Essay

Introduction by Jonathan D. Spence, Yale University, 1988. Originally published in Sidney Gamble's China, 1917 to 1932: Photographs of the Land and Its People. Edited by Nancy L. Johnson and Leonard Sherp. (Washington, D.C.: Alvin Rosenbaum Projects Inc., 1988)

For those of us tugged constantly by a continuing need to try to understand the dynamics of China's past—and the promise of her future—anywitness to lost moods and events is valuable. Sidney D. Gamble is especially helpful since he came at China from three different perspectives out of which he somehow managed to fashion a coherent unity. The three were, first, his deep conviction of the relevance of Christian teaching to China's plight; second, his training in social sciences and economics, which enabled him to accumulate the data that would engender creative changes; and third, his love of photography, which would add the camera's eye to his own effort to focus on the crisis of his time.

As if that were not enough to attract our interest, Sidney D. Gamble's four sojourns in China—in 1908, 1917-1919, 1924-1927, and 1931-1932 were during times of unusual turmoil, drama and excitement. The first journey took an eighteen-year old in 1908 to Qing-dynasty Hangzhou on a family visit with his parents. Though we know very little of this first visit, Hangzhou must have seemed a dream-like vision of timeless China to the travelers, with its hills, woods, and villas encircling China's most famous scenic lake. And with the Gambles' Hangzhou host being himself a serious enthusiast of photography, young Sidney must have had a fine introduction to the opportunities that China offered to the collector of images.

Clear now to historians, but surely shrouded from view at the time, was the fact that the Qing dynasty was doomed, by internal weakness, dissension, and foreign pressures, to a speedy collapse. Both the Empress Dowager and the reform-minded but politically inept Guangxu emperor died in that same year of 1908, leaving the country's future in the hands of an infant emperor and his Manchu regents. By February 1912 as Sidney entered his last year at Princeton, the Qing emperor was forced to abdicate, and China's fate was left to the untried institutions of a fledgling republic, the politically inexperienced associates of Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary organizations, and the ambitious military commanders scattered across China's provinces.

By 1908 the province of Zhejiang, in which Hangzhou was located, was a center of radical political activity in which a host of new Western ideas, including socialism, anarchism, and social-Darwinism, were exciting young intellectuals to strike at the foundations of the Qing state, through both the constitutional forms of local provincial assemblies and the extra-legal means of inflammatory polemical literature and political assassinations. How little this process could be understood in Zhejiang by the local villagers and townspeople, intent on the routines of their own daily lives, has been caught for all time in what is perhaps the greatest of China's modern short stories, "The True Story of Ah Q" written by the Zhejiang-born Lu Xun in 1921.

By the time this subtle yet bitter indictment of the Chinese people's inability to understand the nature of their political and cultural predicament had appeared, Sidney Gamble had already madehis second sojourn in China, from 1917 to 1919. This journey began with an adventurous photographic expedition in the company of his friends up the Yangzi River, through the rapids above Vichang to Chongqing in Sichuan province. The excitement of such a journey and the terrible strain on the coolie laborers hauling the heavy boats against the swift currents were later to be indelibly caught by another young American visitor to China, John Hersey, in his novel A Single Pebble. Sidney Gamble was then learning to use his camera as well as his words, and his friends recalled how he lugged around his "big, ungainly camera" on all occasions, while Gamble himself, processing his own negatives along the way, as any serious photographer of the time had to do, noted in a diary entry how seventeen full loads of water were needed at a time to develop and wash the film.

It took fifteen chair-coolies to carry the small group of travelers and their seventeen pieces of baggage. No westerners—an more than any Chinese of even modest means—would have thought of tramping the dusty tracks on their own two feet in those days. Surely it is to this trek through Sichuan that the wonderful photo of Sidney D. Gamble belongs, the one showing him perched on his bamboo shoulder chair, a sun-proof canopy over his head, a wide-brim hat pulled rakishly down over his sunglasses, his fingers poised above the typewriter balanced on a little stand beside his knees. It is as fine a vision of a Western scholar in action during field work as has survived in any photograph collection.

Sidney Gamble and his Smith Corona, 1917

Sidney Gamble and his Smith Corona, 1917

For Gamble was now a fledgling scholar, and poised to become a fine one. After his graduation from Princeton in 1912, he had worked for a time in California and then entered graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley to work in economics. As if anticipating the demands of his future work in China, he not only studied labor and industrial economics but also worked with the California State Commission on Immigration and Housing. Further deepening his understanding of group dynamics and social deprivation, he spent six months on a fellowship working at a reform school for delinquent boys.

