Digital Collections Capture Bygone Era of China

Harvard-Yenching photos

An album page from the John Freeman Collection at Harvard-Yenching Library. The collection is made up of nearly 750 photos
of northeast China and Manchuria taken by John Freeman. The Freeman Collection and the Edward Bangs Drew Collection were recently digitized and are available online.

January 26, 2009 - Two new digital photo collections, the Edward Bangs Drew Collection and John Freeman Collection, have been added to the collections of Harvard-Yenching Library. The images are of particular significance to researchers, said Raymond Lum, Librarian for the Western Languages Collection in the Harvard-Yenching Library, because they illustrate a China that vanished decades ago.

"There's a tremendous interest now in old photographs of Asia," Lum said. "One reason is that China has changed so tremendously in the 20th century that a lot of what was photographed, like temple buildings, customs and clothing styles, has disappeared. A lot of Chinese don't have any memory of these things."

By allowing students to see the cultural practices they discuss in class, the photo collections have proven an effective pedagogical tool, Lum said.

"Having these images available is also important for younger scholars, because the images enhance the understanding of what they read about in a text," he added. "We talk about Daoist practices or Buddhist nuns in China in the 1930s, but they don't really mean a lot until you see these images. These photos are documentary evidence that complements what's in texts."

Made up of more than 500 photographs, the Drew Collection was amassed by Edward Bangs Drew, Class of 1863, who worked for decades in China at the end of the 19th century. Shortly after graduating from Harvard, Drew was recruited by Sir Robert Hart to join the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, a Chinese governmental agency created to collect customs on inland and ocean trade. He returned to Boston following his retirement in 1908.

Among the items Drew brought with him from China were hundreds of photos taken by commercial and professional photographers, showing the areas where he had been posted, parties and receptions held by the Chinese government, portraits of his colleagues, and the interior of several of his homes.

"A lot of the famous Westerners who were in China at the time are represented in this collection," Lum said. "For example, there's a marvelous photograph of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria with Drew and Chinese officials that was taken probably just a year or so before the Archduke was assassinated."

The photos were purchased by John King Fairbank, Professor of Chinese History at Harvard, from Drew's daughter and donated to the library in the early 1950s. Two decades later, the photos were damaged when a pipe burst. It was that damage that made the collection a prime candidate for digitization, Lum said.

"We decided to digitize the Drew photographs, because they were the most endangered," Lum said. "In addition, they complemented a digital project called the Chinese Maritime Customs Project, which was being done by Bristol University in England."

The Freeman photos, nearly 750 photographs of northeast China and Manchuria taken by John Freeman in the 1930s, were collected as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant overseen by Mary Ellen Alonso, an associate of Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. As part of the grant, Alonso in the early 1970s, travelled throughout the U.S., trying to identify and copy photo collections of China's minorities still held in private hands.

"The idea behind the project was that the photographs would be copied and cataloged, and the copies eventually given to the Harvard-Yenching Library," Lum said. "But many of the people she contacted just gave her the photographs - that's how we got the Freeman collection."

Though how and why Freeman amassed the images that make up the collection isn't known, what's clear, Lum said, is that his photographs are historically important.

"They're the only collection we have of northeast China and Manchuria during the 1930s," Lum said, of the collection. "Most of the photos are hand-tinted, and they're absolutely gorgeous."

Like the Drew photos, preservation considerations prompted the digitization of the images. The photos, which are collected into albums, are mounted on black paper, with annotations written below them in white ink. But as the paper disintegrates with age, Lum said, the annotations were in danger of being lost.

"Digitizing photos allows us to make them available to the international scholarly community without having to let anybody handle the originals," Lum said. "These digital projects, and others, like the Hedda Morrison Photographs of China and the Rev. Claude L. Pickens Jr. Collection on Muslims in China, also alert people to what we have, and that's part of the mission of the library. The success of our digital projects has led people who are not associated with Harvard to donate their collections. We've received thousands of additional photographs, mainly of China, but also some of Japan, because people know we're interested, and we're doing something with them."