Background: About Dianshizhai
Dianshizhai huabao was a supplement to the Shanghai newspaper Shenbao, appearing every ten days between 1884 and 1898. The bricolage of lithographic images therein were a product of colonial modernity, offering a window novel events and technologies, real and imagined, at home and abroad. The Dianshizhai press, and the larger Shenbao press that it was part of were owned by the British entrepreneurs Ernest and Frederick Major. It differed from other gazeteers in that it was a mass-produced publication meant for a popular audience. The foreign-owned, native-Chinese staffed serial publication was made possible by the new technologies and cultural encounters of the late 19th century in port cities like Shanghai. As products of colonial modernity, these images offered a window on world events, both real and imagined.
In its fourteen-year print run, Dianshizhai huabao featured more than 4,500 images of all aspects of life, foreign and domestic. The main requirement for inclusion was that these events were spectacular—that they were worthy of an audience. They did not have to be real. A small, but conspicuous portion of the lithographic images in Dianshizhai huabao turned their attention to contemporary technological advances like hot-air balloons, airplanes, and steamships, through which they speculated on the position of technology in society, and the differences between China and the West. Less than a dozen images in the pictorial featured trains, but they represent an early glimpse of the reception of a technology that has become one of the key markers of China's contemporary development.
Funded by British entrepreneurs in a semi-colonial city, the pictorial was a hybrid product of colonial modernity, presenting readers with a sensorium of news items both domestic and foreign. Various presentational and representational techniques—Chinese and western perspectives, woodblock printing, landscape and ink painting, and other “traditional” representational modes were melded with photorealism, and occasional reprints of images from American magazines like Harper’s Weekly and the Illustrated London News. These images were accompanied by extended prose commentary, both contextualized and moralized about the events and wonders they depicted. Accompanying text often closely resembled or borrowed directly from pre-existing literati forms like biji and youji: collections of interesting trivia, tidbits, and observations of the world at large alongside personal commentary situated at the margins of official history or accurate reportage.
The Dianshizhai print-shop also produced this stand-alone volume, the Shenjiang shengjing tu (Marvelous scenery along the Huangpu River). The volume featured an image of the print-shop itself, and its lithographic print process. The image features two hand presses, and five hand-cranked presses, manned by dozens of workers.
These images were accompanied by extended prose commentary which both contextualized and moralized about the events and wonders they depicted. Accompanying text often closely resembled or borrowed directly from literati biji and youji—literati journals, travelogues, and other unofficial histories comprised of collections of interesting trivia, tidbits, and observations of the world at large alongside personal commentary situated at the margins of official history or accurate reportage. The lithographic press was a medium uniquely suited for this type of message: movable type in the late 1880s could not produce characters that publishers deemed significantly aesthetically pleasing. Lithographic stones were affordable, reusable, and could reproduce the calligraphy of artisans writing directly on the stone's surface (Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai, 88-127).
Whereas other online modules like the MIT Visualizing Cultures site examine Dianshizhai huabao as a whole, and Christopher Reed's Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937 (2004) presents a comprehensive history of the role of print culture in Chinese modernization, this module might be seen as a curated exhibition on a specific topic covered by the pictorial. In this module, I argue first that depictions of trains in the pictorial are symptomatic of a trans-national flow of information, by which news in one context would become fiction in another. Second, the visual style of the media clearly demarcates “western” and “modern” objects and spaces from purportedly native ones. Chinese and western objects and individuals are immediately differentiated through contrasting visual styles. Finally, depictions of trains in the pictorial also portray trains as part and parcel of the knowledge industry: a new mode of seeing and understanding the world, as well as being a new medium through which the world was put on display and rendered understandable.