One of my favourite hobbies is photography, and I especially like taking my camera with me when travelling. I have been very fortunate in recent years to have been able to travel to China as part of my work (my employer, The University of Nottingham, has a sister campus in China, at Ningbo), and these travels to China have rekindled my childhood obsession with China, the Silk Road and especially the material culture of Beijing’s Forbidden City (I have blogged about Beijing here). It has been amazing to be able to visit these places I have read so much about in person, and despite all of the availability of images about China, travelling on your own in China still feels like a very big adventure. My own sense of adventure though pales into insignificance when I think of the first and most extraordinary of female travellers and photographers to explore China in the late nineteenth century: Isabella Bird Bishop (1831-1904).
I came across Isabella Bird via her writings on China : The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, first published in 1897, recounts her travels by houseboat from Shanghai to the Upper reaches of the Yangtze river in 1894/95- a very similar journey in fact to the one undertaken almost a century later by Simon Winchester for his book The River at the Centre of the World. Bird is at the height of her fame as a travel writer in 1897 (when The Yangtze Valley and Beyond was first published) and while the book on its own is already a fabulous read, what makes it extraordinary is the fact that Bird illustrated her book with her own, specially taken photographs. In fact, on reading the book, it becomes quite clear that part of the reason for undertaking this 6-month circular journey from Shanghai up the Yangtze and back in the first place, was an opportunity to take photographs.
Bird seems to have taken up photography as a serious occupation in the late 1880s, under the guidance of John Thomson (1837-1921), possibly one of the pioneers of photojournalism. Thomson’s own travels in Cambodia and China clearly left a deep impression on Bird, who often responded directly to an image produced by Thomson by taking the same image herself! Bird has an astonishing portfolio of images to her name, with over 300 of her photos held in the collections of the Royal Geographical Society. Some of the best of these images were recently brought together in a lavishly illustrated book by Debbie Ireland, Isabella Bird, taken from the collections of the RGS- its’ a coffee table book of the finest quality, and really lends itself to reading The Yangtze Valley and Beyond again, this time with high-quality reproductions of some of Bird’s best-known images – and a map!- right to hand. The images gained her admission to the Royal Photographic Society in 1897, which just underlines Isabella Bird’s position as a pioneering travel writer and photographer even further.
By the time Bird wrote The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, she was in her Sixties and had been travelling close on 40 years to write, and she wrote in order to travel, and in the process almost helping to forge a particular genre of writing. What interests me about Bird and her fellow Victorian women travellers is the reason for doing this in the first place. After all, the nineteenth century is remarkable, in the same way as the Renaissance was, for a concern with structure and frameworks, and this often manifested itself through a particular emphasis on correct modes of behaviour and especially a concern with the construction of gendered norms of behaviour. Bird, as a female traveller, undertaking her journeys on her own with a group of hired native guides and servants, often sporting native dress, accompanied neither by her father nor a husband, transgressed the gender norms that would have dictated her behaviour within Great Britain, and assumed instead the role of the traveller abroad, literally moving outside normal societal constraints. As a traveller, she was no longer bound by Victorian gender norms, and she definitely made the most of the opportunities this afforded her. Incidentally, Bird was by no means unusual there- just think of, for example, the remarkable Gertrude Bell of the Persian Letters – there is soemthing about travelling that gives access to an utopia, a place where women travellers are not defined by their gender but are able to trangress this and instead assume the persona of the ‘foreigner’, defined more by nationality than gender. Bird certainly took hold of opportunities offered with both hands, and certainly acknowlewdged the risks of what she was doing. The Yangtze Valley and Beyond outlines several incidents where she was attacked, pelted with stones, injured and chased to inns where she ended up barricaded in her room keeping guard all night with a loaded pistol across her lap… I am delighted to say that while I share her enthusaism as a traveller for seeing new things, that sort of experience escapes me (and long may it continue that way!).
Bird may have transcended her role as a Victorian woman on her travels in some ways, but she definitley remained a witness defined by the values and beliefs of thr late nineteenth-century. Agaan, for me, this makes her books more interesting still as her writing and her images in particular give an indication of the lens through which she viewed her world. Bird’s fashioning of her persona as a traveller as defined through faith, science and imperialism, determines what she considers worth highlighting and ‘worthy’, and it is here that Bird becomes the most avid advocate fro tolerance, curiosity and traveleing. She freely admits (in some of her most powerful passages of writing, in the Concluding Remarks to the book) that to understand and respect another culture, you have to be willing to experience it on its own terms. Travelling is more than just a way of satisfying curiosity- its a way to learn more about your own values, and in that way, can be truly transformative.