Amer­i­can’s lens cap­tures price­less Chi­nese May 4 his­tory

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By CHENG LU and HU TAO

A photo ex­hi­bi­tion in Bei­jing marks the 95th an­niver­sary of the May Fourth Move­ment, an im­por­tant cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal move­ment in mod­ern China. The im­ages were taken by Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher Sid­ney D. Gam­ble (1890-1968), grand­son of James Gam­ble, one of the co-founders of Proc­tor & Gam­ble.

“In the early 1900s, pho­tos were rarely seen in China, and few sur­vive to­day,” says Guo Jun­y­ing, cu­ra­tor of the me­mo­rial. “Gam­ble cap­tured valu­able his­tor­i­cal mo­ments from the per­spec­tive of a so­ci­ol­o­gist and pre­served those im­ages well.”

The May Fourth Move­ment started with mass stu­dent protests on May 4, 1919, against the govern­ment’s re­sponse to the Treaty of Ver­sailles that im­posed un­fair penal­ties on China and un­der­mined the coun­try’s sovereignty. It then be­gan a na­tional cam­paign to over­throw the feu­dal so­ci­ety and pro­mote sci­en­tific and demo­cratic ideas.

Hosted by the New Cul­ture Move­ment Me­mo­rial of Bei­jing and Duke Univer­sity Li­braries, the ex­hi­bi­tion dis­plays 143 pho­to­graphs show­ing China’s May Fourth Move­ment and people’s lives at that time.

The pho­to­graphs in­clude stu­dents de­liv­er­ing speeches, be­ing ar­rested and protest­ing dur­ing the move­ment in 1919.

“They open a win­dow for Chi­nese to bet­ter un­der­stand their his­tory and com­ple­ment ex­ist­ing his­tor­i­cal documents for that pe­riod,” Guo says.

Gam­ble worked as sec­re­tary for the Bei­jing Young Men’s Chris­tian As­so­ci­a­tion, wit­ness­ing and doc­u­ment­ing this piv­otal time. In 1908, he be­gan tak­ing pic­tures in China dur­ing the first trip here with his fam­ily. He re­turned three more times be­tween 1917 and 1932 and trav­eled widely, col­lect­ing data for so­cio-eco­nomic sur­veys and pho­tograph­ing ur­ban and ru­ral life, pub­lic events, ar­chi­tec­ture, re­li­gious stat­u­ary and the coun­try­side.

About 15 years af­ter Gam­ble’s death, his daugh­ter found his ni­trate neg­a­tives in a closet at home in New York. Stored in beau­ti­ful rose­wood boxes, the neg­a­tives were housed in in­di­vid­ual paper sleeves, an­no­tated with typed and hand­writ­ten cap­tions. An agree­ment to bring the collection to Duke was signed in 2006.

“I was im­me­di­ately fas­ci­nated by these im­ages of Chi­nese life more than 100 years ago as I tried to fig­ure out the lo­ca­tion and back­ground of each pic­ture, and later as I trans­lated their ti­tles into Chi­nese. Since then, I have wanted to pro­mote this collection to au­di­ences around the world,” says Zhou Luo, a re­searcher with Duke Univer­sity.

Zhou started work­ing on the meta­data on the Gam­ble pho­to­graphs in 2008, when the im­ages had been sent to Duke af­ter dig­i­ti­za­tion.

Among the 5,000 pho­to­graphs in this collection are about 2,000 im­ages re­lated to Bei­jing. “The ma­jor­ity of im­ages were never pub­lished or ex­hib­ited dur­ing his life­time,” Guo says.

The me­mo­rial has re­ceived about 300 to 400 vis­i­tors on work­days and nearly 700 on week­ends since the ex­hi­bi­tion opened.

“In a pic­ture that shows a tra­di­tional Chi­nese fu­neral, I saw a (rare, sac­ri­fi­cial) paper car. It’s amaz­ing. I never ex­pected that these lux­ury sac­ri­fices had such long his­tory in China,” says a vis­i­tor from Bei­jing.

A mid­dle school stu­dent says that young Chi­nese lack such pas­sion to­day and they need to learn from the spirit of the May Fourth Move­ment.

“The spirit in­volves pa­tri­o­tism, progress, democ­racy and sci­ence. While we make more money and en­joy a bet­ter life to­day, we need to seek spir­i­tual pur­suit and faith. This ex­hi­bi­tion gives us a new per­spec­tive to know our his­tory in a vivid and ob­jec­tive way,” Guo says.


Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher Sid­ney D. Gam­ble (1890-1968) cap­tured valu­able his­tor­i­cal mo­ments with his cam­era dur­ing his stay in China in the early 1900s.

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