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  • Tuesday, April 17, 2007

    Old Photos 1910-1913 by Luther Knight

    From the China Daily, January 6, 2003:
    Photos Remember Times Past
    Li Mengqiu, a 78-year-old retired government employee, often feels a little nostalgic for her home city of Chengdu.
    The capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province, known for its rich history and culture, has changed beyond recognition in the past 50 years.
    "The city is like a never-ending construction site," she complained to China Daily.
    "Almost all the buildings conform to the design dictates of modern steel-and-cement structures, as in any other Chinese city. Very often, I cannot help thinking that my city doesn't really live up to its reputation as a historically and culturally famous city."
    To Li's great delight, however, she recently received a picture album from an old friend that reminded her of the city's "good old days."
    Published by the Beijing-based Travel and Tourism Press, the album -- Looking Back at Chengdu through the Lens of an American Photographer in the Early 20th Century -- is bilingual, in both Chinese and English. It has a collection of 106 pictures taken by Luther Knight, a United States scholar who taught in Chengdu from 1910 to 1913.
    Other Resources about Luther Knight's Photos of 1910-1913:
    Old Pictures--An American's Memory of China - a two-part video of China Central Television.
    Old Photos 1910-1913 - a 2002 documentary by Bibo Liang for China Central Television.
    Looking Back at Chengdu through the Lens of an American Photographer in the Early 20th Century published by Travel and Tourism Press in Beijing (2002).
    West China Impression: An American 1910-1913 in Western China published by the Sichuan People's Publishing Agency in Chengdu (2003).
    Pictures by Luther Knight (1879-6-8--1913-4-19)

