One Hundred Years of Modern Turmoil

By Raymond Lum

The Birth of a Republic: Francis Stafford’s Photographs of China’s 1911 Revolution and Beyond

 By Hanchao Lu

 University of Washington Press, 2010, 240 pages, US$40.00

Photographs of people taking photographs of other people are fairly common, but those of people sitting on top of or emerging from a camera are indeed rare and unusual.  A  nearly two-page spread (pp. 180-181) in this delightful and important book records the young male staff of Shanghai’s Commercial Press draped over and around, and even exiting from, a huge real or faux camera, and includes the photographer himself, the American Francis Stafford.

One Hundred Years of Modern Turmoil

By Raymond Lum

The Birth of a Republic: Francis Stafford’s Photographs of China’s 1911 Revolution and Beyond

 By Hanchao Lu

 University of Washington Press, 2010, 240 pages, US$40.00

Book_cover2Photographs of people taking photographs of other people are fairly common, but those of people sitting on top of or emerging from a camera are indeed rare and unusual.  A  nearly two-page spread (pp. 180-181) in this delightful and important book records the young male staff of Shanghai’s Commercial Press draped over and around, and even exiting from, a huge real or faux camera, and includes the photographer himself, the American Francis Stafford.

And Stafford’s photographs of China’s 1911 Republican Revolution, which took place 99 years ago, presented in this book are the rare of the rare.  Other people might have been walking around taking photos during the heady early days of the Revolution, but few of their photographs have surfaced and no assemblage of those photos is as comprehensive or important as Stafford’s.

China’s modern history might be said to date from the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century when the weaknesses of the ruling Qing dynasty resulted in foreign encroachments (diplomatic, military, mercantile, religious) that introduced new ideas about society, self government, and the family of nations, and thereby threatened the Qing dynasty, itself a foreign entity. 

But perhaps the real transition from the past to the modern was the Republican Revolution of 1911, which brought an end to millennia of imperial rule as it introduced nearly a century of modern turmoil in its place.


Any history of 20th century China necessarily takes as its chronological starting point the October 10, 1911, uprising in Wuchang, which was a premature start to the Revolution provoked by the unplanned explosion of an incendiary device. One wonders how many epic political and social revolutions began as accidents.  Of course, the Revolution itself was hardly an accident.  Decades of efforts to reform the Chinese polity through modernization, which inevitably included threatening aspects of Westernization, had led nowhere as the Qing court resisted changes to the status quo.   

The Guangxu (光緒) Emperor (1875-1908) did issue edict upon edict endorsing many of the reforms urged on him by the reformers, both those who espoused a constitutional monarchy and those who demanded the establishment of a Chinese republic.  But the Emperor was under permanent house arrest by his aunt, the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi (Tz’u Hsi 慈禧 1835-1908), had no practical power, and died in captivity one day before the Dowager’s own demise.  The Revolution was inevitable, even though it had to wait until three years after those deaths to come to fruition.


The Revolution of 1911 is extensively documented in Chinese and foreign texts; it occurred not so long in the past that much of its history was recorded by participants several decades well into the 20th century. But the textual documentation largely focuses on the political dimensions and perhaps less on the societal aspects.  Real people fought, real people died; real people won, real people lost.   


Francis Stafford cutting off the queue of a Chinese man on p. 138

Stafford’s photos show them.  Although the bulk of the photos are of the Revolution, showing fires (p.94), opposing armies (revolutionaries, pp. 53-57; Imperial troops, pp. 59-64), destruction (pp. 95-99), captive revolutionaries (some with heads removed from bodies as punishment, p. 44), and Qing officials (pp. 14 & 15), other sections   the “and Beyond” of the title––reveal street life (pp. 158 & 161), schools (including one for abandoned Eurasian children, p. 151), and workshops that employed women (pp. 146-147).  Perhaps the complementary images that make the impact of the times most personal are the photos of a Chinese man having his Manchu-mandated queue braided by a street barber  (p. 136) and a second photo two pages on (p.138) of Stafford cutting off the queue of another man.


And among these historic photos is a self-portrait of Stafford (p. 100) sitting atop the city wall of Wuchang and another showing British soldiers outside Shanghai’s Palace Hotel preparing to parade to celebrate the coronation of King George V just months before the outbreak of the revolution (p. 38).  Life in China at the time was experienced on many colliding levels.


Hanchao Lu (盧漢超), professor of Asian history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, notes that Stafford’s photos first appeared in a 1911 English-language textbook, “Geography of China,” by Horatio Hawkins, published by the Commercial Press (Stafford’s employer), but that is a long-forgotten and obscure (albeit very useful) publication.  Except for the 1911 publication and its five subsequent editions, Stafford’s photographic output remained virtually unknown until the publication of this book.  In fact, Stafford is not named as the source of the photographs in “Geography of China,” and none of his Revolution photos is included in the book.  One longs to see the photos in the collection that were not selected for inclusion in this book.


