China Gets a Rare Look at Its Pre-Revolutionary History

Sidney Gamble photos, housed at Duke, will be exhibited at the Capital Library of China in Beijing

Photos of China from Duke's Sidney Gamble collections will go on exhibit in Beijing.
Photos of China from Duke's Sidney Gamble collections will go on exhibit in Beijing.

A new exhibit of historical photographs at the Capital Library of China offers a rare glimpse of daily life in Beijing in the early 20th century, a turbulent period in Chinese history. 

"Beijing Through Sidney Gamble's Camera" will run June 16-30 and Oct. 14-30 as part of the library's centennial celebration this year. An opening ceremony and reception will be held at 3 p.m. Tuesday, June 18. A public talk with the exhibit curators, Guo-Juin Hong and Luo Zhou of Duke University and Beijing specialist Han Pu, will take place from 2-4 p.m. Wednesday, June 19.

The exhibit is a joint project with the Duke University Libraries, which hold the originals of the photographs on display.

Photographs of China from the early 20th century are relatively uncommon. Of those images that survived the political upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, most were taken by foreign travelers whose photos returned home with them. Such was the case with the extensive amateur photographic work of renowned Princeton sociologist and China scholar Sidney Gamble (1890-1968).

Gamble took his first images of China in 1908 during a trip with his family. He returned three more times between 1917 and 1932 and continued photographing scenes of daily life while traveling throughout the country to collect data for socioeconomic surveys. The images he captured depict ordinary scenes of urban and rural life, architecture, religious statuary, public events, funerals, festivals and a cross-section of pre-revolutionary Chinese society.

Gamble poster

Gamble visited China in the midst of its transition to a modern industrial nation. His photographs represent the way people of the time adapted to the emergence of modern institutions, such as hospitals, prisons and schools. These transitions were also marked by new modes of transportation and infrastructure that changed the Chinese landscape and way of life.

"This collection never stops fascinating me because of the wide scope of its subject matter and the variety of geographical locations covered," said Luo Zhou, Chinese Studies librarian at Duke and one of the exhibit's curators. 

"As a sociologist, humanist and missionary, Gamble documented Chinese life and culture in a time when China was in turmoil," Zhou said. "These carefully designed snapshots provide a great source to look into real life and real people in those turbulent years."

Gamble also worked as secretary for the Beijing YMCA, helping to coordinate educational and social reform projects. His position gave him access to wide-ranging elements of Chinese society, and he built a close relationship with China and its people that is reflected in the intimacy of his photographs.

Gamble's photos also document pivotal events in China's history, such as the Thanksgiving celebration of the victory of World War I in 1918, the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and Sun Yat-sen's funeral in 1925.

Gamble's portfolio eventually grew to more than 5,000 images. A few of them appeared in his scholarly publications and lectures, but most were never exhibited during his lifetime. In fact, they were largely forgotten until 15 years after Gamble's death. In 1984, Catherine Curran, Gamble's daughter, discovered a trove of nitrate negatives in a closet in the family's home in New York and hired an archivist to help preserve them. She then began the process of organizing them into albums. 

In 1986, Curran established the Sidney D. Gamble Foundation for China Studies to provide for preservation and access to the photographs. An agreement to bring the Gamble collection to Duke was signed in March 2006. Gamble's original photographs are now held in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke, and the entire collection of images has been digitized and is available online at

Guo-Juin Hong, associate professor of Chinese literature and culture at Duke, began working with Zhou on the idea of an exhibit in early 2012 as a way to promote the Gamble photographs to a global audience. 

"Unlike previous shows of Gamble's extraordinary images, in this exhibit we wanted to emphasize how photographic events are reciprocal, and never a one-way street," said Hong. "We wanted to highlight not only how Gamble 'sees' China with his camera, but also how his subjects -- Chinese people, their daily life and cultures -- look back."

Among the 5,000 photographs in Gamble's collection, about 2,000 were taken in Beijing, a selection of which the Capital Library of China decided to exhibit in conjunction with its 100th anniversary.

"Beijing Through Sidney Gamble's Camera" is sponsored by the Capital Library of China and Duke University Libraries, with additional financial support from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the Duke Asian Pacific Studies Institute, and an Education and Research Innovations in China grant from Duke University. 

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Exhibit and Event Details

"Beijing Through Sidney Gamble's Camera"June 16-30 and Oct. 14-30, 2013Capital Library of ChinaDongsanhuan Nanlu 88, Chaoyang District, Ceremony/Reception: June 18, 3-5 p.m. Public Talk with Guo-Juin Hong, Luo Zhou and Han Pu: June 19, 2-4 p.m.For questions about visiting the Capital Library of China and attending exhibit events, please contact Angela/Sun Jie at +86-10-8732 5916 or