An American in China, 1911

Sheila Corr on the story of an American photographer who captured China's 1911 uprising on film.

Francis Stafford posing with Qing imperial army troopsFrancis Eugene Stafford (1884-1938), a US photographer, moved to Shanghai with his family in 1909 to work for the Commercial Press, then Asia’s largest publishing house.

We do not know if he witnessed the first shots fired in the 1911 Revolution, but he was certainly in Wuchang the day after the uprising as he photographed the severed heads of its leaders. He later recorded the founding of the Hubei military government, fierce fighting between the revolutionary army and Qing forces, the burning of Hankou and Sun Yat-sen’s journey to Nanjing to take office as president.

As a westerner with no political ties representing a publisher keen to provide unbiased information, he was allowed remarkably free access to both sides of the conflict. His later photographs of China show a society in transition and the daily life of people in both town and country.

Ill health forced him back to the United States in 1915 and four albums of these prints were stored in trunks for most of the 20th century until they were rediscovered by his grandson who was aware of their unique historical value. The scenes Stafford recorded as he travelled between Wuhan and Shanghai are indispensable to the study of the 1911 Revolution and photographs in the article on the Chinese uprising were taken by by him. The one at the top of this page shows him posing with Qing imperial army troops. For more images, see this gallery of his photographs, maintained by Professor Ron Anderson.

The Birth of a Republic: Francis Stafford’s Photographs of China’s 1911 Revolution and Beyond by Hanchao Lu was published in 2010 by the University of Washington Press.