Data + Design Project

China Before the Rule of Mao Zedong

Friday 04.08.2011 , Posted by

Men Laden With Tea, Sichuan Sheng, China [1908] Ernest H. Wilson

This superb collection of vintage photographs from China capture a spectacular land of diversity filled with wealthy merchants, beggars in poverty and fantastic architecture before tourists. Taken between 1870 and 1946, each image was restored to it’s original condition by Ralph Repo on flickr.

Greatwall China [1907] Herbert G. Ponting

Kampa Dzong, Tibet [1904] John C. White

China’s Common Carrier, Her Substitute For Railways, A Camel Square In Peking, China [1901] Underwood & Co

House Interior Showing Woman With Bound Feet Tending A Stove In The Lost Tribe Country [1936] Hedda Morrison

Jade Belt Bridge & Boat, Summer Palace, Peking, China [c1924] Sidney D. Gamble

Young Mother Carrying A Child On Her Back In The Market, Hong Kong Island [c1946] Hedda Morrison

Der Abt Des Klosters (The Abbot Of The Monastery), Tíen Túng Sze, Chekiang Province [c1906] Ernst Boerschmann

China, Kuan Hsien Temple [1908] Ernest H. Wilson

Peking Mission School Children At Play, The Dragon’s Head, China [1902] Carlton H. Graves Co

Queen’s Road On Chinese New Years Day, Hong Kong, China [1902] Carlton H. Graves

The Harvard Houseboat, Kiating Fu, China [1908] Ernest H. Wilson

Natives At Breakfast, Movable Chow Shop, Canton, China [c1919] Keystone View Co.

A Boat On A River With Rolling Hills In The Background In The Kiangsu Province Or Yunnan Province In China [1946] Arthur Rothstein

The Meridian Gate, Entrance To The Forbidden City, Peking China [1927] Herbert C. White

Chang The Chinese Giant [c1870] Attribution Unknown

Peking To Paris Autorace [1907] Attribution Unknown

Pekin, Walls Of The Tartar City [c1894-1896] William H. Jackson

Bride On Her Way To Wedding, Fuzhou Fujian China [c1911-1913] Ralph G. Gold

Interior Canal, Canton, China [c1917-1919] Sidney D. Gamble

Benjamin Starr

Written by Benjamin Starr

Known in some circles as the most amazing man in the universe, he once saved an entire family of muskrats from a sinking, fire engulfed steamboat while recovering from two broken arms relating to a botched no-chute wingsuit landing in North Korea. When not impressing people with his humbling humility, he can be found freelance writing, finding shiny objects on the internet, enjoying the company of much-appreciated friends and living out his nomadic nature. He is Managing Editor of Visual News. Follow his movements on Twitter:

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  1. A primitive country a century ago, now threatens even the U.S.A. economically, forces world gasoline prices ever upwards, even designs nuclear reactors, superior reactors to American ones, ( SEE: Tsinghua University, China, pebble bed gas reactors) and promises even greater achievements with Thorium fueled reactors. The communist regime selects the brightest, the strongest, from the huge Asian pool, and sets them to task in Universities like Tsinghua University, to do good for the whole nation, as part of the whole, no such thing as individualism, according to communist doctrine. They follow closely on the admonitions of JFK, who preached,”Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” and forge forward, personal riches, fortunes, set aside, banned, outlawed, even punished, and build the whole richness of the nation, rather than accumulate personal fortunes. Even patent rights are not recognized, every advance thought to belong to the communal body, for all to gain.
    China now has nuclear electric bullet train networks and their associated nuclear/electric powered infrastructures, up and running, ready to daisy-chain, from Eastern European borders up to Siberia’s natural resource riches, and as far as to China’s seas. This vast, modern seemingly self sufficient empire with its mega-population, rises in the east, as we speak.