Upon finishing his Sichuanese travels, Gamble went to Beijing in response to the call of fellow Princetonian John Stewart Burgess, '05, who wanted Gamble to make a social survey of the life of the ordinary residents of the city. This information, it was hoped, would both help the YMCA in its day-to-day work and enable the Princeton men connected with the Y to make responsible suggestions for social reform to the local politicalleaders.

One problem here was that the political system of China had fallen into a position of near-anarchy since the Qing collapse of 1912. The nominal constitutional assembly in Beijing was only a rump group from which most of the once-legally elected members bad been purged, or else had resigned. The presidents and premiers who succeeded each other in swift succession often had little or no interest in democratic institutions and were easily manipulated, terrorized, or corrupted by the various generals who, in turn, controlled the various sub-regions into which north China and Manchuria had fragmented.

It was in 1917, the year of Gamble's return to China, that the gesture of entering the World War in Europe on the Franco-British side had been made by the Chinese government. Some two hundred thousand coolies had been dispatched to Europe to help the Allies with transportation and construction projects, work that would free up able-bodied European troops to be sent to the trenches to face the Germans. In this turbulent European world, members of the YMCA were active, as in China, helping to analyze the Chinese workers' social problems, teaching Mass Education courses to try to break the hold of the illiteracy in which nearly all such impoverished men were trapped, and introducing elements of Western democratic thought to help them attain greater dignity.

Those governing China had not joined the allied cause out of altruism they hoped, by this act, to win support for their attempt to regain all the Chinese territories that had been seized or "leased" by Germany during the previous two decades of aggressive foreign imperialism. Unknown to the Chinese politicians, however, a series of secret agreements between Britain, France and the United States with Japan, intended to keep Japan from allying with Germany, had, in effect, promised to Japan the very same territorial and economic privileges that had previously been held by Germany. When this news became apparent in May 1919, thousands of Chinese students and townspeople, in Beijing and elsewhere, reacted with furious protests and demonstrations, blaming their political leaders for ineptitude or betrayal and the foreign powers for their deceit and greed. Beijing during this period was a stormy, excited place, and Gamble was able, in some unsurpassed photographs, to catch on film the exasperated young people's mood of anger and despair.

While Gamble witnessed these events, he carried on his work at the YMCA—from which he drew no salary, needing none as a descendant of one of the founders of Procter and Gamble—and acceded to Burgess' request that he compile a social survey of Beijing. Gamble was fortunate here in that his own training in survey-taking and economics coincided with a dramatic growth in enrollment at Beijing universities, so that large numbers of young Chinese were now interested in learning techniques of Western social science and applying them to the needs of their own society. With the assistance of such students and other helpers, and by his own hard work, Gamble slowly pieced together evidence from the workers in the city that would be tabulated in his first book, written with the assistance of John Stewart Burgess and published in 1921 as Peking: A Social Survey.

In his introduction to the book, Gamble made a careful attempt to state his views on the interconnection between the Christian message and the practical problems confronting China. He noted that many non-Christian Chinese were promoting social reforms at the same time that many fervent Christians were preaching God's word but failing to relate it to the needs of the country as a whole. Characteristically, after raising the problem succinctly, Gamble let a young Chinese speaker provide the voice for the rest of the argument:

"The right spirit and attitude are not alone sufficient to transform the nation. The spirit of love, the general social principles of Christianity and even the far-off aim of the Kingdom are desired by the young, intelligent future leaders of China, but they also demand that definite methods and processes be used in applying these new principles and realizing these new ideals. One young man who recently became a Christian joined the church with the belief that it was a group of men and women banded together with the purpose of bringing in a new social order fbunded on the principles laid down by Jesus Christ. Two months after he was baptized he came to the person who had introduced him to the pastor and said, 'What sort of institution is this that you recommended to me rejoin? I thought you said it was a group of men and women whose main business it was to bring in the Kingdom of God in Peking It was with that object that I joined the church. I have been there now for two months and have done nothing but listen to sermons on Sunday! So far they have given me nothing to do!' The lack of a comprehensive Christian social program, pioneered by the church, is due not so much to definite neglect of this important field by the Chinese and foreign church leaders, as to the lack of accurate scientific knowledge of social conditions and methods of community service."

Gamble's carefully accumulated data on Beijing's population—incomes, health, recreation, occupations, and such important matters as police services and orphanage structures—were immediately appreciated by Western reviewers of the book, among them the philosopher John Dewey, just returned from his own extensive residence in Beijing. Dewey called Gamble's book "unquestionably the best social survey ever made from the Christian viewpoint in any foreign mission field," praised the range of topics it covered, and termed it "indispensable to further studies of China."

