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Special Article

 

Understanding the 1911 Revolution through Woodblock Prints and Pictorials

(Urban & Oral History Unit, Hong Kong Museum of History, 2011)

2011 marks the centenary of the revolution, and to celebrate this epoch-making period in Chinese history the Hong Kong Museum of History is launching a special exhibition in co-operation with the Hubei Provincial Museum that introduces the background to and process of the 1911 Revolution, and also investigates Hong Kong's role in the movement, by showcasing valuable artefacts on loan from Wuhan – the city of the first successful uprising – as well as images and video clips from domestic and foreign historical archives.

With its foreign concession areas, Shanghai was home to an exceptionally large number of local publications and also the base for the distribution and sale of newspapers and magazines from the rest of China and abroad. During this time, to cater for the interests of the general public, many publications used vernacular language to depict events and even accompanied their reports with illustrations. It was in this context that pictorials, which had little text and conveyed messages largely through illustrations, were born and then flourished: almost every major newspaper in the late Qing dynasty proceeded to offer complimentary pictorials.

During the 1911 Revolution, these pictorials mostly reported on how the revolutionaries won the independence of a number of provinces and on the fierce fighting between the Revolutionary Army and Qing forces at the Battle of Yangxia. By the time Shanghai declared independence on 4 November 1911, all pictorials in the city had adopted a pro-revolutionary stance and were strongly criticising Qing government officials as well as the armed forces that were on a southwards expedition to suppress the revolutionaries. To meet the exceptional demand for news, pictorials such as the Zhanshi Huabao were published twice a day with both a morning and an evening edition. For example, the pictorial in figure 1 contains a victory bulletin on armed clashes between the Revolutionary Army and Qing forces under Yin Chang as well as news of the Qing navy shifting their allegiance to the revolutionary cause.
 
 
Colour woodblock prints were also very popular among the general public. While they were winning the independence of different provinces, the revolutionaries therefore took the time to produce woodblock prints and pictorials advocating the cause or to commission them from their supporters. These cheaply priced woodblock prints were essentially spin-offs of the popular New Year paintings and introduced news and changes in the political situation at that time. A type of printed merchandise, the woodblock prints would sometimes depict fictional incidents and even recycle earlier works in order to attract customers and get to the market as soon as possible. The content was, by no means, an accurate reflection of reality.

Figures 2 and 3 – woodblock prints released in mainland China – feature the same painting but different titles. The publisher only made a few minor changes to the caption – for example, "Yellow Crane Tower" becomes "Jinling Tower" and "She Shan" is changed to "Zijin Shan" – while the original woodblock print depicting armed clashes between the Revolutionary Army and Qing forces in Wuchang was then released as a new print covering the fighting in Nanjing. These woodblock prints were thus promotional tools targeted at the market rather than accurate documentary drawings.
 
 
Woodblock prints on the 1911 Revolution were also published in Japan – the revolutionaries' major foreign base for promotion work – to garner support from overseas Chinese students and merchants. Depicting scenes of fighting between the Revolutionary Army and Qing forces in Nanjing, the woodblock print in figure 4 was produced in 1911. Although these prints may be as exaggerated and inaccurate as the Chinese woodblock prints, they satisfied readers' curiosity and provided colour graphical information on the 1911 Revolution.
 
 
Overseas newspapers also covered the latest developments in China during the 1911 Revolution, with The Sphere, The Illustrated London News and The Graphic in Britain alone. They provided reports on the situation after the Wuchang Uprising and supplemented with photographs taken by correspondents in China. They indirectly created a positive image for the Revolutionary Army, which thus earned the respect of the foreign powers, who later adopted a neutral stance. The pictorials contained many photographs that remain the only records of their kind in existence today, making them extremely valuable for historical research. For example, The Illustrated London News (figure 5) shows scenes of Wuchang and Hankou after they had been seized by the revolutionaries under the heading "The Civil War in China".
 
 
These woodblock prints and pictorials give us new insights into why the 1911 Revolution was finally successful in overthrowing the Qing dynasty. When Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong – a transportation hub at that time – reported rumours that the revolutionaries had seized Beijing in November 1911, local Chinese residents were thrilled, marching on the streets in exhilaration and lighting firecrackers to celebrate the alleged victory. If rumours could take flight so easily in Hong Kong, it is not difficult to imagine the situation in China's inland provinces, which relied heavily on Shanghai publications for information. It is therefore not surprising that the promotion work conducted by the revolutionaries was exceptionally effective; it played a crucial role in building revolutionary sentiments, which helped drive the swift independence of the provinces. This was indeed another "1911 Revolution", only this time on paper.
Picture of Figure 1 © Princeton University Library

Figure 1
© Princeton University Library

Picture of Figure 2 © Princeton University Library

Figure 2
© Princeton University Library

Picture of Figure 3 © Princeton University Library

Figure 3
© Princeton University Library

Picture of Figure 4 © The Library of Congress,USA

Figure 4
© The Library of Congress,USA

Picture of Figure 5 © Wellcome Library, London

Figure 5
© Wellcome Library, London

Picture of Figure 6 © Wellcome Library, London

Figure 6
© Wellcome Library, London

Picture of Figure 7 © Oldprints.com

Figure 7
© Oldprints.com

Picture of Figure 8

Figure 8
© 武漢博物館藏/ 哲夫先生捐贈