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TitleShop signs and visual culture in Republican Beijing
AuthorFeng Yi
DatePaper published in the European Journal of East Asian Studies, vol. 6, no. 2


During her stay in Beijing (1933–46), Hedda Hammer (later known as Hedda Morrison) made a visual record of shop signs with her camera. In this paper I rely on this visual record to examine what shop signs represented in Chinese material culture and function in the urban setting. I argue that Morrison’s photographic record reveals a fascinating element of street culture in the capital city that the textual records cannot document. I also contend that shop signs worked as genuine urban markers of the various trades and crafts in the city. As such, these artefacts constituted an expression of Chinese material culture, but were also a form of visual language to guide the gaze and pace of Beijing urbanites. This paper supports the idea that photographs have a particular relevance and value for the exploration of the Chinese urban setting in the Republican period. The use of photography goes beyond the record of disincarnated artefacts. It allows us to perceive and understand a fascinating dimension of visual culture in Republican Beijing, one of the numerous layers of signs that were displayed quite extensively through the city.


Until the late 1930s, Beijing shops were adorned not just with Chinese-character signboards that told passers-by their name and trade, but also with ‘shop signs’ that worked as visual symbols of their line of business. Despite their omnipresence in commercial streets, the existence and significance of these shop signs seems to have been overlooked. They have now completely receded into a forgotten memory of Beijing’s urban landscape. During her stay in the capital (1933–46), Hedda Hammer (later known as Hedda Morrison) made a visual record of these signs with her camera.1 In this paper I shall argue that the photographic record by Hedda Morrison brings back to light a fascinating element of street culture in the capital city that the textual records cannot document. Moreover, I contend that shop signs worked as genuine urban markers of the various trades and crafts in the city. As such, these artefacts constituted an expression of Chinese material culture, but also a form of visual language to guide the gaze and pace of Beijing urbanites.

While these shop signs may appear undecipherable to modern eyes, they were in fact the common words of a shared visual language in Republican Beijing. Today none of these shop signs remain, and there is very little textual material on them. Without the visual record, it would be difficult to imagine what these shop signs were, where they were located, and how they were displayed and used in the urban space. In this study, I shall rely on the visual materials that recorded these shop signs, from photographs to paintings, and to a collection of some 100 actual shop signs held in a Japanese museum. I shall first discuss how shop signs happened to be recorded, and then proceed to a discussion of past and current scholarly studies of this topic. The second part of the paper will be devoted to an analysis of the categories, nature and functions of the shop signs as shown in the photographs. In the final section, I shall discuss their contribution to Beijing’s street culture as well as to the general visual culture that pervaded Chinese cities.

Shop Signs in the Visual Record

What does the term ‘shop sign’ refer to? One needs to define the actual object of this study as the English expression ‘shop sign’ lends itself to several interpretations. In 1980 a Taiwanese scholar, Zhuang Bohe, made a comparison of Taiwan’s old and contemporary shop signs to demonstrate that these artefacts could give clues to understanding the soul of native folk customs and the life of the common people.2 In his work, the author made a distinction between the names of shop signs in north and south China. He argued that the term huangzi or wangzi (shop sign) was used in north China, while zhaopai (signboard) prevailed among southern Chinese. This may explain the relative confusion about the naming of shop signs in Chinese. In many works on shop signs, the authors often mixed signs on shops, characters on boards, signs by itinerant pedlars, etc.

What is a shop sign? In Chinese, the compound name zhaohuang means both zhaopai and huangzi, which, in English, designate signboards and shop signs respectively. Zhaopai, in either north or south, refers to a board on which one finds only Chinese characters that spell out the shop’s name and trademark. As for huangzi, or shop signs, they visually reproduce the merchandise on sale or services offered by their physical shape or through a symbolic representation.3 In the Beijing press, shop signs were also called dianhuang.4 In this paper I shall use the expression ‘shop sign’ for the ‘visual’ huangzi that hung on long poles sticking out of the shop front, sometimes well into the middle of the street. Moreover, to clarify this point further, it appears from the evidence collected from various sources that shop signs were a feature of northern and northeastern cities like Beijing, Tianjin, Shenyang or Harbin.

This paper is strongly indebted to the work of Hedda Morrison (1908–91), a German photographer who lived in Beijing between 1933 and 1946.5 Hedda Morrison graduated from the State Institute for Photography in Munich. In 1933 an advertisement for a position as manager of a photographic studio in Beijing prompted her to sail to China.6 The advertisement had been placed by a well-established German photo studio, Hartung’s Photo Shop. Hartung produced pictures mostly for foreign residents and travellers. It sold not only portraits but also thematic albums presenting the sights of Beijing and other notable places in China.7 After five years with Hartung, Hedda Morrison became a freelance photographer. Although her production was rich and extensive, her photographs of Beijing were not widely published or even circulated during her own lifetime. Her best-known book — A Photographer in Old Peking — was published only in 1985 when she was in her mid-seventies. The book had taken 39 years to be published.8 A second volume — Travels of a Photographer in China 1933–1946 — was published in 1987. Hedda Morrison left a collection of 10,000 negatives and 5,000 prints which she bequeathed to Harvard University on her death in 1991. The 5,000 photographs have been digitised and made available online through a remarkable website.9 The photographs cover a wide range of topics: Chinese architecture and houses, landscapes, handicrafts, commercial activities, portraits, street scenes and religious practices. The collection includes about 3,000 pictures of Beijing and environs. Yet, because Hedda Morrison left no record of her picture-taking, these photographs come without any date or precise location. We only know they were taken during the time when she lived in Beijing. The present study is based on a series of about 130 photographs of shop signs in this collection.

