CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 28, December 2011


Me and Myself Studio, Hangzhou | China Heritage Quarterly

Me and Myself Studio, Hangzhou

Claire Roberts
The Australian National University

The Erwo Xuan Photography Studio situated outside Yongjin Men Gate 湧金門 in Hangzhou was established in the last decades of the Qing dynasty, its reputation and business would grow with the transformation of the city, and West Lake, into a modern commercial and tourist centre (see Liping Wang's study of Republican-era West Lake in the Features section of this issue). It also offers a comment on the anti-Qing martyr Qiu Jin, her tomb on Solitary Island (Gu Shan 孤山) in West Lake and early 'revolutionary tourism', the pre-Communist Party origins of what is now marketed under the rubric of 'red tourism' (hongse lüyou 红色旅游).

The following essay by the art historian Claire Roberts is an extract from a forthcoming book. Photography and China will be published in 2012 by Reaktion Books, London. Minor stylistic changes have been made to the text, including the addition of Chinese characters.—The Editor

Since the late 1800s, portraiture has been the most popular use for photography in China and performing for the camera has taken on many forms. Double exposure portraits, known as 'images of me and myself' (erwo tu 二我圖), explore the idea of the 'me' in the photograph and the 'me' in the real world, playfully suggesting representations of spirit and body, or the generation of another self. This genre of portraiture has its origins in Chinese painting. Photographic versions have persisted into the present making a modern, technologically inflected contribution to the scholarly tradition of self-reflexivity and highlighting the enduring fascination of photographic portraits of ourselves.[Fig.1]

Fig.1 Double exposure portrait, Baoluo zhaoxiang 保羅照相 (Paul's Studio), 1954. (Source: private collection)

The Me and Myself Studio (Erwo Xuan) in Hangzhou was established during the Guangxu period (1875-1908) and managed by Yu Yinchu 余寅初. The studio name attests to the popularity of double exposure portraits at that time. A studio with a similar name, Erwo Xiezhen Guan 二我寫真館 was established by Shi Qiang (施強, 1876-1943) in Lukang 鹿港, Taiwan by 1901, suggesting the likelihood of Japanese influence (Japan occupied Taiwan in 1895) in this playful yet profound genre of portraiture.[1]

Erwo xuan was the first studio in Hangzhou to use electric lighting and came to public attention when Sun Yat-sen had his photograph taken there. It also known for the award-winning book of scenic views of Hangzhou published as West Lake Landscape (Xihu fengjing 西湖風景).[Fig.2] With all the instability of late-dynastic and early modern China, photographic studios sought timeless subjects to offer for sale.

Fig.2 Cover of photograph album West Lake Landscape, 1908-10. (Source: Erwo Xuan Studio, Hangzhou)

Each of the forty-eight photographs in West Lake Landscape is accompanied by a facing page of Chinese text bound in the traditional style, combining Chinese taste with cultural tourism. The views are of historic sites and beauty spots around the West Lake that have been depicted in paintings and poems since the twelfth century when Hangzhou was capital of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). But the album adds views of the gravesites of revolutionary martyrs Xu Xilin (徐锡麟, 1873-1907) and Qiu Jin (秋瑾, 1875-1907), who were executed following a failed uprising against the Manchu-Qing in 1907.[Fig.3]

Fig.3 Double page from West Lake Landscape album showing Qiu Jin's tomb, 1908-10. (Source: Erwo Xuan Studio, Hangzhou)

It is interesting to compare the Erwo Xuan photograph of Qiu Jin's grave-site, taken from a boat on the lake, with a photograph of a Chinese painting of the same subject. The painter employs a bird's eye perspective giving the viewer a greater sense of West Lake topography and the location of the grave within the landscape setting. The painting, created for Qiu Jin's friend Wu Zhiying 吳芝瑛 (1868-1934) who risked her life to arrange for the martyr's burial, was photographed by Shanghai's Guanghua Studio soon after Qiu's death, suggesting that there was a market for painted commemorative images as well as modern photographic views.

Based on the success of the Erwo Xuan album—it won medals at the Nanyang Industrial Exposition (1910) and the Panama-California Exposition (1915)—other studios in Hangzhou produced similar books, for example Yueh Chi Studio's 月溪照相館 Views of West Lake Hang Chow (Xihu shengjing 西湖勝景), and Da Fangbo Studio's 大方伯照相館 Complete Views of West Lake (Xihu quanjing 西湖全景), attesting to the ongoing importance of the West Lake as a site of cultural and tourist interest.


[1] See Chien Yun-Ping et al., In Sight—Tracing the Photography Studio Images of the Japanese Period in Taiwan, Taipei, 2010, p.90.