10 astonishing colour photos of China before Communism

The first half of 20th Century was a time of incredible suffering and change for China, the Wuchang Uprising of 1911 and ensuing Xinhai Revolution had removed the last Qing emperor and installed a fragile democracy.

By 1927 this had crumbled as Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists fought for control of the new nation, punctuated only by the near-genocidal Japanese invasion of 1937 to 1945.

A resident of Peking (now Beijing) and then later the owner of a studio in Hong Kong, Russian-born photographer Serge Vargassoff documented this incredible period through a series of hand-coloured lantern slides, taken from black-and-white silver gelatin photographs. Shot between 1910 and 1920, Vargassoff depicts an incredible vision of China, still rooted in the crumbling majesty of the Qing dynasty, but on the cusp of aggressive – to the point of murderous – modernity.

These are 10 of our favourites from the Powerhouse Museum Collection, which was donated by Vera Vargassoff, niece of Serge Vargassoff.

1. Wulong Ting (Five-Dragon-Pavilion) in Beihai Park


2. Dafeng Zushi Temple


3. Umbrella repair man


4. Horse drawn carriage


5. Painted clay sculptures of Ming dynasty in Dahui Si (Temple of the Great Wisdom)


6. A man in his shoe repair stall


7. Part of the Great Wall


8. A noodle stall on the footpath


9. A woman wearing a headdress


10. Pavilion


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