  2. I had an aunt and uncle who were placed in separate prisons by the Japanese during WW2. It truly is a fascinating country. Mao, for all his communist misunderstandings, did not do a bad thing. He pulled the country out of it’s backward’s serf lifestyle. Keep up the good work Mr Starr.
    Thanks John H

  3. According to China’s own internal documents released since the late 1990s Mao was responsible for over 20000000 deaths. Can you seriously say that he “did not do a bad thing” ?? Stalin, Castro, Pol Pot and Mao were just a bunch of good ole boys with love and compassion in their hearts were’nt they John.. “communist misunderstanding” ??? Mao was a monster John and either your a astoundingly naive person or have no recognition of right and wrong……..

  4. I lived in China for many years and even the Chinese understand that the country’s young people have a problem thinking creatively. They are trained to memorize everything. But the Chinese government knows and understands just this problem and are attempting to rectify it.
    Give them another 20 years and they will rule the world. Look out world.
    Vesey asks if Mao did a bad thing. Of course he did! But still he brought China out of the dark ages. His people still give him the utmost reverence.
    Go figure.

  5. I’ll just leave the politics to others and say that these are beautiful, engaging pictures showing us a time and a society long gone. They’re a pleasure to see.

  6. The harshness of the immediacy that is experienced is always soften by the distance of perspective. Even soldiers crapping in their pants can smile about it decades later, as do all survivors of traumas. This becomes doubly so with the following generation where inhumanity becomes an adjective, but the consequences are what the people live with. If their lives are better, they have the luxury of dispassion and assign credit and demerit from the results.
    If not, it will not be a judgement but a curse.

  7. It is necessary to publish history to have a better understanding of why, how, and what happened to bring about the actions of Mao. It even goes further back in time to bring about all this poverty– the feudal system, the invasion of the imperialists and the manipulations of the outsiders to control China for 100s of years. One should know their own history and history of the world if they are to be educated and critical thinkers. It is not just one person who is at fault for all this chaos.

  8. Thank you for sharing these great pictures. It reminds me how hard life was for my parents and relatives in the old country.

  9. Yes, Mao was human and not GOD and so he did make mistakes, BUT I will always admired him for throwing the European Colonialists OUT OF CHINA and restoring OUR COUNTRY TO THE CHINESE after 100s of years of humiliation. To be able to NEVER again see the Damn Brits posts signs reading “NO CHINAMAN AND DOGS ALLOWED” on our own land is enough of a victory for me.

  10. @ Uncle B
    What you say is basically true, except that part about the rich. Last year it was reported that there were 7,500 billionairs in Beijing. Men control the trillions of dollars that China gets from its world-wide exports. Greed is a primary motivator in China as well as nationalism.

    Yesterday there was a joke on the net about a Chinese lady who was carelessly peeling an orange in a jewelry shop. As the counter person started to criticize her, the lady pointed at this and that, and this and that, and this and that, and said, “Except for those items, I will take the rest.”

    It was a joke, but it indicates the awareness of what some Chinese are accumulating in comparison with the population in general.

  11. My grandfather was a missionary in China in the early 1900′s, and my mother was born there and lived there until she was 7. My grandfather took his family and left China in the 1920′s in protest of how the Western Powers were slicing China up into their own spheres of influence. He spent a good part of his life trying to get back into China and was finally invited as a guest of the Chinese Government, I belive in the 1960′s. After his death, my mother and I traveled to China soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution. In 1994, I returned to China to adopt my daughter, Emily. On that trip, when I was in Gwangzou (formerly Canton), I loked, without success for my grandther’s church. You can see that I have a great attachment and interest in China, and have done a lot of reading about that fascinating country. From what I hear, mostly about the new wealth and corruption, I don’t know if I would like to go there today, though I applaud the Chinese’s efforts to bring their country into the 21st century. I have some things my grandfather left to my mother, who subsequently left them to me at her death, that I cherish, including a photo album and some framed prints of life in China during the time of my grandparent’s residence tere. Your pictures are wonderful and I thank you for sharing them with us.

