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Historic China comes alive

Young man on a 'motorbike' in a photographer's studio, probably in Shanghai, c.1950. Print purchased in a junk shop, Jing'an district, Shanghai, 2010. Photographer unknown.

Young man on a 'motorbike' in a photographer's studio, probably in Shanghai, c.1950. Print purchased in a junk shop, Jing'an district, Shanghai, 2010. Photographer unknown. © 2010 Peter Hibbard

Press release issued: 7 July 2011

One of the largest online collections of historical photographs of China is launched at the University of Bristol today. The Visualising China project, a unique virtual archive of Chinese life, gives users the opportunity to explore and interact with more than 8,000 digitised photographs of China taken between 1850 and 1950.

The archive includes rare photographs by the Chinese ambassador to the USSR during World War Two, Fu Bingchang, and rare shots of the nationalist leader of China Chiang Kai-Shek.

Funded by JISC, the project is a collaboration between the Web Futures team at the University’s Institute for Learning and Research Technology (ILRT) and the Historical Photographs of China (HPC) team within the Department of Historical Studies.

The site offers free open access to major online collections such as Historical Photographs of China (University of Bristol), the Sir Robert Hart Collection (Queen’s University, Belfast) and Joseph Needham’s Photographs of Wartime China (Needham Research Institute, Cambridge), as well as to previously unseen and private collections and a selected Google Books library of China-related publications.

Users may submit comments or annotations to the image entries, organise images on to their own workbenches, download low-resolution images, and explore the collections by word searches, date ranges, photographer, people depicted, maps and classification terms.

Robert Bickers, Professor of History and Director of HPC, said: ‘The resource brings Chinese history since the 1850s to life and informs our understanding of modern China. Likely users of the site include family history researchers and historians around the world, not least in China, where photographic documentation is not always easily available.’

The Visualising China project grew out of five years of digitisation work undertaken by HPC in the Department of Historical Studies, culminating in one of the largest online collections of historical photographs of China, which is still growing. 

Paola Marchionni, programme manager at JISC, said: “Chinese studies is a growing area of research as the UK and others seek to establish stronger links with Asia.  Visualising China is particularly innovative in allowing users to explore content drawn from different sources in a serendipitous way and leveraging crowdsourcing to enrich that content.  Sophisticated resources like Visualising China will create opportunities for people across the world to carry out new research and contribute to our understanding of China’s past.”

Images come from a variety of sources – archival (e.g. School of Oriental and African Studies archive; the National Archives; British Steel Collection), commercial (e.g. John Swire and Sons Ltd), as well as privately-held collections, including family albums, prints and negatives, often somewhat neglected in attics and cupboards. The web site was built by ILRT, with additional support from the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Worldwide University Network and the University of Bristol.

Visualising China will be launched on Thursday 7 July at the ‘Treaty Ports in Modern China’ conference, School of Humanities, 11 Woodland Road, Bristol. The conference is organised by the Department of Historical Studies as part of an Economic and Social Research Council-funded project entitled ‘Tianjin Under Nine Flags: Colonialism in Comparative Perspective’.

Further information

Please contact Jamie Carstairs for further information.