What's in a Name? Photography and the Reinvention of Visual Truth in China, 1840-1911

Article excerpt

The new technology of photography was introduced to Western culture in the late 1830s without immediate consensus on what it should be named. Joseph Niépce had been calling his process "heliography" (sun drawing) for several years before the public announcement of the invention in 1839; William Henry Fox Talbot defined his method as "photogenic drawing," and the Frenchman Louis Daguerre christened his process after himself, hence the "daguerreotype." That these and other distinct systems of making pictures with light were quickly consolidated under John Herschel's coinage, "photography," is recounted in every textbook available on the history of the medium. What never appears in these texts is the fact that a parallel process of linguistic consolidation occurred in China, but with very different results.

More than a dozen appellations for photography circulated in China in the years between 1840 and 1911. During the first decades after photography was introduced, the Chinese people used various terms denoting "portrait painting" - yingxiang, xiaozhao, xiaoxiang, huaying - to refer to photographs. By the 1870s, a new term, zhaoxiang (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.), "reflecting a portrait with a mirror," emerged as the standard designation nationwide. About 1911, sheyingshu (ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.), "die craft of seizing shadow," or its abbreviation, sheying(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.), "seizing shadow," was promoted as the new word for photography. In modern-day standard Mandarin, sheying is used as a formal term for photography, while zhaoxiang remains confined to the context of studio photography.

A close reading of the changing designations for photography enable an inquiry that would otherwise be impossible. The study of early photography in China, still a nascent field, has been hindered by a number of difficulties: Chinese photographic materials are scarce owing to the lack of systematic collection; most extant photographs do not have reliable dates or attribution; it is difficult to match the scanty and fragmentary visual and textual evidence; in-depdi case studies are rare; and a survey in English has yet to be produced.1 Although diese limitations determine that much more needs to be done before a cultural history of photography in China can be written, die words used to refer to photography nonetheless offer valuable insight into how photography was described, discussed, categorized, evaluated, and understood by die Chinese. If die name of photography, as Geoffrey Batchen elegandy puts it, is "a one-word summation of die idea of photography," die Chinese names for die medium reveal a complicated process of integrating and reinventing, and adjusting photography to die preexisting visual practices in China.2

The naming of photography in China also serves as a great wedge with which to open up a set of problematics concerning die encounter between Chinese and Western pictorial traditions. "How to Produce Photographic Portraits without a Camera," an article published anonymously in 1 875 in Anthony 's Photographic Bulletin, claimed that Chinese people could not possibly understand photography.3 The article recounted the report of a Mr. M. C. Kardactz, who came upon something amazing in his travels through China - a prosperous "photographic studio" that did not contain a camera. Kardactz explains the process:

You could go in at any hour of the day, providing you were a Chinaman, and get a portrait executed in a very short time. . . . The heathen Chinese had merely acquired a large collection of portrait negatives, and when a customer came, he took his measure mentally, looked through die stock, and chose die picture most like. As all Chinese heads are pretty similar, and their pigtails much about the same length, it was never difficult, apparently, to make a match, for die public were quite content with what tiiey got for their money. …