  12. The photographs should be documented, they show how a nation can be so glorious and affluent for centuries can be eroded to such a sad state of affairs that her people could hardly get a decent meal a day. It all stems from greed and corruption of those in power. The greatnesss of the nation and her people lies in the way this nation can turn around in the face of immense difficulties and natural disasters; being plundered and humiliated ‘by stronger nations. China can boast of being a nation which did not have any ambition to colonise nor exploit weaker nations even when her greatness was at its peak. She believes in mutual respect and friendship.
    Mao believed that China must sacrifice at least a generation of her people for the future of the nation and for the success of future generations. This, the Chinese people have sacrificed and whether it has been successful or not can be seen in today’s China. We can judge him in any way we want but I have no qualms in believing that he was the greatest leader of China that no other leader or emperor of China can claim.

  13. Just learned that the archaeologists had found square concrete pillars in some 5000+ year old houses yesterday. Wonder how much has been lost through the years of fighting, dynasty, and greed. Those pictures would have been done in virtual reality and didn’t need to be restored if China had more peace in this 5000 year period. Thanks for restoring these pictures though!

  14. I don’t think Mao is anything good. However China was lucky it was not the other possible person at the time. who belonged to the oppostition party.
    Also while we are talking of atrocities, we should put all these in proper context.
    Many millions died during the reign of Mao, and mostly were due to famine and starvation due to poor management. Eventually, like what the Chinese said he lost his credibilty to govern, and a new group took over.
    Many people died under hands of Nazi Germany too. They were humiliated as well.
    When the British colonised North America (took over actually) many millions of American natives died as a result too, many due to diseases and many from also cold and starvation in “reservations”, besides the gun.
    When the Spanish conquistadors came to colonised middle and South America, millions die from the steel swords and robbed.
    When the Birtish took over Australia many were killed and humiliated too.

    I mentioned these events in history so that we have a proper perspective in all these atrocities. Times have changed. Can say they are good at this time in history.

  15. China a place where my grandfather used to send money back from Malaya to his hometown. Those visitors from there were given dried bread crumbs to bring back packed in tins. Now after 6 decades the reverse is taking place. No more visitors from there but visitors from here.

    China becomes the second economic power maybe the first merely Chinese believed in education,health and business. Spiritual and happiness is not on the priority list. Well progress but don’t let the world over admire you and that egoism will someday pull you down.

  16. I’m an oversea borned Chinese in the seventies. First I wish to thank Benjamin Starr who shared the old photos of China, which I can understand more of my ancestors’ roots. Without Mao China will not be of today. I wish Can could share his grandparent photo alblums with us, as photos tell
    story and history. Not many Chinese have a good collection of old photos of China, as most of them
    had been destroyed either during the Cultural Revolution or WWII.

  17. I just spent three weeks touring Beijing, Shanghai & other nearby cities. Apart from the stifling summer heat, the dripping wet humidity, my tour of China was a jaw dropping one. There is a reason for Western economists’ confident predictions that China’s economy, having just leapfrogged Japan’s to claim the world’s #2 spot, is now poised to surpass United States by 2020.

    Everything from its efficiently run airports to the latest state of the art transportation showcase, the high speed rail system that connects various municipalities within hours, plus the glittering cosmopolitanism of Beijing & Shanghai tells me that, indeed, China has arrived. This is exactly thirty nine years after a beaming President & Mrs Nixon stepped off Air Force One in Beijing to shake the welcoming hands of Premier Chou En Lai.

    I also had the opportunity, while in Shanghai, to visit the former residence of the late Premier. Located in a leafy neighborhood of the former French concession area, Chou’s residence, now a national museum, also served as the headquarter of the nascent Communist Party then before its fateful separation from the ruling Nationalist party. Naturally, little did the world know then how the young, political neophyte would one day forever changed the course of world history by their revolution in China.

    Wandering inside the three story, spacious French villa now replete with mementos, documents, pictures dating back to Chou’s peripatetic life as party activists, I felt like being transported back in time to China in the 30′s & 40′s. Even the furnitures, household items used by Chou & his household staffs, down to the typewriter on the little desk next to Chou’s single bed in the upstair bedroom remained in the same condition as in the heydays of the 40′s.