    Born in 1879 in the state of Iowa, the United States, Knight obtained his Master of Science degree from JohnsHopkins University in Maryland.
    At the invitation of the government of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), he left Seattle in July 1910, traveling for nearly one month by boat to reach Shanghai in August. Two months later, he arrived in Chengdu and began teaching mathematics, chemistry and geology at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Education. The institute, which is today's Sichuan University, was founded in 1902 and was Sichuan's first modern institution of higher education.
    In his spare time, Knight took many pictures of Chengdu, recording the area's scenery, historic and cultural sites, local customs and social events. "They are the oldest pictures of Chengdu," said Zhou Mengqi, director of the Chengdu municipal government's Information Office and mastermind of the album's publication.
    For local residents such as Li Mengqiu, these pictures remind them of many familiar and old things that no longer exist in the city. These include old buildings, streets, marketplaces, courtyards and houses typical of Chengdu, as well as recreational activities and traditional customs.
    "Everybody in Chengdu knows that the city had a 'royal city' for more than 500 years," said Yang Shirong, a 59-year-old chef. "But no one below 35 years of age has ever seen it. Now they can."
    Built in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the so-called "Royal City" was the residential palace of Zhu Chun, the 11th son of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor. Known for its majestic buildings, the Royal City -- which was regarded as the symbol of Chengdu -- was demolished in 1968 during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). Knight's pictures of the Royal City are the oldest yet discovered, according to Zhou Mengqi, who is also a photographer.
    Chengdu has been regarded as a "land of abundance" as it has been a leading farming area in China since ancient times. Its grain, rapeseed, pigs, lacquer, bamboo, wood and medicinal herbs are famous throughout the country.
    The photo album displays the lives of farmers in the "land of abundance" with pictures of them working the fields, raising cattle and ducks.
    During religious festivals in old Chengdu, people burned incense, kowtowed and offered sacrifices in Buddhist and Taoist temples.
    In the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), visiting the flower fair became a local folk custom. Later, the temple fair and the flower fair were combined. In the late Qing Dynasty, the government took advantage of the fairs to exhibit and sell goods from different parts of Sichuan Province. Prizes were given to the best products.
    "Chengdu people still visit the flower fair annually," said Yang. "So it is amusing to find a picture of Qing Dynasty officials with long pigtails commending prizewinning products in the flower fair held in the spring of 1911."
    For historians such as Tan Jihe, a researcher with the Institute of History at the Sichuan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, Knight's pictures are exciting because they also capture the profound transformation in Sichuan's social fabric that occurred in the early 20th century.
    At the beginning of the 1900s, farmers and landlords in Sichuan Province raised funds to build the Sichuan-Wuhan railway. But the Qing government sacrificed their interests when it decided to sell the railway's construction and management rights to foreign companies. The infuriated people of Sichuan launched a six-year railway-protection movement in 1905. This movement became one of the triggers of the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty.
    The movement led to the founding of the Dahan military government in Chengdu on November 27, 1911, which ended the rule of the Qing Dynasty in the province. Thousands of residents of Chengdu stormed into the Royal City to participate in celebrations.
    Luther Knight zoomed in on the event, and his photos in the album are the only pictures documenting the establishment of the military government, said Tan, who did extensive research for the album's publication.
    During Knight's two years and 10 months in China, he traveled extensively along the Yangtze River. His photos of cities, towns, wharves, navigation lights and boats along the river are also included in the album.
    His panorama of Diexi town -- which was taken in the summer of 1911 -- is priceless, Tan said.
    It was the only one taken of the ancient town, which has long since disappeared.
    With a history of more than 2,000 years, Diexi was located in Sichuan's Maoxian County. It lay on the eastern bank of the Minjiang, a tributary of the Yangtze River in its upper reaches.
    The town was flooded under a lake 80 meters deep and 10 kilometers long after an earthquake registering 7.5 on the Richter scale struck at 3:50 pm on August 25, 1933. More than 3,000 civilians and soldiers died. There were only five survivors.
    Diexi Lake is located along the road running from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou, a scenic spot on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The lake impresses every tourist with its clear blue water but few know that the ancient town lies beneath the surface.
    The Chinese Government is planning to turn the lake into a national geological park. Knight's pictures can be valuable references for the planning.
    Critics speak highly of Knight's pictures not only in terms of their historical value but also in terms of photographic art. "Knight used an old xeroradiography camera. It was very difficult for users of this camera to focus properly. But his composition is first-class, and his handling of light is superb," said Wang Yulong, a photographer from the Tibet Autonomous Region.
    Knight's love for photography started at the age of 15 when his father gave him a camera as a birthday gift. That was only a short time after the modern camera had been invented. With this camera, Knight shot the first photo of his father.
    He showed his dedication to photography in his pictures. Many of his pictures along the Yangtze River were taken from the mountains, which he climbed while carrying his heavy photographic gear, said John E. Knight, a descendant of the photographer.
    Luther Knight had planned to leave China at the end of the school year in 1913, travel through the Middle East, Egypt, Paris and London on his way back to the United States, and introduce China to the rest of the world through photo exhibitions.
    Sadly, these plans never came to fruition. He contracted typhus in early April 1913 while taking some of his students on a study trip to a copper-ore refinery in a suburban county of Chengdu. In the same month, he died at the age of 34 in the Canadian Mission Hospital, now known as Chengdu No 2 People's Hospital, and was buried in the suburbs of Chengdu.
    "Unlike many foreigners who have come to and gone from China, Luther died and was buried in Chinese soil," said John Knight, a US philanthropist and educator living in Hong Kong.
    "From the information contained in Luther's writings (sent to his sister Uintah), we sense that he had a deep respect and admiration for the Chinese people, culture, language and land.
    "The industriousness of the common folk, the diligence and intellectual curiosity of his students, and the beauty of the terrain are just a few of the things that seemed to constantly amaze and enthrall him," he said.
    Luther Knight kept detailed records of all the photographs he had taken. But, after his death, this information was lost, including all of his diaries and a number of important photos. Wang Yulong, who is a friend of John Knight, spent two years traveling and verifying the locations and backgrounds of 90 per cent of the pictures.
    Sealed away for nearly a century, Luther Knight's existing pictures were not open to public view until a photo exhibition was held in Chengdu in the autumn of last year. All the pictures in the photo album are being published for the first time.