Lu’s excellent introduction to this book puts the Revolution into a perspective that juxtaposes the Qing court’s conservative stance with that of the revolutionaries and describes the political reality of Stafford’s early years in China.  Lu details how China’s New Policies Reform (a last-ditch effort by the Qing court to modernize and thereby save itself) and the new railroad system worked together to undermine the immovable government of the Manchu rulers.  


The Republican Revolution often is understood as a nation-wide movement, but Lu shows that Stafford’s photos reveal it to have been primarily local at the outset.  To quote Lu, “The rich component of ‘social pictures’ in the Stafford Collection confirms the assessment that the immediate impact of the revolution on Chinese society was limited and asymmetrical to its sweeping political impact.” 

Stafford’s photos were saved by his daughter, who was born in Shanghai, and inherited by his grandson, Ronald E. Anderson, who made them available for this book.  Hanchao Lu notes that Anderson digitized the photos when digitizing was a new process.  We can but be grateful that he did; otherwise, they might have remained unknown.  We do not know the quality of the original prints, but the ones presented in this book lack the crispness and contrast that can be achieved by modern scanning techniques. Nevertheless, what the photos record is so important that we are fortunate to have them in any format. 

The book’s size and layout are perfect for the topic.  Images are printed for the most part one to a page and their captions are on the same or following pages rather than at the back, so no annoying flipping back and forth is required.  Maps, a list of China’s imperial dynasties, a chronology of the Revolution, and a list of suggested readings in English make this a particularly useful book, as does a glossary of names and places that includes Chinese characters.  Obviously, a great deal of forethought and care were taken to produce this book.  This is no mere coffee-table book but one that makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the 1911 revolution: a visual complement to the written record. 

However, readers looking for context for the chapters entitled “On the Eve of the Revolution,” “The Wuchang Uprising,” “The Politics of Chaos,” “A Society in Transition,” and “Stafford in China” will be disappointed. Except for extended photo captions (did Stafford or Lu supply them?) there are no chapter texts to explain the historical significance of the individual chapters, or even whether Stafford or Lu arranged them in these divisions. 

As important as this book is, there is a looming gap in its presentation: who was Francis Stafford (1884-1938)?  We are given very little biographical information about him, about his life in China, or about his life and career after he left China in 1915, except for a few lines in the introduction (he was an American from Boulder, Colorado, who began work as a litho photographer at age 17, went to Shanghai in 1909 as senior photographer for Asia’s then largest publisher, the Commercial Press, and is credited with introducing into China the technology of printing in color) and the captions to the eight photos of Stafford that make up the final chapter of this book.  


Was he primarily a photographer?  How did he secure his position at the Commercial Press?  Was he the only foreigner employed there?  Did he write about his China experience, his photographs?  What were his lasting contributions to China or to the Commercial Press?  Are there photos of his of other places and times?  How did he personally experience the Revolution?  


Lu tells us nothing about the introduction to China of color lithography (Stafford’s area of expertise), or of its subsequent impact on publishing in China.  The Commercial Press, still flourishing, is worth a few more words than are given in this book, as is Stafford’s working relationship with the Press.  Although the focus of this book is Stafford’s photographs of the Revolution, we want to know how, within the context of his employment, he was able to take them.  


Was it only because, as Lu notes, he was “without political ties to either side of the conflict [p.7],” and because he was both a foreigner and a representative of the neutral Commercial Press?  Did he go about with armed guards?  Did he develop and print the photos himself?  Did the Commercial Press engage him to make these photographs or are these photos his freelance productions?


From this book’s several photos of Stafford himself in China, we can see that he was an attractive, self-assured, and versatile man (pp. 176-178), a painter as well as a photographer.  If we knew more about him, his working life, his social milieu, we might be better able to appreciate the place of the photographer in these photographs.  Important as they are as visual records of China’s plunge into modernity, the photos, but for a few, lack a context for the photographer himself.


Still, the photographs themselves are extremely important as documentation, and the University of Washington Press and Hanchao Lu have contributed significantly to our visual understanding of China’s Republican Revolution by publishing this book. 

Reprinted by permission of Hong Kong Economic Journal (


This review also can be viewed at


Editor’s Note: Raymond Lum will continue to contribute book reviews to CHINAINSIGHT (3-4 per year). Watch for his next review in future issues of CHINA INSIGHT and online at 

Raymond Lum


Raymond_LumRaymond Lum (林希文) is Librarian for Western Languages in the Harvard-Yenching Library, where he is also curator of historic photographs. A native of Chicago’s Chinatown, he studied Chinese there and in Taiwan. He holds a master’s in library science from the University of Michigan, and an MA and PhD in East Asian Languages & Civilizations from Harvard University. From 1968 through 1970, he was a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Sarawak, Malaysia. Formerly, he also was Harvard’s librarian for South and Southeast Asia and Instructor in Chinese in the Harvard University Extension School. He is the book review editor for a new (debuting 2010) online scholarly journal, TransAsia Photography Review, and contributes the column “Asia Resources on the World Wide Web” to the Asian Studies Newsletter of the Association for Asian Studies. He has directed several Harvard projects that digitized photographs and other visual images of Asia.

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