Thursday March 23rd, from 7-8:30 PM the Peabody Essex Museum will host three contemporary Chinese photographers whose works are fundamental to the exhibit, “ Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China “. This very special virtual presentation will be available in both Chinese and English with live translation. Each speaker will reflect on how the earliest photographs of life in China shaped Colonial and modern day perspectives on the complex society.

“Power and Perspective “ is intellectually and visually expansive. Most of the collected artifacts and images capture the eclectic cultural influences of China in the 1800’s. As an economic hub of global significance, China was a magnet for entrepreneurs, innovators and tourists. Some of the artifacts convey idealized existences filled with prosperity and glamor. Others open windows onto the shadows of an abusive code of hierarchical values.

Chinese Court boots and hat of Salem’s Fredrick Townsend Ward 1859-62

Of the many enterprises that flourished in China in the 1800’s, photography was a popular tool used to record and distort history. Like the artifacts, the collection of images on display at PEM confirm status while other images serve to shape narratives of wealthy non-Chinese influencers.

The subjects, both painted and photographed, tell the stories of those who commissioned the work. Some boast of grand ships and men celebrating good fortune. Often the images were staged to exaggerate imposition of social justice and religious education that conformed with Western ideologies.

The nuanced lens of this exhibit navigates the cultural perspective of the powerful and asks visitors to question the meaning behind the social medium. Many of the works were culled from travel journals, including one from Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Taken at face value this exhibit is fascinating for landmarking China as a geo-political and cultural hub, however there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Power and Perspective is also emotionally compelling.  Women were typically photographed voyeuristically with a distant gaze in muted tones of servitude or marginalized to the side of a photographs featuring men.

Hong Kong Girl, 1868-72 ~as relevant to society as the teapot she grips

If the women are not seen as slaves they are portrayed as one dimensional trophy wives without agency.

This scroll was created to flatter Mr. and Mrs.Chen. The prosperous couple is painted with opaque water colors to enhance their features. In contrast, the children and servants are painted in translucent paint as stylistic expressions of their value to Mr. Chen.


In reality, men of well established New England provenance often had romantic relationships with Chinese women who became influential business partners, wives and mothers. For the most part, those women remain nameless.

Portrait of a Chinese woman, late 1850’s


The exhibition ends with photographic commentary by Gan Yingying’s ‘Ghost from the Past’ 2019.  Born in Guangxi province  in 1990, Gan Yingying boldly confronts gender oppression and claims sexual entitlement by using her own body to explore female desire and representation. She photographed herself walking, touching and having sex then photographically layered shapes and textures to blur her image. For Gan, sex is political. Rather than accepting virtual anonymity in Chinese society, Gan’s perspective is her desire to be seen, and that perspective grants her power.

Ghost from the Past 2019


For info on how to join the virtual event on March 23rd, co-presented with Asia Art Archive in America, search or call 978 745 9500. Catching Power and Perspective at PEM is a perfect way to celebrate Woman’s History Month!

This fascinating exhibit will be on view through April 2, 2023


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