    His personal limousine, an old model Buick, looks gleaming and ready to go. The sign says it is in excellent condition too.

    Cultural misconceptions, stereotype ideas traditionally affected westerners’ view of China. Yet its economic prowess on the world stage simply suggests otherwise. This is a world power to be reckoned with.

  18. I can only say these pictures are so beautiful with some sad depiction of how hard life was back then. The rise of China today sees the carefully concocted strategy and plan of Mao to bring prosperity back to China, as in the olden days of the golden dynasties. Agreed, his iron-handed rule is cruel, but without him, China wouldnt be what we see now. I completely agree with Jo S Lim.

  19. Enjoyed seeing these pictures as a reminder of the past. The current day
    China is far different from this. Good to remember where we come from and
    practice loving kindness to all.

  20. A lot has been said about Mao. However the man that should be credited for bringing China to where it is today is Deng Xiaoping, not Mao Zedong It is his reform that brought China out of isolation and within thirty years, we see the China of what it is today. Mao as a matter of fact turned China backwards with the Cultural Revolution. It was one of the most disastrous era of Chinese history. A Great Leap backwards. To most, the death of Mao was the best thing that ever happened to China. If he had been alive, there will be no new China.

  21. Mao Zedong, merely stood in China’s history as the man who gave it transformation with a Communist birth certificate. These images bring to mind the meaning on being Human and that potential of a people who emerged from the quagmire of poverty to greatness only possible with a successive focused leadership driven by one objective, “Make China Great Once More”

    Chinese people have done it in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, Sinosphere and their emergence in world economy is no accident . It is ingrained in their instinct for industry, pragmatism built on strong family values and trust in the power of education.

    China got into the poverty state after the Pacific War, suffering most under the attack of Japan who other than Japan had no enemies. China had no desire for the wealth of her neighbours. In her history she had no desire for empire either.. Her empire is what she had in the first place and she built upon it to make it great. China is now at centre-stage poised to take the leadership as the richest nation in the world and with it all the trappings that leadership is expected to hold.

    China can bring in the 21st Century a world of peace and prosperity.

  22. In response to Henry Tze’s visit of Premire Chou En-lei’s residence in Shanghai was incorrect. It was in Nanjin, NOT in Shanghai. I know, because we used to live blocks away from it and were neighbours. My brother and I used to walk pass his house every morning to the school, which was run by a catholic Father Hsu, right accross from the Presidential Palace on Guo-fu Road in Nanjin.

    I went back to pay a visit in 1992. His residence was the same as I remembered. Red lanterns were hanging everywhere. However, our house had vanished. Rows and rows of commercial buildings were erected instead. Saddly the scene of my childhood memories had completely vanished in front of me.

  23. Spectacular pictures showing both poverty and spirit of life. China was divided and humiliated by the West and Mao established modern China. Deng Xiao Peng bravely opened up China. In the process the lives of millions are uplifted. Why are the West still scheming to bring China down? Communism has its merits. Why must we democratise others?
    In Libya, to save lives NATO has to bomb Libya.

  24. I think we need to consider a number of things when looking at the development of China.

    Firstly, it fell far behind the rest of the world for many reasons. There was mismanagement by the Qing government, which one should remember like the Yuan Dynasty, was also a foreign invader of Beijing. This in combination with other events such as the Taiping Rebellion, the second deadliest event in history (after WW2) which killed 20+ million people, and conflict with Europeans who wanted to trade with China, which was caused in part by desire for colonialisation, but also because of Qing protectionist policies that prevented trade. Of course China was brought down further by two Japanese invasions, which led to the removal of Europeans, particularly during WW2. Although the removal of foreign forces has been attributed to Mao in previous comments, the fact is Japan and Germany removed most of the Western forces, and Japan was removed by the Americans, who helped China fight Japan, such as the Flying Tigers in Chongqing (the Chinese capital during WW2), and it was the Americans who finally won WW2, and removed the last major foreign force in China. For that, I will always be thankful to the USA.

