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China through a Missionary Lens: Reconstructing Early Twentieth-Century Chinese History through Photographic Sources

Sat, March 28, 5:00 to 7:00pm, Chicago Sheraton Hotel & Towers, Floor: Level 2, Missouri

Session Submission Type: Organized Panel Proposal Application


Photographs are a unique and underutilized primary source in modern Chinese history. Captured at a particular moment and place, each image represents a “snapshot” of history that calls for further exploration. By examining photographs taken by American Protestant and Catholic missionaries in China, this panel focuses on missionary photography as a medium that captures events and individuals both locally and nationally. The panel introduces a recently completed digitization project of a mission collection of photographs from early twentieth-century West Hunan. Three “case studies” then explore the following topics: (1) the complex relationships between religion, local, and national politics; (2) the encounters between missionaries and local Chinese people and culture; and (3) how photographs of Chinese children taken by missionaries profoundly shaped and transformed perceptions of China in the United States. All three papers address important methodological questions pertaining to photographs as primary source documents. How does one “decode” information contained therein? How is that visual information linked to textual primary sources? And how does one then “re-encode” the visual and textual data into a new and coherent historical narrative? The discussants will raise further questions with regard to: (1) the process of digitization, cataloging, and electronic encoding of metadata of historical photographs in the construction of a database; and (2) the links between photography and the study of local histor(ies). The audience will be invited to debate the effectiveness of these methods and their broader implications for historical research on early twentieth-century East Asian and East-West cultural relations.

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