Empire and Visual Pleasure: Reinterpreting the Miao Albums of Yunnan and Guizhou

Jing Zhu

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Abstract:  Traditional scholarship has emphasised the intimate link between the Miao album, a genre of illustration to emerge from colonial expansion in southwest China, and political control. Through a careful reading of evidence collected from prefaces, poems, novels, travel accounts and local gazetteers, this paper argues that these albums were also popularised in the marketplace and viewed for pleasure by consumers who included a far wider section of the population than local government officials alone. Divided into three main sections, it firstly brings the pleasure and curiosity dimensions of Miao albums to the fore; it then argues for a diversity of consumers of these albums than has hitherto been acknowledged, and finally, by probing the process of how and by whom Miao albums were produced, it highlights the participation of professional artists and the widespread practice of copying. Through the decentralisation of the political function of Miao albums, this paper offers new ways of viewing Chinese imperial images within the context of popular culture.

Keywords:  Miao albums; ethnicity; Yunnan; Guizhou; pleasure; imperialism.