    Many other commenters have claimed that it was Mao who led to China’s economic success, but that is clearly not the case. It is arguable that he benefited this cause by establishing the government that did eventually do this, but it really wasn’t until the 1980′s that China’s development started to really get going. It seems this can largely be attributed to Deng Xiaoping and subsequent leaders. This growth did not come through self-strengthening, or the great-leap forward, it came from opening China up to the world, which is simple, good economic policy. It was through trading with the world, becoming the world’s factory, a major exporter, that China had rapid growth. This being the case, China needs to remember it is only part of the world, which is something greater than itself. However, it can be very proud that through this policy, and the hard work of the Chinese people, it has led to one of the most significant developments in the world, perhaps bringing more people out of poverty between the 80s and now than efforts by any other organization has done.

    Finally, China needs to consider there are still many hurdles to come. It has come a long way from where it was, but China’s GDP is still less than half of that of the USA. Predictions made that China will reach the same GDP as the USA in 2020 are just predictions, and rely on predictions of a lot of hard work by the Chinese people. Total GDP is really irrelevant, unless it is a matter of Chinese government ambition to be powerful, rather than looking after the people. At present, China’s GDP per capita is ranked between 90th and 100th in the world. Also, that is an average, not a median, so with the growing disparity between the rich and poor in China, this means that the poor Chinese that make up the vast majority are very poor. This disparity is another significant problem for China. However, there is a great opportunity in that if Chinese people can follow Japan in reaching GDP per capita similar to Western levels, it would be an incredible achievement.

    There is also a matter of turning GDP per capita into benefits for the people. According to studies of happiness relative to GDP per capita, China is very low, in fact the happiness of Chinese people surveyed is lower than that of India, a much poorer country.

    There are also many other growing pains that China is likely to experience because of the pace of its growth, and lack of necessary regulation, as shown by the high-speed rail crash earlier this year, environmental problems such as the mismanagement of E-Waste in Shantou, and the overuse of scarce resources such as overfishing and the overuse of China’s underground water supply, which is likely to run out in the next 20 years.

    China has come a long way since its fall under the Qing government, largely because of good economic, anti-protectionist policy. It is an incredible country, that is fast becoming a major player, which I hope can flourish and provide all of its people with the high standard of living of Western countries. However, it is not a time to become overconfident, and in this modern world where borders are becoming less relevant, and we are all dependant on international cooperation and trade, it is silly to be too patriotic or nationalistic. Rather than be too proud or confrontational with the West, China needs to work hard to maintain its growth and deal with the many problems it faces, and spread the benefits to all its people, and endeavour to spread the growth to countries that still are still like China was pre-Mao.

  25. I grew up learning the sufferings of our people in the past century. It was heart breaking to read history of the opium war, fighting the coalition of 8 countries, even the US was involved, they nearly divided China among themselves. The invasion of the Japanese, even though their culture was mostly Chinese. I am very happy for the Chinese now.

  26. What happened in China is unavoidable. What happened is the workings of China’s social cycle. The Ching dynasty’s decline, the subsequent chaos and revolution, and its present day rebirth and growth is the workings of the social cycle. Dr. sun Yat Sen may have lived 10 years too short and Mao may have lived 10 years too long; with or without them the forces of the social cycle would have proceeded and the results would sooner or later be the same. The West can talk all they want; this cycle can not be stopped. At worse the cycle may be delayed. Not only China all societies and cultures obey this cyclical law.

    All bureaucracies, governments must obey this cycle of birth, growth and decline. Mao’s cultural revolution was his attempt to prolong and reenvigorate his revolution. Historically China lived and died in total geographical isolation. Unfortunately in its rebirth it must deal with globilization; dealing with outsiders have not been one of China’s strong points. e. g. the Great Wall. How China deals with globilization will ultimately determine China’s future.

  27. @Adam, well stated and stated fairly.

