44 Stunning Photos Of China Before Its Communist Transformation

Published April 6, 2017
Updated October 22, 2018

Haunting images of the Qing dynasty Chinese culture and society that the nation's leaders wiped out after the communist revolution.

Chinese Streets Before Communism
Boys peek their heads out on a commercial street.

Guangzhou, Guangdong. 1880.
Wikimedia Commons

Pagoda Reflection
A traditional pagoda, today known as the Jinshan Temple, sits on an island in the River Min.

Hongtang. Circa 1871.
Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Medicine Before Communism
A doctor checks a patient's foot. Under the rule of the Qing dynasty, every Han Chinese man was required to wear his hair in a braid.

Beijing. 1869.
Wikimedia Commons

Qing Dynasty Girls Feet
Young girls practice the Beijing Opera at a theater school in Beijing. Their feet have been bound.

Beijing. 1934.
Wikimedia Commons

Qing Dynasty Feet Bound
Three young girls with bound feet. In imperial China, young girls would have their feet bound, crushing them into a tiny, mutilated shape they called the "lotus foot."

The Communist Party viewed foot binding as a symbol of China's "backwardness" that needed to be eliminated.

Liao Chow, Shanxsi. 1920s.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Qing Dynasty Children Dragon
Boys at a mission school climb on each other's shoulders to form a dragon.

Beijing. 1902.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

A Chinese Meal
Men, with their hair in Qing braids, eating a meal.

Hong Kong. 1880.
Wikimedia Commons

Men Laden With Tea
Peasant men carry bricks of tea on their back. The bricks of tea on their backs weigh more than 300 pounds. These men would often have to make deliveries by walking 112 miles on foot, with all of that weight on their backs,

Sichuan. 1908.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Man And Son
A Mandarin man poses with his son.

Location unspecified. 1869.
Wikimedia Commons

Children Lined Up
Children in a schoolyard practice dancing.

Zhengjiang. 1905.
Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Theatre Before Communism
A Beijing opera troop.

Location unspecified. 1919.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Woman Profile
An elderly woman, wearing a traditional hairstyle poses in profile.

Location unspecified. 1869.
Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Opera Before Communism
A crowd gathers to watch a Beijing opera. During the Cultural Revolution, these would be replaced with "Revolutionary Operas," which were required to show the heroism of the People's Republic.

Qingdao. 1908.
Wikimedia Commons

Merchants With Singing Girls
Two wealthy merchants eat and enjoy the company of girls paid to sing. These men, as part of the bourgeois, would be major targets of the new regime after the Communist Revolution.

Beijing. 1901.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Hong Kong Singing Girls
Two singing girls pose for the camera. The instrument that the girl on the left is holding is called an erhu.

Hong Kong. 1901.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Men Artillery
Men stand near the cannons of their local arsenal.

Nanjing. 1872.
Wikimedia Commons

Canton Movable Chow Shop
Men eating noodles purchased from a street vendor.

Guangzhou. 1919.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Three Men Together
Three merchants in traditional dress reflecting class hierarchies, with the two older men (seated) wearing furs or more elaborate robes and the younger man (standing) wearing plainer clothes.

Kwangtung. 1869.
Wikimedia Commons

Man Riding A Pony
A man rides a pony before the city gates.

Shaanxi. 1909.
Wikimedia Commons

Women Standing Together
A woman poses with her maid (right) near a bronze incense burner.

Beijing. 1869.
Wikimedia Commons

Chinas Common Carrier
Chinese men pose with camels. Before paved roads and trains filled the veins of China, long distance travel would often be done on the backs on camels.

Beijing. 1901.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Woman Wearing Scarf
A boatwoman.

Kwangtung. 1869.
Wikimedia Commons

Woman With Girl
A woman poses with her child.

Beijing. 1869.
Wikimedia Commons

Robed Man Sitting
A man, wearing traditional robes, poses near a window.

Location unspecified. 1869.
Wikimedia Commons

Boy Leads A Princess
A wealthy woman rides on a white pony, led by a young boy in peasant's clothes.

Qingdao. 1900.
Wikimedia Commons

Manchu Girl With Coiffure
A girl wears her hair in a traditional coiffure.

Beijing. 1869.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Manchu Palace Ladies
The ladies of the palace, dressed in the imperial clothes of the Qing dynasty. Their faces have been painted white.

Beijing. Circa 1910-1925.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Bound Feet Woman Doorway
A servant working for a wealthy family. Her feet have been bound.

Location unspecified. 1874.
Wikimedia Commons

Manchu Girl Sitting
A girl sits while holding a fan.

