The prominent architectural historian Liang Sicheng devoted much of his career to the photographic, graphic, and textual documentation of old Chinese buildings. This project was grounded in his efforts to (re)construct a Chinese architectural “Order,” and in so doing to posit a functional equivalence between Chinese civilization and that of the West.
This essay examines the genealogy of this claim by situating Liang's work in relation to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century practices of architectural photography. It argues that colonial photographs of Chinese architectural monuments and surrounding urban spaces serve not only to “document” these buildings as signifiers of civilizational difference but also to transform them into a form of currency (both real and symbolic) in the unequal economy of colonial exchange. At the same time that these buildings begin to circulate as images in the global marketplace, in other words, they also serve to reify and fix in place the lived spaces and historical processes that they pictorially represent.
This reification takes place in collusion with the distinctive characteristics and constraints of nineteenth-century photographic technologies. This essay compares the work of two war photographers, Felix Beato and James Ricalton, who documented Beijing in conjunction with imperialist military campaigns against the Qing dynasty, first in 1860 and later in the wake of the Boxer uprising in 1900. An understanding of the divergent imaging technologies these two men employed (wet-collodion photography and stereography, respectively) is crucial to decoding not only how these images look to us now but also the way they suggested and perpetuated imperial ways of seeing, evaluating, and profiting from technologically reproduced visions of “China” and Chinese architecture, particularly the walls and monuments of Beijing.