Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Exploring Johnston's Archives (related to gardens of China) in Needham Institute part 2: Dongshan

 One page of the red album in Johnston's archives

One of the best surprises inside the Johnston archives were the trove of pictures representing traditional architecture in Dongshan 东山 and Wujiang 吴江 near Suzhou 苏州. Some of the photos offer a unique view in now disappeared gardens and residences.

The most coherent collection consists of 96 black and white photos arranged in a red album, of the type with sticky pages covered in translucent film. The difficult decision to remove them from the album was reached because one detached photo revealed Chinese writings at the back with a seemingly exact location.  

 A close up of one of the Dongshan pictures before removal from red album

The numbers and order of the photos as well as inscriptions in the album were recorded by a librarian of the University of Cambridge's Library. 

Among these inscriptions, the handwriting reveals that Johnston probably annotated the album, whereas a Chinese native was the one who marked the photos and some of the inscriptions. In one of his travel diaries, Johnston mentions going to Dongshan in 1984, so it is possible that he took the photographs himself.

Some of the scenes show close-up details of architecture and others provide insights into daily life in this village. Inscriptions include the following: 东山前山镇 严家祠堂内花园, 东台(山)周亮成住宅内园, 东山席氏启园入口.

 From the loose Dongshan photographs

However some photos of Dongshan are also scattered through other parts of the archives: 
1) in the form of one out of 29 pages of contact sheet photos glued on paper with inscriptions. 
2) a majority out of 87 loose items composed mostly of small black and white photographs. 
Both have also been inscribed by a (probably native) Chinese handwriting annotations.

 From the loose Dongshan photographs

This Dongshan lot is likely to interest researchers of this area's architecture and social life. Although difficult to date with absolute certainty, these were probably taken in the 1980s. A deeper analysis of all the materials is necessary to reach a more accurate dating of these photos, yet Johnston's trip in 1984 is one of the biggest clue.

I confess that I am not a specialist of this region, therefore any interest or comments would be welcome, and I am sure would benefit the Needham Institute too.

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