One important feature of the book was the inclusion of fifty photographs taken by Gamble of Beijing life and work. These photographs were selected from close to twenty-five hundred in all that he worked on and classified as he wrote the book back in the United States in 1920 and 1921. The photographs were especially impressive for their illumination of social problems: student demonstrators being led away under arrest; blind furniture makers weaving their rush chairs, eyes turned sightlessly inward; girl children recently saved from lives of slavery or prostitution, standing meekly in line, heads lowered, save for two lured by the attraction of Gamble's camera to peer cautiously in his direction; a beggar family of six destitute children and a single parent, where two older boys have obviously shared a single suit of clothes, one confident in the trousers, the other nervously looking sideways out of the picture in an open shirt that fails to shroud his growing genitals; a group of twenty prisoners in a cell fifteen-by-twenty feet in size, squinting at the sudden rush of light that signifies the jailer's acquiescence in the photographer's presence.

The quality, imaginativeness, technical level, and variety of these photographs deserve to lift Gamble from the ranks of the mere recorder of Chinese life and scenery and to place him among the selected few who truly used their cameras to catch the evanescent moment in which a particular face, a gesture, a juxtaposition of elements, comes to be more than itself and to speak for a whole time and culture.

Fine photography already had a distinguished tradition in China. As early as the 1860s, Felix Beato and John Thomson set the highest of standards with their portrayals of the tragedies of war and the ranges of Chinese facial types, occupations, and scenery. In the 1870s Saunders and Fisler dominated the Shanghai professional photographic world, as did Griffith in Hong Kong. By the end of the century the Empress Dowager herself had become an enthusiast of the photographic genre and let herself—often dramatically made-up in allegorical or religious guise—bephotographed in the company of her favorite eunuchs and retainers. By the 1920s a generation of Chinese photographers had also mastered the genre, and moved confidently to begin recording their own country.

Aristocrat in brocade shoes

Aristocrat in brocade shoes

But Gamble's work stands on its own. In some of his photos—such as the one of the aged Chinese lady aristocrat, with the bound feet in brocade shoes, smoking a cigarette through a long holder as her rimless eyeglasses slide down her nose—Gamble caught an image as arresting as any of those by his greatest successor in China, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Returning to China in1924, again under YMCA auspices and now married to Elizabeth Lowe, Sidney D. Gamble plunged once more into the task of analyzing and recording the central elements of Beijing life. This time he decided to focus on a smaller group of families and to follow their expenditures more closely. With a team of Chinese assistants to help him, he tracked the daily incomes and expenses of 283 families for an entire year. His classifications, which comprised thirty-seven major categories, were meticulous. He and his researchers related each family's income to its original place of birth and compared wages and consumption per unit, age, sex, occupation (fifty-five categories for men, fourteen for women), food types, clothing, rent, and utilities.

In addition to studying the urban lifestyles of Beijing families, Gamble had now adapted the more challenging goal of studying Chinese rural life. Some evaluations had already been attempted by Chinese researchers, and an ambitious venture was being developed by John Lossing Buck and his students in the countryside around Nanjing. Members of the Chinese Communist Party, which had been founded in 1921, were also eager to assess the true nature of rural life and rural suffering, so as to direct their activism towards the areas of greatest effectiveness and need. But Gamble himself at first found the times unpropitious for such a rural survey. China in 1925 was even more perilous than China in 1919—the civil war seemingly more ferocious, the economic demands of the warlords and their troops ever more rapacious. As Gamble noted in a letter of December 16, 1925:

"My own plans for research work in the country have been upset by the war. What with the seizing of carts, extra taxes, etc., the people are very fearful and would not be at all willing to give us the information needed for a rural survey. We have been able, however, to get at records in Peking. We have worked out the history of exchange between copper and silver since 1900. We have the figures for wages and the prices of grains and other commodities for the same period and are figuring out the rise and fall of the standard of living of the Peking working man."

