Tuesday, February 1, 2011

News From Abroad: Trainwreck!


Struggling, a little, to get caught up and squared away with the new semester and current projects. But a word on Shanghai and my curatorial exploits.

I traveled to China for two reasons, professionally speaking: 1) to investigate the reportage drawing tradition in that country, especially as it relates to journalism, as the term is commonly understood, and 2) to draw and photograph in expectation of producing the first issue of a new serial I will begin publishing this year, called Spartan Holiday.

My curiosity about the illustrated press in China emerges from a subject interest, not an independently cultural one, which is to say that I had not been a student of Chinese civilization prior to my preparation for this trip. I don’t speak or read Mandarin, not by a long shot (though my son Danny is an avid student of the language). My move, then, was lateral, pursuing a subject interest across geographical and temporal borders. I am at work on an international exhibition project called Drawing Conclusions: The Illustrator as Reporter, projected for 2014. (Details to follow another time, but contact me if you have an interest in the subject.)

Relevant Shanghai historical narrative, to the extent that I have been able to understand it: the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912) was beset by serious problems, including encroaching European powers–the British Empire, primarily–and an insurrection of stupefying scale, the Taiping Rebellion. (In an example of the differences of scale in things Chinese from a Western perspective, the Taiping Rebellion is estimated to have cost 20 to 30 million lives. In the 19th century.) The first Opium War–the unhappy resolution of which contributed to abovementioned paroxysm–pitted China against the British, who practiced a particularly vehement form of free-traderism which lay at the heart of the matter. (Imagine Mexico launching a war against the United States to preserve the cocaine trade, despite the illegality of the product north of the border.) The war lasted from 1839 to 1842; the locals lost. The Treaty of Nanjing forced an unpleasant settlement on the Chinese, who agreed to open five ports and grant foreign settlement rights to the British. Subsequent arrangements of this kind were made with other foreign powers, including France, Japan, and the United States. (Somehow the Germans played a role, too, but I’m sketchy on that.)

Below, a shot of the Bund, a promenade with impressive-looking European buildings that runs along the Huangpu River (and looks across at the architectural Disneyland of Pudong).


These settlements, known as “concessions,” were defined as extraterritorial districts: they were, in effect, gigantic embassies, each with its own police force and court system. However galling to the Chinese, the system bore fruit of a kind: an emerging commercial culture transformed Shanghai from a provincial place into a thriving international city, and in effect helped to launch Chinese modernity from that spot.

The Japanese invasion in 1937 was the beginning of the end for the European presence in Shanghai.


A savvy set of Brits led by one Ernest Major created a partnership to enter the printing and publishing business. In 1872 the group commenced publication of a Chinese daily newspaper, Shenbao. Major ran the operation, and seems to have been a genuine admirer of Chinese culture. He hired Chinese reporters, editors, illustrators and printers. The paper did well, and subsequently in 1884–after a few experiments–Shenbao launched an illustrated supplement, Dianshizhai Huabao. Huabao has been translated as “Pictorial.”

My curatorial work in China involved tracking down a run of DSZHB as well as a second pictorial, Feiyingge Huabao. The image just above shows a bound set of the full run of DSZHB at a teahouse owned by the collector who'd bought them from the dealer who became my intercessor. Got that?

I’ll write about these pictorials, and the process of gaining access to them, in a coming post. Below, a characteristic image of the pictorial news from the huabaos: a visual description of a trainwreck, reported to have occurred in America.


Illustration by Wu Youru, the most able and prolific of the artists associated with the pictorials in the late Qing. Feiyingge Huabao. September 1890. A detail of this image is shown at the top of the post. Note the contrasting visual languages of traditional Chinese painting and wood engraved illustrations of the London Illustrated News and its ilk.

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