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Berlin exhibition delves into China under German rule

A photo exhibition that shows rare glimpses of daily life in the town of Qingdao under German colonial rule is currently on at the Free University of Berlin.

Qingdao came under German rule in 1897

Qingdao came under German rule in 1897

Paul Ernst Prasser was a German marine who spent two years of his military service in Qingdao. The young man from Nuremberg also owned a camera and between 1907 and 1909 he took some 200 photographs - mainly of the Chinese quarters of Qingdao, but also of the harbor area, workshops and the fields outside the town.

Mechthild Leutner is the professor of Chinese Studies at the Free University of Berlin and director of Berlin's Confucius Institute. She points out that Paul Prasser differed from other known photographers in early 20th-century Qingdao who usually only depicted the life of the German colonialists.

"In these pictures," she told Deutsche Welle, “daily Chinese life, the streets, the landscapes, come to the fore – not the Europeans who lived in China.”

A modern German town in China

Paul Prasser differed from other Germans in Qingdao by photographing daily Chinese life

Paul Prasser differed from other Germans in Qingdao by photographing daily Chinese life

Imperial Germany was a latecomer in terms of colonial aspirations. One of the objectives of German politicians, the military, and traders was to establish a naval base in China. The Jiaozhou Bay area, which today is part of China's eastern Shandong Province, came under German rule in 1897. Immediately, German officials started to develop the bay's administrative centre Qingdao into a modern colonial town.

"Urban development did not just spread across the city bit by bit," explained Leutner. "There was a strict division between the newly-built German colonial town, which had a distinct German look due to its German architecture, and the Chinese town."

It seems that young Paul Ernst Prasser was more curious than most of his comrades and fellow countrymen. In his pictures, we can see fishermen selling off their haul or a Chinese couple making yarn on a spinning wheel. There is also a spectacular picture of an umbrella maker, as well as several scenes of religious life.

From personal photo album to historical document

Qingdao today looks very different

Qingdao today looks very different

One of the photos shows a local bride being carried on a "jiao," or sedan chair. Often, Western photographers only brought home pictures of Westerners being carried by laborers who were derogatively called "coolies."

"But from time to time, Germans distanced themselves from the colonial power, even if it was only through the photos they took," Leutner said. "We can show that not all Germans internalized colonial ideology or ideas of forced civilization."

Most of Prasser's negatives did not survive the Second World War or his descendants' relocations. Only recently did experts realize the historical value of his surviving prints. What was once only a personal photo album can now be used to study daily life in China under German colonial rule.

Author: Thomas Völkner
Editor: Anne Thomas

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