Singing girls, an aviatrix in furs and the delicate beauty of the Last Empress: Fascinating photos of Old China taken by missionaries in the last years of imperial ruleBy William Cook
In the momentary respite between the ravages of the Second World War and the resumption of civil war in June 1946, a Chinese fishing junk drifts down a placid river with the sun setting behind the hills.
Showing a country on the cusp of historic change, it provides a fitting end to this extraordinary series of images charting life in the world's largest nation during the late-19th and mid-20th centuries.
This was a period which saw the decline of the ruling Qing dynasty and the abdication of China's last emperor; a European influx and a Chinese exodus; a domestic rebellion and a foreign occupation.
This is just a tiny sample of the vast repository of pictures built up by westerners in China around the turn of the century. They provide a glimpse of everyday life that would have been overlooked by the official photographers of the dying imperial regime.
And in many instances, the story of the person behind the camera is just as fascinating as the subject itself.
After his second term as President of the United States, Civil War general Ulysses S Grant travelled to China as part of a world tour to drum up political support.
The general was received in Tianjin in 1879 by viceroy Li Hung Chang, a giant of a man with 'a keen eye, a wide head and a large forehead' who spoke 'with a quick, decisive manner'.
Li Hung Chang was a moderniser, 'not afraid by railways and telegraphs, and anxious to to strengthen and develop China by all the agencies of outside civilisation'.
But many of his countrymen did not share his openness to Western influences. Over the previous decades Christian missionaries had tried to convert large numbers of Chinese. Moreover, European powers had staked their claim to Chinese territory and forced punitive trade agreements on the country.
The most infamous of these was the treaty of Nanjing. The 1842 agreement protected the right of British merchants to sell vast quantities of opium, and widespread addiction to the drug was having a destructive effect on all levels of Chinese government and society.
In the final years of the 19th century both drought and flooding in rural areas made the population restless. The weak reformist government was overthrown by a regime that shared the people's antipathy towards foreigners. In 1900, rebellion broke out and armed groups of 'Boxers' laid siege to foreign embassies in the capital, Beijing.
The Boxers practised martial arts and claimed supernatural invulnerability towards modern armaments. When they reached the foreign legations in Beijing, American, Russian, Japanese, British and other European troops were brought in to crush the rebellion.
But if the foreign occupiers acted with brutality, the ruling Qing dynasty was not known for its benevolence. The pictures below show the punishment meted out to lawbreakers, and the bridges used by the police to patrol city roofs at night.
Early 1900s Chinese children were hardly ever at ease enough to unabashedly play in front of a western photographer. They were either too scared, shy, or mesmerized by the whole process.
But one rare image successfully captures that. In a collaborative effort, five boys acrobatically form the head of a dragon, showing how traditional folklore and myth were inculcated into the Chinese psyche at an early age.
The picture is attributed to Herbert Ponting, the intrepid photographer who would document Captain Scott's last, ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.
Nevertheless, the ladies of the Court still made meticulous efforts to dress in the Manchu style. American father-and-daughter photographers Frank and Frances Carpenter documented the rich detail of traditional costumes around 1900.
In 1908, the two-year-old Pu Yi ascended the throne. He never wielded real power, being forced to abdicate at the age of six in 1912. One of the sadder stories that arose from the end of the Qing monarchy was the story of Wan Rong, otherwise known as the Last Empress of China. Chosen in 1922 at the age of 17 to marry a powerless monarch, she was turned into an emotionally-wrecked opium addict by her loveless marriage.
Cast by the same ill political winds that buffeted her husband, Wan Rong was rumoured to have had an illicit affair with her driver, resulting in a scandalous pregnancy that was hushed up with the murder of the delivered baby and the exile of the lover.
She eventually fell into the hands of communist forces. After a short period, she died in prison reportedly from a combination of malnutrition and opium withdrawal in 1946, at the age of 39.
Looking at the photographs taken by westerners in China, it is also worth remembering that this was a period that saw vast numbers of Chinese leave their country.
A picture of a toy vendor in San Francisco tells a story of persecution. The two Chinese children to whom he is showing his wares would have been an unusual sight, even in Chinatown. In the early 1900s it was illegal for a Chinese immigrant to marry a white woman, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882-1943 meant a Chinese woman was even harder to find.
Life abroad was different for the Chinese elite. Hilda Yen came from a well off and influential family. She attended Smith College in the United States, and was a graduate of Yale. She also learned to fly aeroplanes and was spoken of in the same breath as her contemporary, Amelia Earhart.
By 1945, the Qing dynasty had collapsed and China had experienced communist revolution, civil war and global conflagration. War between the nationalists and Communists would resume in 1946, and a final image of a military truck, tiny against the rolling hills, provides a portent of the strife to come.