So Gamble continued his urban work, but kept such a close eye on local rural realities and the details of warlord politics that his letters through 1925, 1926, and into late 1927, when he ended his third China-sojourn, form an important addition to our knowledge of China at the time. Not sympathetic to "the more radical element among the students" (letter of December 16, 1925), Gamble nevertheless discussed their activities and alleged motives with care, and, once again, he was very often there with his camera, catching the street scenes, the faces and gestures of the people. In a careful letter of February 18, 1926, he noted the arrival of thousands of wounded warlord troops in Beijing and its suburbs, of the absence of doctors and drugs to treat them, of the amputation made necessary for those wounded who, for lack of hospital space, were left to lie out in the bitter cold and suffer frostbite. Was it humanly right, Gamble watched doctors argue, to amputate both the legs of a wounded man to "save his life" knowing what the life of a legless beggar would be in Beijing? And yet, as he observed in another vivid letter of June 1926, these same soldiers, once recovered, or their comrades-in-arms, caused agonies in the impoverished countryside around the city:

"The Relief Committee at first planned to sell grain in the principal villages outside the city wall but this has not been possible as it has been found that even if people could buy the grain the soldiers would take it from them before they got it home. Because of the difficulty in getting food a great many people have had to refugee into the city. The newspapers have reported that as many as 400,000 refugees have come inside the walls, but this is evidently a big exaggeration. In the refugee camps opened by the various philanthropic organizations they have been caring for about 15,000. Of course a great many more have friends or relatives in the city and are staying with them."
"It is almost time for the wheat harvest and recent rains are tempting many of the refugees to go hack to their farms but it looks as though they would not be able to gather much of the grain. In some places the horses of the arms have been grazed in the wheat fields. From other villages we hear that the soldiers have demanded scythes so that they can cut the grain for themselves. The soldiers have put signs on some wheat fields saying that the grain must not be disturbed as it is for their use. It looks very much as though the countryside would be faced with famine before fall."

On occasion, Sidney Gamble's testimony echoed and complemented that of some of China's sharpest and most talented observers. An example is the shooting of more than forty student demonstrators by warlord troops on March 18, 1926, a massacre that included several of Lu Xun's own young women students from the Women's Normal College in Beijing. Lu Xun wrote a searingly beautiful elegy for three young people, so cruelly done to death, but Gamble himself showed how a Westerner's sympathy could also be caught and held. He had an unerring eye for the vivid detail, as in the penultimate sentence of his account in an April 20, 1926 letter:

"The shooting of the students on March 18th was a terrible tragedy. After a meeting in front of the Forbidden City a group marched to the Cabinet office to protest against the ultimatum the foreign powers had given China concerning the closing of the Pei Ho at Taku. Many of them were the more conservative students, though the Kuomintang and the communists were represented in the parade. I passed the crowd on Hata Men Street. They were cheering but were more orderly than many of the demonstrations last May. Just how much the students threatened to use force at the Cabinet office we do not know, but once the guard started firing they kept it up for fifteen or twenty minutes. The soldiers used their bayonets on the wounded and robbed the bodies of the dead, Even glasses were snatched from one of the girls as she was getting out through a back gate. Altogether forty-eight were killed or died of their wounds."

But even in the midst of all this field research, YMCA business, and human tragedy in city and countryside, there was room for family joys. Almost deadpan, though with deliberate rhetorical effect since the sentence comes shortly after the news of the student deaths and warlord outrages in 1926, Gamble closed the letter of April 20, 1926 with the sentence, "Her mother says that the arrival of Catherine Conover Gamble on March 21st is much more important than all this political news."

April and early May 1927, as Gamble noted alliteratively, was a time of "politics, propaganda, panic-rumor, riot, revolution, refugees" (letter of May 1 1927). Few historians could disagree with this succinct and accurate summary of the period in which the forces of Chiang Kai-shek and his Shanghai allies turned on the communists and labor unions, killing thousands in the streets; when the communists in Hankou tried to unite with a splinter left-leaning group of Chiang's Kuomintang, and the troops of Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin broke into the Russian legation area in Beijing, seizing all the radical Chinese sheltering there and executing twenty or more after a court-martial trial.

In the Chinese countryside, nevertheless, attempts at mass education and land reform were underway, among the most impressive being the one at Dingxian in Hebei province, south of Beijing, directed by James Yen. Gamble found time to visit the area and to write enthusiastically about it in letters home. He was especially struck by the interconnection of mass education with famine relief and could never resist commenting on the bustle, excitement and energy that always seemed to be such a vibrant part of Chinese life. As he put it in a letter of October 1, 1927:

