The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873


One of the first photojournalists in the world, John Thomson, traveled to China and took photographs of Chinese people in the late 19th century. His photographs have been widely circulated, collected by the Wellcome Gallery in England and by National Library of Scotland.

A recent coffee table book presents digitally remastered photographs that Thomson took in China - which includes Manchu noblewomen, and ordinary boatspeople. Examples and extracts can be found at the Levenger Press website.

Thomson’s photos have been cataloged before in digital format, for example at the BBC website, and Flickr.

Michael Meyer, author of Last Days of Old Beijing gives permission for an extract from the introduction, which he wrote. The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873 can be bought on the Levenger Press website.

Introduction to The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873; excerpt

by Michael Meyer

For his art, John Thomson was born at precisely the right time. The Edinburgh photographer’s 1837 birth coincided with a year of events which would shape his life’s work: Victoria ascended to the British throne, Oliver Twist became a serial success, and the continued perfection of the daguerreotype process captured images on silver plates. With Britain’s colonial empire stretching to the Far East, a public accustomed to reading about society’s underbelly, and the invention of photography, Thomson’s travels and documentary portraits of commoners, their homes, and possessions help lay the foundations of photojournalism, which makes this volume of Chinese portraits both historically and artistically unprecedented. The prints that follow also show us how much China has transformed itself, and also how in many ways it remains the “Great Middle Kingdom” of Thomson’s visits during imperial times.

As his contemporary Matthew Brady captured the horrors of American Civil War battlefields, Thomson sailed in 1862 to Singapore to see his older brother, also a photographer. The sojourn in Asia extended to a decade. Thomson journeyed throughout Malaya, Sumatra and India, taking pictures of village life. In Siam and Cambodia, kings sat for portraits before the lanky Scotsman, whose bushy sideburns stretched to his chin. In 1866, Thomson made the first photographic expedition to Angkor Wat. After that, he was hooked. A brief return – to public and court acclaim – to England ended with a short stay in Saigon, then a home and studio in Britain’s newest Asian colony, Hong Kong.

The island (“Fragrant Harbor” in Chinese) was wrested by the United Kingdom after the first Opium War (1839-42), which forcibly opened China’s markets – drug trade included – and the establishment of “treaty ports,” cities where Western merchants and missionaries were free to operate. This cataclysmic humiliation to the Chinese throne was followed by the Second Opium War (1856-1860), when Anglo-French forces sacked numerous cities, including the imperial capital of Beijing, where the two ornate Summer Palaces were ordered looted and burned.


So imagine the reception Thomson received when stepping off a Hong Kong ferry and onto Chinese shores, eight years after war’s end in 1868 to embark on a four-thousand mile journey across rustic China, toting an unwieldy wooden-legged camera, fragile glass plates and explosive chemicals, impossible to procure after he ran out. On many legs, his only accomplice was his faithful dog, Spot. Thomson, then thirty-one, visited regions that had never laid eyes on a “barbarian,” as all Westerners were commonly appended, let alone a camera, then believed by Chinese to be “the foreigner’s silent and mysterious instrument of destruction,” as Thomson writes, which would suck the soul from its subject.

I was frequently looked upon as a forerunner of death… I have seen unfortunates stricken with superstitious dread, fall down on bended knee and beseech me not to take their likeness or life with the fatal lens of my camera.

He was “stoned and roughly handled on more than one occasion,” though the violence was largely confined to large cities, where “the wide-spread hatred of foreigners is most conspicuously displayed.” China’s countryside village clans and wars felt familiar to a Scot, however, and it was in the interior that Thomson “met with numerous tokens of kindness, and hospitality as genuine as could be shown to a stranger in any part of the world.”


Thomson’s travels took him from Guangzhou (Canton) north through Shanghai to Beijing, and through the Great Wall. After the four-year journey, he returned to London, publishing the photos in four volumes, of which this comprises the first. Thomson then gained further renown for his portraits of London’s working poor — published in 1878 in a monthly magazine of his founding (and prefiguring Jacob Riis’ study of New York City’s tenements, How the Other Half Lives, which appeared in 1891.)

And then, a turn: In 1881, Victoria, who became queen the year Thomson was born, appointed him as photographer of the royal family, a position he parlayed into a career shooting portraits of British high society and instructing the Royal Geographical Society on documenting its explorations. But the era of Rule Britannia in which Thomson rose was ending. The Great War that ended in 1918 was not the war to end them all, as proclaimed. In 1921, when Thomson turned eighty-four, anti-European riots broke out in Egypt, the Irish Free State was ratified, Adolph Hitler became fuehrer of the Nazi party, the Bolsheviks were a year from consolidating the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the Chinese Communist Party was founded, prefiguring a seismic change in that nation.

The photographer and his camera were retired and far away, at home in native Edinburgh. Upon his death, the Royal Geographical Society named one of the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, Point Thomson. He had never been to Africa.

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