Recycling images

This picture should of course be familiar to a many of our readers. It’s from 点石斋画报, probably the most famous of the late-19th century illustrated magazines. This is a source which has been used a lot by scholars, and there is a monograph by Ye Xiaoqing. Although the journal did lots of other images, as did its most famous artist Wu Youru, what it is mostly known for are little scenes of ordinary life, sometimes having to do with the western intrusion, sometime just with Chinese life (yes, a false distinction.) There is a certain tendency to show scenes of anomalies and strange events, but lots of good social history as well. They make a great teaching tool for all sorts of things.
Link to Picture

This particular image is about training “little hoodlums” (小流氓) as soldiers. These are little people (小矮人 in the modern paraphrase) who had been treated like hoodlums (liu mang means the floating population, and is usually a term of abuse), but if treated properly can they not become defenders of the nation? This of course lends itself to all sorts of teachable moments.

What interests me is the way these pictures have been reproduced over and over in the last decades. I first saw them in the mid 80’s in a huge string-bound edition published out of Guangzhou. Since then I have seen a number of nicely done modern editions, Don Cohen did some images with translations (Cohn, Don, ed. Vignettes From The Chinese: Lithographs from Shanghai in the Late Nineteenth Century. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1987.) Fake images from the 点石斋 turn up on Ebay . A lot of the images seem to be somewhat faded, giving the impression that nobody has a really good original copy.

This image is from 上海旧闻 苏州:古吴轩出版社,2004。It is a fairly cheap paperback of about 200 pages. They also have books for 北京,南京,苏州,扬州,and 杭州. This one includes baihua paraphrases of the stories, which is why I found it so interesting. The original vignettes are often hard to make out, and even harder to understand, since they are in rather obscure Classical Chinese for my tastes, and, presumably, for a lot of buyers of this series. There seems to be a market for these pictures and stories of ordinary Chinese life.

One of my great disappointments in Art History class was Dr. Munakata telling me that in the Tang there were a lot of paintings of vignettes of ordinary life, and that we have the titles of many of them, but as they were not valued by later collectors, very few of them still exist. These 点石斋 images seem to be valued a great deal by the market, as there is presumably a great desire for valid and authentic (and illustrated) stories about social history. As the introduction to this volume puts it we can understand the changes in today’s society by looking at the past. Not probably a goal of most historians, but a good way to move product.

Of course lots we read different things back into this past. I note that the modern collections usually don’t include the bird and flower paintings I remember from the old Guangzhou edition. They also seem more likely to skip images of foreigners at home, and they have a lot fewer pictures of opium smoking. That people pick and choose what they want from history is of course not surprising, but I find it interesting that everyone, scholars, ordinary Chinese readers, publishers looking to make money, all keep coming back to this relatively small amount of stuff. A lot of what we would call “content” was generated in the Qing, and this one bit of it seems to be the wildly over-represented in the places we look for meaning.

If nothing else these pictures are an argument for stronger copyright laws in China. Various authors, artists and journalists came up with these pictures and texts and they are getting reproduced over and over, and presumably would be generating a fair amount of money if China had copyright going back to the Qing.

1 Comment

  1. On the other hand, one could argue that it is partially because the copyrights are relatively loose that the kind of constant reproduction and adaptation you describe is possible. Without this repeated adaptation over time and for different markets, we might not be able to see such marked changes, making the publication history and complicated authorship problems of these images a much less interesting story. The ‘recycling’ is precisely what’s highly textured and contestable.

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