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The bustling port of Guangzhou, featuring cargo boats of all sizes, and a dragon boat weaving through all the traffic on the river. The photograph was probably taken shortly after 1888 (when the Sacred Heart Cathedral, seen in the background, was completed).

Dr David Woodbridge, postdoctoral researcher funded by the British Inter-University China Centre writes:

On 29 August 1842, the Treaty of Nanjing was signed between China and Great Britain. It transformed the relationship between the two countries, loosening the tight controls on access to China and paving the way for thousands of British people to live and work there during the following century. Knowledge of China – its history, language and culture – had, up to this point, been very limited. Many of those who now took advantage of the new opportunities also had a keen interest in studying the great and ancient civilisation they found themselves in.

One of these people was Edward H. Parker (1849-1926), who went to China in 1869 to work for the British consular service. Parker was part of group of China residents – mostly missionaries and consular officials – who undertook a range of sinological enquiries. Their findings and disputes filled the pages of journals such as the China Review, and represented a first flowering of English-language scholarship on China. In 1901, following his retirement from the consular service, Parker became Professor of Chinese at the University of Manchester. He was the first occupant of this chair, which he held until his death.

Parker’s papers, now in the John Rylands Library, showcase the breadth of his scholarship, and shed light on the ways in which his consular career moulded his academic pursuits. From April to July 2016, with the support of a fellowship from the British Inter-University China Centre, I conducted research into the E. H. Parker Collection, and in the process produced a new handlist. This blog introduces some of the highlights of the collection.

The Parker Collection contains an extensive photograph collection of about five hundred images. This diverse collection includes images of locations across the world, with original photographs, prints, and pictures removed from newspapers and magazines, from the period c.1868-c.1920. Most feature scenes and people from China, but Burma, Japan and Korea are also well represented. Some of the most impressive photographs are  scenes of Fuzhou and Guangzhou, two important ports where Parker worked.

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The crew of a ship preparing for the Battle of Fuzhou,. There are several photos featuring scenes from this battle, which was fought on 23 August 1884 between China and France.

Parker worked in Beijing, in several major coastal ports, and in cities inland, including Chongqing. His interests were many and varied, and he authored several books and numerous articles on different aspects of Chinese language, history and culture. But Parker also kept a close eye on the evolving political situation of his day. Following his return to Britain, he continued to receive Chinese newspapers and government bulletins on an array of political, economic, social and military subjects. His  meticulously organised collection is a valuable source for the turbulent events of the late-Qing and early republican periods.

During his consular career, and afterwards as an academic, Parker maintained a strong interest in the different peoples on and around China’s borders. He wrote books and articles on the Manchus, Tibetans and Turkic peoples, as well as preparing an unpublished manuscript on the history of the Mongols. But Parker developed a particular interest in the regions on China’s southwestern border, as a result of a posting there. From 1892-3, he served as Adviser to the Indian Government on Chinese Affairs in Burma. The Parker Collection contains copies of official reports he wrote, summarising contemporary events as well as his own research into the history of Sino-Burmese relations.

Following his return to Britain, Parker became increasingly interested in the politics of the Himalayas, where Britain and China were competing for influence. Parker delved deep into the region’s history, using this to inform his, largely supportive, analysis of British interventions on this contested frontier. He collected a wealth of documents and engaged in correspondence with various actors and observers. His collection not only provides a fascinating source for the history of these regions and peoples during a period of great change and upheaval, but also sheds light on early Western efforts to study and write about these places.

The E. H. Parker Collection is an important resource for studying the British involvement in China during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It contains much to interest those who want to explore the official British presence in the country, as well as in Burma and the Himalayas. Most importantly the collection sheds light on some of the earliest efforts in Britain to promote the study of China, and on the important role Parker played in this process.

A handlist and introduction to the photographs in the collection are now available:

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