Given Ron's recent posts of older photos related to family, here's one of my own, with as much as historical background as I can put together. I'm supposed to be writing a paper on visual theory related to American missionary photos in China in the 1920s and 1930s, but I'm procrastinating...
What you see is a group photo of my mother's ancestors, taken on the 70th birthday of the matriarch on the front steps of their shiheyuan
, or family compound, in Taipei, Taiwan. The island, while formerly part of the Chinese empire, had been ceded to the Japanese in 1895 after the First Sino-Japanese War of that year, and the people you see in this photo would have considered themselves Japanese imperial subjects. Taipei itself wasn't called by that name - the Japanese had renamed it "Taihoku." The script at bottom is written in kanji
, Japanese characters derived from Chinese. The top caption reads, "Congratulations to Madame Zhou on Her 70th Birthday - A Group Setting with Her Children and Grandchildren." The bottom, smaller caption reads, "Photographed in the Eleventh Year of the Reign of [the Emperor] Showa - Tenth Lunar Month - Tenth Day." It's likely that the photographer used a view camera with 8x10-inch sheet film and made a contact print directly from the negative. Taiwanese humidity and age have not been kind to the picture, which is now stored in a humidity-controlled drying box in my family's home.
From the captions, we know that the photograph was taken in 1937, 11 years after the Showa Emperor (better known to the rest of the world as Emperor Hirohito) took the throne. By converting Chinese lunar calendar figures to the Western calendar, it was November 10. On mainland China at the moment when the photo was taken, Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) forces were about two weeks away from defeating the remaining National Revolutionary Army (NRA) forces in Shanghai, under the command of Chiang Kai-shek. The week before, on November 1, a battalion of soldiers from Chiang's German-trained elite 88th Division finally surrendered after holding out in a single warehouse fighting a bloody rearguard action against overwhelming IJA attacks - a battle known to historians as the "Defense of the Shihang Warehouse." This was the beginning of the end of the battle for the city; two days before the photo was taken, Chiang's general staff ordered a retreat of all remaining NRA units from the city - a retreat that quickly turned into a rout. During this rout, a large number of demoralized NRA deserters fled south to the city of Nanjing, where they caused panic in the Chinese defense forces there. This likely contributed to the rapid fall of Nanjing to the Japanese on December 13th. The bloodbath that followed is now known as the Rape of Nanking.
And here we have my ancestors sitting neatly as Taiwanese subjects of Emperor Hirohito, having their picture taken as all of the above was happening just across the Taiwan Strait, on the mainland. One wonders what was going through their minds at the time, as ethnic Chinese who were also Japanese colonial citizens.
Other things of interest: the men are wearing Western-style tailored suits and ties while the women - apart from the school-age girls - are profoundly traditional in dress. This is due perhaps to the new (1937) policy of Kominka
instituted by the Japanese government in an effort to instill a modern "Japanese spirit" (Yamato damashi
) in Taiwanese, Korean, and other colonial peoples under the Empire's "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." The little boy holding on to my great-great-grandaunt's leg in the center of the photo is also wearing a child-size Japanese navy uniform.
So where do I figure in all this? The beautiful young woman second from the left in the top row of the photo is my great-grandmother. Her daughter, my grandmother, is the slightly taller 10-year-old girl with the Japanese-style bowl haircut, second from left in the bottom row of the photo.