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Image for Old Photographs Fever - The Search for China's Pictured Past

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Wed 11 Jul 2012 11:00 BBC Radio 4

28 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 11 July 2012

'Old Photos Fever' is sweeping China, where people are encountering their photographic history for the first time, piecing together a past destroyed in Mao's Cultural Revolution.

A new and intense appetite for images of the country's past has resulted in a publishing phenomenon: sales of books and magazines filled with historical photographs have rocketed. China's turbulent history in the twentieth century meant that archives of all kinds were destroyed: in warfare and revolutions. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-9, the process was continued by the Red Guard. People also destroyed their own - now dangerously bourgeois - family albums. Nearly a century of photographic history was erased.

The photographs that do survive were mostly taken by foreigners, living in or visiting China, who took them out of the country to safety. Professor Robert Bickers at the University of Bristol is leading the search to collect and digitise these photographs in order to restore a historical vision of China which is unfamiliar and fascinating to its citizens now. The online collection is extraordinary in its range and reflects all aspects of life in China. There are studio portraits, gruesome police photos, industrial and rural landscapes, tourist snaps and family albums.

One of the jewels in the collection is the work of Fu Bingchang, a senior Chinese diplomat, whose access to the elite of Chinese society in the first half of the twentieth century and whose talent as a photographer make for a unique and beautiful set of images. The photos were given by Fu's son Foo Chung Hung (Johnny) and his granddaughter Yee Wah, who recall finding them in twelve leather trunks of possessions which were smuggled out of China.

The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 prompted Chinese politicians to pursure an ambitious policy of historical education, to counteract a perceived lack of knowledge in young people about China's past. New museums are now huge tourist attractions in China and the desire for photographs has arisen from this resurgence of interest in the nation's history.

This fascinating documentary brings a new and surprising insight into China's past and present.

Producer: Mary Ward-Lowery.

  • Historical Photographs of China (HPC)

    This project aims to locate, archive, and disseminate photographs from the substantial holdings of images of modern China.

    Historical Photographs of China (HPC)
  • The search for photos of China's past - BBC News Magazine

    Historical photographs are rare in China, mostly destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. But now the country's pictured past is being reclaimed.

    Read the extended article here


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