the Old Summer Palace. The destruction of the complex later that year by the British was one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism of the nineteenth century. Partly driving that act, aside from the sheer difficulty of the fight in 1860, and the killing and maltreatment of allied prisoners, was a desire for revenge, not least for the bitter defeat of June 1859.
The Boxer uprising of 1900 was the indirect prompt for a landmark moment in the history of cinema. British director James Wiliamson took savvy advantage of the feverish news coverage of events in north China, and assembled a team of actors (including his daughter Florence) at a house in Hove, near Brighton, and made ‘Attack on a China Mission’. The four-minute film was first shown ‘with appropriate music’ — what ever that might have been — at Hove Town Hall on 17 November 1900, and includes the first reverse angle cut yet identified by film historians. Williamson’s film jumps from its view of the ‘mission station’ under attack, to the reverse view: the arrival of the rescuers, a party of British marines, a mounted officer in the rear, who line up in fours and fire directly into the camera, and into the Boxers. For that brief moment a British audience might be said to have shared the same view of British military might as the people of north China.
I wrote about ‘Attack on a China Mission’ in chapter 11 of The Scramble for China. You can now view some of the surviving footage here on Youtube, or here (46 minutes in) presented in the context of other work of the time. If you have access you can also watch it on the British Film Institute site (the supporting material is open access), and there is an academic piece about the technical innovation involved here. The 2006 BBC/BFI documentary ‘Silent Britain’ includes footage missing from the version online linked to above, notably the cut back to the arriving rescuers, and their volleys into the camera.