China's Imperial Eye

Impact: Cultural Impact

Description of impact

Public exhibition in the McClay Library of 14 historical photos belonging to the Sir Robert Hart Collection.

Who is affected

Library users, people attending events on the auditorium and the conference room.


Photographs of Qing China and Tibet from the Sir Robert Hart Collection, Special Collections, Queen’s University Belfast

The photographic collection of Sir Robert Hart includes more than 2,500 images, almost all accumulated while Hart was Inspector General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs from 1863 to 1908. The collection suggests the influence of two rather different “imperial eyes” surveying China: that of the Chinese Qing Empire, and that of Western powers pursuing their own interests. The photographs in this exhibition illustrate both Chinese and Western visions of China in the last years of the Qing dynasty.

Felice Beato’s image of the clock tower at the Old Summer Palace [1] in 1860 captures it before its destruction by British and French troops a few days later during the Second Opium War. Though China was forced to accept Christian missionaries, their presence remained controversial, and the Catholic church in Tianjin was partially destroyed [2] in 1870 during an anti-Christian riot.

The work of Hong Kong photographer Lai Fong, better known as Afong, displays and sometimes questions the glories of the Qing Empire and of Chinese culture. His images of the Wuyi Mountains [3] echo the conventions of shan shui painting, while his Beijing pictures show both the perfection of Qing courtly architecture [4] and the grandeur of the city defences which the Western armies had so easily overcome [5].

In summer 1900, Beijing’s Legation Quarter (diplomatic district) was besieged by an anti-foreign and anti-Christian militia during the Boxer Uprising [6, 7]. After foreign armies suppressed the Boxers, China was forced to sign a ruinous peace treaty [8] and to erect a memorial arch to Clemens von Ketteler [9], a German diplomat killed by Boxers in revenge for the death of a Chinese boy, apparently at von Ketteler’s hands.

In the final years of the Qing Empire, the court opened up more to foreign contact and made increasing use of photography [10], but China was changing too fast for the Qing to control. Meanwhile foreign pressure intensified across the country from the northeast [11] to Tibet [12, 13]. Assailed from all sides, the Qing Empire was overthrown by revolution, and a Republic was declared in 1912.

The papers of Sir Robert Hart were willed to Queen’s University Belfast by Hart’s great-grandson of the same name in 1971. The Hart photographic collection at Queen’s is drawn both from this bequest and from other sources. The collection is held in Special Collections at the University Library.

Curated by Aglaia De Angeli and Emma Reisz, June 2017.
Impact statusOngoing
Impact date23 Jun 2017
Category of impactCultural Impact
Impact levelEngagement


  • China
  • History
  • Photography
  • Sir Robert Hart