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Painting and Photography in Foreigners’ Construction of an Image of Qing Dynasty Law

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image of Frontiers of History in China

In recent years, with the spread of the internet and the booming auction markets, combined with our new age of so-called “picture-reading,” paintings and photographs concerning Qing justice have overwhelmed our view. Scholars and nonscholars are attracted by them, and believe them to be showing real historical scenes. Pictures seemingly facilitate our grasp of the world more than mere facts do, but they actually demand readers’ careful discrimination. The author of the present article has discovered that the initial British construction of a discourse about the cruelty of China’s criminal punishments was related to this topic having been exposed by Chinese themselves. The seemingly real images or pictures have an unknown back story, and even contain a serious distortion of the truth. Such imagistic constructions by foreigners in fact directly or indirectly served the establishment and maintenance of foreign extraterritoriality in China. The living images recorded by foreigners’ cameras not only constructed Western impressions of China and Chinese people as distant, thus strengthening contemporary Westerners’ mental images of Chinese culture, but still urge us Chinese today to interpret the past in the light of such images. An icon of a blood-thirsty Qing legal system constructed through painting and photographic procedures became an objective fact, a collective consciousness that penetrated people’s hearts and eventually led to modifications of those Qing laws. The mental construction of an icon influenced actual institutional movement.

Affiliations: 1: The Law School, Renmin University of China


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