National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

John Thomson’s Foochow and the River Min

Chinese New Year is approaching, which seems like a good excuse to share a beautiful album of photographs taken in China in 1870-71 by John Thomson (1837 – 1921), entitled Foochow and the River Min.

The Island Pagoda, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Island Pagoda, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Thomson was one of the first photographers to travel to the Far East, documenting its landscape, people and antiquities. He spent 5 years travelling extensively in China.

Coolies, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Coolies, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Foochow and the River Min records the city of Fuzhou (Foochow) in Fujian province, South East China, and Thomson’s journey up the River Min by boat from Fuzhou to Nanping, a distance of about 160 miles.

Rocks in the Rapids, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Rocks in the Rapids, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Fujian province was a major tea producing area and the port of Fuzhou the world’s largest tea-exporting centre. The River Min itself was a vital trade route, as timber, agricultural produce and tea were shipped downriver for export.

The Altar of Heaven, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Altar of Heaven, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The area was noted for its beauty, with the Min winding through spectacular mountainous terrain, with tree-lined valleys and rocky gorges. It inspired effective and striking composition in Thomson’s photographs, often using single figures for scale and drama.

Yuen Fu Rapid, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Yuen Fu Rapid, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

He shows the both the river’s tranquillity and its power – photographs of rapids and wrecked boats underline the hazards of the journey that he had undertaken, and the daily dangers faced by the men who worked the river.

A Wreck in the Rapids, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

A Wreck in the Rapids, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Foochow and the River Min was published in 1873. It was illustrated with carbon prints, a beautiful, stable process, producing images that are still vivid 140 years later.

Field Women, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Field Women, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Only 46 copies were printed and it was sold by advance subscription to the European residents of Fuzhou – tea-planters, merchants, missionaries and government officials. John Thomson dedicates the album to them as a “lasting momento which will aid them, in future years, in recalling the scenes and incidents of their life in one of the most picturesque provinces in China”.

Cover of 'Foochow and the River Min', published 1873 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Cover of ‘Foochow and the River Min’, published 1873 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

A Pine Raft, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

A Pine Raft, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Road to the Plantation, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Road to the Plantation, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Yen Ping Rapid, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Yen Ping Rapid, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Yuen Fu Monastery Cave, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Yuen Fu Monastery Cave, c. 1871, John Thomson © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

This post was written by Ruth Kitchin, associate curator.

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Based in the heart of Bradford, we explore the science and culture of light and sound technologies and their impact on our lives. We aim to inspire the scientists and engineers of the future to see more, hear more, think more and do more.

2 comments on “John Thomson’s Foochow and the River Min

  1. instantmusic51
    January 27, 2014

    Wonderful pictures!

  2. Marilyn West
    August 19, 2015

    These are fabulous photos indeed. My family history indicates ancestors in the Foochow area in the 1870’s, so these photos really help give me a sense of place.
    Would it be at all possible to post more photos from this album? Of particular interest to me is a photo of 11 Europeans at a shooting match (perhaps the title page?) I saw a reference to something titled Sheppard’s Pigeon Match, taken at Foochow on 22nd April 1873.
    Thank you so much.

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