Rare photos of China in 19th century strike chord overseas

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) - When Raymond Watt of New York came across an article on the BBC News website about a Chinese photography exhibition in the United Kingdom last November, he was shocked, to say the least.

The story about a collection of rare photographs of Beijing from the late 1800s, on display in London's Chinatown, included a number of images from the exhibit-one of which set Watt back on his heels.

"It was a picture I had never seen before, and my instinct told me that the subjects could be my great-grandparents," he told China Daily.

The article explained how British photographer Thomas Child, who had moved to China as an engineer, captured marriage ceremonies during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

It detailed how one photograph in the series depicted the daughter of the famous Chinese statesman Zeng Guofan (1811-1872).

"My great-great-grandfather was Zeng Guofan," Watt said.

The 79-year-old never expected while browsing the internet that day that he would uncover a piece of family history dating back about 140 years, let alone in an exhibition some 5,600 kilometres from where he lived.

According to Watt, the unique wedding photograph documents the start of the prominent Nie family in China.

"The family rose in importance in Shanghai from the late Qing Dynasty into the 20th century and went through more than 70 years of ups and downs until 1950," he said.

"The groom, Nie Jigui, served as Shanghai's governor from 1890 to 1893. He died in 1911 and was buried in Hunan, while the bride, Zeng Jifen, died in 1942 and was buried in Shanghai."

Watt says Zeng Jifen was his great-grandmother.

The display of Child's work was the first time that US-based collector Stephan Loewentheil had shared the original images of life during the Qing Dynasty in Peking, now known as Beijing.

Building on the success of the Qing Dynasty Peking Exhibition, Loewentheil will showcase another rare collection of prints in London in November. The collection, which will feature images of Shanghai, will be on display at the China Exchange cultural center in the heart of London's Chinatown from November 3 to 11.

"Last year's show connected Raymond Watt to his family history when he recognised his family members in a portrait-a historical exchange," said Freya Aitken-Turff, CEO of China Exchange.

The new exhibition will be the first devoted to the work of William Saunders, a British engineer who became a photographer after traveling to China in 1860. He is now recognised as one of the most important photographers of 19th-century China.

The images portray people, occupations and customs of Shanghai at the time.