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Shop Signs and Visual Culture in Republican Beijing

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image of European Journal of East Asian Studies

During her stay in Beijing (1933–1946), Hedda Hammer (later known as Hedda Morrison) made a visual record of shop signs with her camera. In this paper I rely on this visual record to examine what shop signs represented in Chinese material culture and their function in the urban setting. I argue that Morrison's photographic record reveals a fascinating element of street culture in the capital city that the textual records cannot document. I also contend that shop signs worked as genuine urban markers of the various trades and crafts in the city. As such, these artefacts constituted an expression of Chinese material culture, but were also a form of visual language to guide the gaze and pace of Beijing urbanites. This paper supports the idea that photographs have a particular relevance and value for the exploration of the Chinese urban setting in the Republican period. The use of photography goes beyond the record of disincarnated artefacts. It allows us to perceive and understand a fascinating dimension of visual culture in Republican Beijing, one of the numerous layers of signs that were displayed quite extensively through the city.

Affiliations: 1: IAO-CNRS


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