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Capturing China in Nineteenth-century: the Photography of Isabella L. Bird

Isabella L. Bird (1831- 1904) was a writer, photographer, and one of the most well-traveled English explorers in the 19th century.

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Publisher: Earnshaw Books

Isabella Lucy Bird

Chinese Pictures was the last book published during her lifetime, and it contains 61 commented photographs.

The subjects of the photographs reflect the life of the writer in China: modes of transportation, city gates, paths, bridges, and waterways. Occasionally, Isabella took photographs and portraits of local people.

Isabella L. Bird was born in the north of England in 1831. She suffered from health problems as a child, and later from insomnia and depression and her doctor recommended that she travel.

At the age of 23, in 1854, she arrived in North America where she remained for several months.

Inspired by this experience, she wrote on her return, The Englishwoman in America.

A Bridge at Wan Hsien of the Single Arch Type

In 1875, after a six-month visit to the Hawaiian Islands, she wrote Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, another best-seller, followed by Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, published in 1879.

Then she arrived in Japan, where she stayed for several months, traveling far and wide around the country working as an interpreter.


In 1870, following this experience, she wrote Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, published in 1880.

After Japan, Bird traveled to Hong Kong, southern China, Vietnam, Singapore, and the Malay Peninsula.

Back in England, Isabella was famous. Following the death of her husband, a doctor, a few years later, Isabella resumed her travels. In 1888 she arrived in India, where she traveled through Kashmir to western Tibet. From 1894 to 1898 she traveled to Japan, Korea, and China, risking being killed during an anti-foreigner uprising in Chengdu.

The Entrance to the British Legation, Beijing

The experiences lived during this period were told in the book The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, published following the growing interest aroused by the Boxer Uprising of 1900. The photographs shown in the book Chinese Pictures published by Earnshaw Books were all taken during that trip.

The Private Entrance to the Imperial Palace, Peking

Isabella began her journey as a photographer quite late. In 1894 she followed an advanced photography course at Regent Street Polytechnic. She traveled with two cameras and hired some assistants to arrange and transport the bulky photographic equipment of the time.

Isabella died a few years later, in 1904, without being able to return to China because of medical problems.

Returning from her last trip to Morocco, she died in Edinburgh.

Bottle Seller and Hospital Patient
A Small Houseboat on the Yangtze Kiang
A Manchurian Family Travelling
A Boat on the Min River, Used for Running the Rapids

Art Story from Webson Ji

“When our thousands of Chinese students abroad return home, you will see how China will transform itself”, Deng Xiaoping


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