"The trip to Ting Hsien gave me a fine glimpse of country life as we were able to get into the villages and talk with mans of the people. It was the busy season and we found a great many of the farmers irrigating, drawing water from the wells dug with the Famine Relief funds. In some places they use animals, but most of the water was being raised by man and woman power."
"In one of the villages they were having a big temple fair. In the country districts there are some religious observances with the temple fairs but for the most part they are for buying and selling. it was a country holiday and crowds came from all around. The village streets were jammed and in the fields all around the merchants were displaying their wares, almost everything used in country life, carts, timber, cattle, brushes, baskets for the wells, grain, wooden benches, cloths, iron ware. The Mass Education people had a big parade of their students, marching to the village stage where they gave a Mass Education play. I wish I could describe for you the sea of faces that crowded in under the mat shed roof. The people were packed so closely that from the stage they looked like nothing but faces. After the play the secretaries got the people to sing the Mass Education song, words set to a Chinese tune, and going home along the country roads we could hear the people singing the song. The experience of the first year of the country experiment of the Mass Education Association makes me feel that it is going to produce fine results, and I think we can hope for the development of a program that will add much to the life of the rural communities."

Back home in the United States by 1928, Gamble worked steadily with the statistics he had accumulated on the 283 Beijing families. The results were published in 1933 in the remarkable study How Chinese Families Live in Peiping (Beijing had ceased to be China's capital and was renamed Peiping). In the cases of illiterate families, Gamble had employed assistant scribes to help them complete the simple questionnaires he issued, and the results were a fine example of clear sociological analysis, figures, and commentary on the diets of the poor; for example, the bleak finding that the poorer families could afford no luxuries of any kind, not even vegetables, above a monthly figure of twenty-two cents a month, or fruit of any variety above a monthly total of fifteen cents. In all, Gamble tabulated food alone under an astonishing 310 headings and included detailed figures on clothes, housing, light, weddings and funerals, water, and "miscellaneous," which included the pitifully small outlays made for education, health, travel, objects of household use, and recreation.As in his first book, Gamble included haunting photographs of highest quality and effectiveness: water-sellers hefting their harrows, wayside urban shrines, the paper figures and mock-ups of American-style automobiles now burned to accompany the dead to their final resting places, and Chinese women wailing before the pyramid-like tombs of their deceased family members.

During 1931 and 1932, while the volume was in its final stages, Gamble returned to China for his fourth and last sojourn. Once again, despite the apparent successes of Chiang Kai-shek's regime in uniting the country under his Kuomintang leadership, the outlook was bleak. A Japanese coup d'etat in Manchuria led to the fall of the China-leaning regime there and the virtual consolidation of Japanese power. Japanese armed attacks on Shanghai resulted in immense Chinese sacrifices of life, of both troops and civilians. Sidney Gamble concentrated on working on details of the rural reforms being attempted at Dingxian and on pondering the social and cultural effects of various well-meaning programs. Over the following years, this final visit to China led to three more remarkable studies.

Because of the exigencies of Gamble's own career, family, and the outbreak of World War II, Ting Hsien: A North China Rural Community did not appear until 1954. It was a rich and complex study, dealing with family, government, budgets, taxes, irrigation, farm operation, and the local industries in over four hundred rural families. The book included, though less persuasively and prominently than in the earlier urban volumes, a supplement of photographs of local faces, customs, and technology that enriched the study as a whole. In this volume Gamble revealed his endless intellectual curiosity by including a series of literal translations and summaries of the local dramas that gave such life to rural culture. At their most vivid, passages from this book showed a fresh vision of local political self-consciousness among the Chinese.

temple pilgrim

Temple pilgrim

In 1963, when Gamble was seventy-three years old, he published a much broader study of northern rural China, detailed analyses of no less than eleven village communities which he entitled North China Villages. Again, the statistical information was full, the narrative lucid and informed, and the small supplement of photographs profoundly effective in its resonance and range: unforgettable were the naked boys and their hogs outside a village shrine; the woman traveler being pushed across country in a wheelbarrow by a tattered coolie; and an old temple pilgrim so deeply lined and worn that in her face one is tempted to read the whole history of China since Gamble's first visit in 1908, imprinted as on a mariner's chart.

Gamble died in 1968 leaving behind his widow, four children and ten—now twelve—grandchildren, along with his four remarkable books. A fifth book, building on elements already presented in the third, was published posthumously in 1970 under the title Chinese Village Plays from the Ting Hsien Region. It remains an important addition to our knowledge of traditional Chinese folk culture.

Sidney D. Gamble's findings were open-minded, clear-headed, methodologically intelligent (though not always beyond criticism by scholars of different views), startlingly imaginative and—when presented in photographic form—vigorously ebullient, unsentimental, and starkly, yet never cruelly, illustrative of the deep and real suffering that lay at the heart of China's long revolution.

blog comments powered by Disqus