A rare view of China's last dynasty, 1870-1880

These photographs of Peking, now known as Beijing, taken by Thomas Child in the 1870s and 1880s, are a window into old China. In May of 1870, Thomas Child was hired by the Imperial Maritime Customs Service as a gas engineer in Peking (Beijing).

The 29-year-old Englishman, leaving behind his wife and three children, became one of nearly 100 foreigners living in the Qing dynasty capital to take his camera with him.

Unlike his contemporary photographers, Child chose to stay in China instead of returning home and publishing his photographs for immediate fame.

This meant that his own works went somewhat under the radar; However, this also means that as a fluent Mandarin speaker and a known native of Peking, Child was able to gain access to events and people who were not his contemporaries.

During the next 20 years, he took some 200 photographs, capturing the oldest comprehensive catalog of customs, architecture and people during the last dynasty of China.

The child photographed the Great Wall as well as pagodas, temples, bridges, crowded harbors, roadsides lined with stone sculptures, and simple storefronts.

He documented the practice of breaking down castle walls damaged by decay or war, and recycling stones for other construction. In his captions, letters and magazines he complained about dirty streets, infestations of insects and rats.

He slowly made fun of local superstitions, the sound of temple bells that sounded in "harmonious discord" and funeral rituals that were "excellent in pomp and expense".

In 1889, Thomas Child returned to England. He became fascinated by China, and gave his family a Chinese name on the outskirts of London, which roughly translates as Studio of Everlasting Tranquility. He died in 1898 when his horse-drawn carriage overturned. His family kept some of his paperwork, but some other records survived.

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