Thomson's travels through China

archive photo of traditional Chinese sailing boat

A junk. Guangzhou, Guangdong 1869-71.
© The Wellcome Library, London

Thomson (1837-1921) was a pioneer in photo-journalism and one of the most influential photographers of his generation.
In 1862 he travelled to Asia and became interested in its culture and people. He returned to the Far East in 1868 and based himself in Hong Kong, and then in 1870 he began his two-year exploration of China. He travelled from Guangdong to Fujian, and then to eastern and northern China, before heading down to the Yangtze River, altogether covering nearly 5000 miles.

The photographs in this exhibition document his journeys through China from 1868 to 1872.

During his travels Thomson combined his talents as a portrait and landscape photographer to capture the unfamiliar scenes he encountered. He was interested in the customs, occupations and appearance of the Chinese people - whether rich or poor. Most Chinese people were still unfamiliar with photography, but Thomson was able to communicate with his subjects effectively. As a result, and in contrast to his contemporaries, he portrayed China and its people both faithfully and with sensitivity.

Thomson's curiosity for Eastern culture and love of China brought us the first photographic social documentation of China and its people. He believed that;

"the camera should be a power in this age of instruction to instruct the age".

Chinese translation

A pdf of the text from the introduction panel to the exhibition in Chinese is also available to download:

Chinese translation|