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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #39 (September 27, 2005), page 15.
Panorama of Chinese history as seen through western eyes
China Illustrated: Western Views of the Middle Kingdom
By Arthur Hacker
Tuttle Publishing, 2004
Hardcover, 288 pages, $50.00
By Dave Johnson
Tuttle Publishing, tucked away in North Clarendon, Vermont, is a distinguished press that has given us a number of well-written and -designed books on Asia. China Illustrated is one of its finest, with 500 color and black-and-white photos, engravings, line drawings, maps, and other ephemera that illustrate the social history of the nation as seen through the eyes of foreign visitors and residents.
Collected, compiled, and thoroughly annotated with a user-friendly text by ardent sinophile Arthur Hacker, this book of graphics created by Westerners is an excursion through China’s turbulent history from 1557 to the beginning of World War II.
Hacker explains that his compulsive collecting of images of China began when he bought a few postcards of Victorian buildings in Hong Kong to illustrate a map of the city he was preparing. "One thing led to another and soon everything got out of hand … and I was hooked on collecting."
The author adds that the collecting led to explanatory texts and eventually this book that he hopes is "easy-to-read." It is that. Rather than publish yet another history text bottom-heavy with footnotes and meticulously arid, Hacker has divided his narrative into themes and topics with concise introductions and then a montage of relevant images. Those themes include tribute missions, foreign traders, China pirates, the Taiping Rebellion, life in treaty ports, diplomatic concessions, the Boxer Rebellion, White Russians in Shanghai, the Japanese attack on Nanking, and on to the rise of the Communist dominion.
Readers can start at the beginning and easily absorb a vivid, succinct history of the Land of the Not-So-Sleepy Dragon, or sequentially gaze at the photos, maps, and prints and read the expansive captions, or flip through this bounty of images in no particular order. Regardless of the means of consumption, this hefty volume should be in the library or on the coffee table of anyone interested in fine art, history, or the intriguing ways one culture explains another.
Here are a few verbally rendered samples of the visuals that Hacker has included in China Illustrated, starting with the Chinese people and a few of the notable visitors-in-residence: In the opening pages we find an engraving of Koxinga, known as "the most successful Asian pirate in the history of mankind." With his fleet of 3,000 junks and army of 200,000 he captured Taiwan from the Dutch in 1661.
A photo with no date portrays three young Cantonese women sweetly mystified by the camera and dressed in finery, with tiny bound feet peeking out from beneath their skirts. Another delightful photograph catches a huge grin on the face of a camel driver in his teens, posing in front of the Great Wall. Perhaps the most enchanting picture in the book is that of lithe woman named Lou, posing at an open door, a "former sing-song girl from a Peking tea house," taken by Ellen Thorbecke. The last photograph is a color shot of Chairman Mao announcing the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.
This collection has a plenitude of historical sketches, prints, paintings, and photos that illustrate China’s always tumultuous history. A Chinese woodblock, illustrating Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, shows warriors on horseback slashing at each other with swords and hatchets. A charming color print presents the city of Yang-chau (Yangzhou) on the Grand Canal, a few miles north of the Yangtze where Marco Polo is said to have ruled as governor for Kublai Khan during the Yuan Dynasty. And a haunting sepia captures Japanese artillerymen attacking Shanghai during the 1934 invasion.
As well as somber and lustrous archival images, there are also some advertising gimmicks and ephemera that please the eye. A tin of Royal Baking Powder is grandly introduced against a black backdrop when "Andy Warhol was six years old." The first lipstick ad in a Chinese newspaper suggests that women could be as lovely as the coy maiden shown if they used the product, and a set of enormously popular cigarette cards display mythical figures such as emperors, sages, and poets.
Arthur Hacker was born in England, studied at the Royal College of Art, and worked as a graphic designer before coming to Hong Kong in 1967, where he still resides. Hacker has written numerous newspaper articles and published eight books on the history of China and East Asia. He is an avid collector of old prints, photographs, and maps of China, which he has included with many of his articles and books, including China Illustrated.