  28. Without Mr. Mao, China will not able to achieve whatever it has now.
    Mr. Mao built a relatively good platform, and Mr. Teng Xiaoping managed to develop from it and become success.

    Without them, just change the date of the Photos above, will show today’s China.

    No one is perfect, so, do not dig out all bad things he had done and just look at that part of his life.

  29. Thank you Mr Starr, some lovely lovely photographs – only wish I could purchase a print or two….

    And what a fascinating set of comments and discussion to follow. it is quite evident that the Mother country’s propaganda machinery is robust and well oiled still.

    I simply have a few more things to say:

    Mao was the greatest mass murderer this planet has ever seen. Of his own people. Fact.

    No he wasn’t “perfect” , that is the understatement of the millenium. And Hitler was nice to his dog, so let’s ignore the Holocaust.

    And you know what?
    Amongst other achievements, China still has people starving and living on dirt floors, or working thousands of miles away from their children, seeing them once a year, earning a pittance, just to survive or send them to school.

    I could go on. But I wont.

    I am shocked people: don’t forget history and be blinded and anti-colonialism and the skyscrapers and the conspicuous consumption. Mao didn’t get the foreigners out to get the Chanel in.

    Nice photos though…

  30. Errh, to the clueless folks who keep talking about deprived China as if it had been that way for most of its existence, remember that China measures itself over 5000 years. As the oldest continuous civilization, there is bound to be some ups and downs throughout its history. China’s past is filled with different dynasties, some which lasted centuries, and were much more advanced than many other civilizations during the same time periods. The last few bad decades are but a small hiccup as they are on their way up again.

  31. Fascinating photos. Thanks for posting these, Ben! As a photographer based in China for nearly a decade documenting the rapid changes of modern China, I often wonder if my own photos will have the same impact 100 years from now as these historical images have.

  32. Fabulous photographs! I especially like the “Young Mother Carrying…” one. Gorgeous.

    I would like to point out one important mistake: Tibet was not part of China before Mao invaded it, meaning that the picture of the temple in Tibet is mischaracterized. A couple of commenters have suggested that China has no imperialist ambitions. The Tibetans, along with many other borderland ethnic groups, might disagree with those statements.

  33. At Christin, Your point of Tibet “not” being a part of China is well taken, though with qualifications. At the time that the photograph was taken, the Qing government had firmly believed that Tibet did fall within their dominion. After the end of their dynastic rule, and despite the Chinese republican government’s claims of sovereignty, the Tibetans nonetheless enjoyed a de facto independence if not de jure. Of course, this ended abruptly once the PLA sent in troops. At the same time, the Mongolians were lucky enough to have had Soviet sponsorship and the PRC didn’t want to confront their Russians; so they got to keep their independence. The Tibetans however, weren’t politically astute enough to allow a third party military sponsorship; while it flirted with the US and Britain, it ultimately dilly daddled, so China just walked in with literally zero opposition and reaffirmed their rule. Legally and politically speaking, Tibet is undeniably a province of the People’s Republic of China, regardless of how many hairs it raises on people’s backs.

    Oh, and FYI, all of the pictures that this blogger has reposted on this page were originally taken from my flickr account. If anyone has any further questions about them, it would be easier to contact me using that link, as I just happened by but don’t have anything to do with this site.

    Thanks to all who help keep Chinese history alive through old images. Cheers!

  34. China is an Industrial Juggernaut stemming from population and a history of heavy industry via Maoist China. Though they have technological means to make a ripple in the Global Political Economy, they still have a vast majority of the population below the poverty line, infant mortality rate is still high, and they peg their currency to hedge for market changes internationally. Maoist China was a 20th Century Genocide that stacked up over 20,000,000 deaths domestically. They manipulate their situation to fit into the mold of a 1st World Country. Chinese have been clawing themselves out of their past Communist woes. Same can be said about any countries that were previously in the Eastern Bloc of Communist Doctrine. China is an amazing country with ample history that is incredibly interesting. Love Capitalism.

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