Beijing. Circa 1861-1864.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

People With Instruments
Two musicians pose with their instruments.

Kwangtung. 1869.
Wikimedia Commons

Abbot Of The Monastery
This photo is labeled "The Abbot of the Monastery." The subject is likely a Taoist priest.

Religion was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution under Marxist ideals. Taoists had to practice their religion in secret.

Chekiang. 1906.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Opium Smokers
Men smoking opium. During the Kuomintang party's rule in the early 1900s, opium was trafficked to fund the party.

The Communist Party, however, took a much harder line with opium and classified drug traffickers as the "enemies of the people." By 1951, the Communist Party claimed that opium abuse had been "wiped out."

Location unspecified. 1880.
Wikimedia Commons

Man With Mule
An elderly man poses with his mule.

Beijing. 1869.
Wikimedia Commons

Illegal Opium Den
Before the Communist Party came into power, opium abuse was officially illegal. But in practice, it was fairly common. These smokers are hiding out in an illegal den.

Beijing. 1932.
Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Police Before Communism
Chinese policemen punish a criminal by lashing him with a big paddle, a common punishment in old China. During the Communist era, this punishment would be shown in period dramas as an example of Qing cruelty.

Location unspecified. 1900.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Bride Going To Wedding
A bride on her way to her wedding. Normally, a bride would cover her face with a red veil. It's not entirely clear why this woman is using a basket.

Fuzhou, Fujian. Circa 1911-1913.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Manchu Bride In Peking
A bride with her face unveiled.

Beijing. 1867.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Manchu Bride Wedding Clothes
A woman puts on her wedding dress and poses with her daughter on her lap.

Beijing. 1871.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Bound Foot Woman Working
A woman with bound feet at work, tending to a stove.

Hebei. 1936.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Chinese Market Before Communism
A woman checks out the market. Her child is sleeping, strapped to her back.

Hong Kong. 1946.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Lanchow Family
A family from a minority group in Lanzhou. China is an incredibly diverse country, containing some 55 unique ethnicities, each one with its own culture.

During the Cultural Revolution, ethnic minorities were pressured to give up their special statuses and cultures and embrace the new world of the revolution -- usually by force.

Lanzhou. 1944.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Taiwan Bunun Tribe Aborigines
Taiwanese aborigines from the Bunun tribe. When the Communist Party came into power in 1945, the nationalist Kuomintang fled to Taiwan. There, they installed a "one language, one culture" policy that eroded the Bunun way of life.

Taiwan. 1900.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Mongolian Strong Men
Mongolian strongmen performing in the August Games, dressed in traditional clothes.

During the Cultural Revolution, Inner Mongolia was plagued by revolutionaries trying to hunt down a separatist party. By the end, 22,900 people were beaten to death.

Hebei. 1909.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

Tibetan Princess
A Tibetan princess.

The Tibetan uprising was a direct response to the effects of the Cultural Revolution and the Communist Party's redistribution of their land.

Tibet. 1879.
Flickr/Ralph Repo

A century ago, China was not the metropolis-filled industrial nation that it is today. It was another world entirely, with cultures that were in many ways equally distinctive.

In the China of the Qing dynasty — which ended in 1912 with the rise of what would soon be called the Kuomintang nationalist party — every part of life, from pastimes to clothes, differed from what we see today. Girls' feet were painfully bound in order to change their shape, men wore their hair in long braids, and Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist thought dominated the nation.

That's not to say that China was the only nation which saw massive transformations in the 20th century. As globalism swept many uniquely local cultures away, the habits and customs of the "old world" have broken down and rebuilt. Still, perhaps no place has changed more than China: and that has to do largely with what transpired in the middle of the 20th century.

After communism took over in the 1949 revolution and the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, China systematically erased the cultures promoted during the Qing (1644-1912) and Republican (1912-1949) eras. The youth of the Cultural Revolution, in particular, sought out and destroyed the “Four Olds” — customs, culture, habits, ideas — of their nation's heritage.

They saw their history as backward and thus as something to be ashamed of. They chased out religion, burned books, destroyed cultural relics, and did everything they could to obliterate their nation's minority cultures.

The revolutionaries transformed Beijing opera into a propaganda tool; they tossed out Chinese dress for Mao suits and military uniforms, and replaced poetry classics with the revolutionary writings of Lu Xun and communist leader Mao Zedong’s "Little Red Book."

Today, some of the culture that the Communist Party tried to destroy has started to return – but it will never be the same. The China of the Qing dynasty will only ever exist as it does in these pictures – as another world, a distant empire that collapsed to the will of another ideology.


Next, see Iran before the Islamic Revolution and Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.