The photographs of Hedda Morrison offer a very rare window on Beijing shop signs and the physical layout of shops and streets. As a professional photographer, Hedda Morrison concentrated on the artistic dimension of the shop signs she photographed. Often she would take several pictures of the same shop sign and pay great attention to the technical and visual details of the object. Altogether, she photographed 63 shop signs. Because of the technological limits of the time, she took pictures in black and white; the wonderful colours of shop signs were lost entirely. On the other hand, her record sets the real shop signs in their context, that of shops and streets. To retrieve the original flavour of shop signs, one needs to turn to the books published before 1949. They offer hand-painted multicoloured images of shop signs that add to our perception of the prominence of these artefacts in the urban landscape. These paintings, however, take shop signs as artistic items detached from any context. The closest and most accurate view of shop signs is to be found in the unique collection of the Tenri Museum in Japan, though here again the real objects are detached from their original place of display.10 That unique collection came to public knowledge only in the late 1980s, as we shall see below.

Hedda Morrison’s record of shop signs was guided by her professional concerns. She was a professional photographer and, as such, she would have had to take into account the interests of her potential viewers. Her photographs were definitely taken for a commercial purpose.11 Yet, in the absence of any personal notes, it is unclear whether these photos were her personal choice or commissions by the Hartung photo shop she worked for. Recently I have discovered a unique Hartung family album.12 In this collection, one can see that many of the photographs very much resemble those taken by Hedda Morrison. Moreover, some pictures are exactly the same, which would point to the fact that Hedda Morrison worked as a photographer while in Hartung’s Photo Shop. Of course, it is difficult to ascertain to what extent she brought her own ‘eye’ to Hartung or whether she was trained or guided by the commissions of the photo shop. I interviewed a 95-year-old former German resident of Beijing who hired Hedda Morrison to take pictures of Chinese embroidered pouches. She confirmed that Hedda Morrison’s photographs were for commercial use and that she always asserted her copyrights when commissioned by a customer. Mostly, however, she must have worked for herself, following the assumed tastes of Westerners about China. Except for her own artistic sensibility, her visual record of Beijing builds a Western ‘view’ of the city, or a view that reflected the assumed tastes of Western visitors.

Why were shop signs part of this ‘view’? Were Westerners fond of these objects? Would they have viewed them as a striking feature of the Beijing street scene? It is impossible to verify this beyond the fact that shop signs were a prominent feature of Beijing streets and may have been seen as symbols of the Chinese capital city. In my own survey of Western-language guidebooks and memoirs, shop signs are not part of the record. Since Hedda Morrison had no publication of her own before 1949, nor any other visual production that we can trace, our interpretation remains tentative. I have found a few photographs produced by the photo shop that employed her in city guides of Beijing, but none of them deal with shop signs.13 Her record may simply have been guided by her own taste in artefacts, for details of Chinese craftsmanship, that runs through her whole photographic production. With a total of about 130 photographs, shop signs stand out in her collection, especially since they were not ‘conventional’ views of Beijing such as temples and imperial palaces. Few topics have been covered in such detail.

Hedda Morrison’s photographs of shop signs were generally focused on the shop signs themselves. She also often took pictures of the shops that displayed them, even though the shops were not the central objects of the picture. In most cases, there are no people in her images, not even in the streets. This seems to have been a standard feature of her picture-taking (especially in her pictures of architectural buildings) that were centred on objects, not people.14 Yet no photographer is perfect, and on some of her photographs she inadvertently included views of passers-by in the street. There is no way of knowing in which streets of Beijing these photographs were taken and of locating them on a map.15 In the press, however, one can find indications of where the stores that carried these shop signs could be found: Liulichang, Chongwenmen dajie, Damochang, Qianmenwai dajie, Longfusi jie, Hepingmenwai dajie, Caishikou, Beixinqiao, etc.16

Shop Signs in the Literature

The photographs by Hedda Morrison call our attention to this prominent feature of Beijing streets, but also to a largely forgotten aspect of commercial material culture that remains to be explored. Shop signs did not go entirely unnoticed, but all studies have usually detached these objects from their urban context. The earliest book in English that deals with shop signs was published in 1926. Entitled China in Sign and Symbol, the book presents mostly the shop signs of Beijing.17 The book covers the different trades in 14 chapters: wine shops and inns; public baths, barbers and tailors; clothing and accessories; workshop signs; banks; money; medicine; native drugs; paraphernalia of departure; funeral processions; miscellaneous shops. The author actually uses the shop signs as a point of entry into the shops and Chinese traditional commercial culture. She describes 102 shop signs presented as hand-painted illustrations, with their historical background and the meaning of colours in traditional Chinese culture, especially Chinese shop culture

The author of the second contemporary study of shop signs is not known. The book was published in 1928 in Harbin, using three languages for the captions (Chinese, English and Russian). Yet it seems to rely on materials collected long before.18 The book was discovered by a Chinese scholar in the Liaoning Library in 1980, but then the book went missing. Unfortunately, this scholar had made only a partial copy of the original, which he kindly shared with me. There are only two pages of text.19 The illustrated shop signs in the book are the work of a Chinese painter, Zhou Peichun, who painted them in 1910 while he worked at an art institute in Beijing. While most represented shop signs from Beijing, some are from Harbin.20 It seems that this book was not only a collection of images of shop signs, but also a study of these shop signs. Yet until it is discovered again we can only speculate on its content.21

The first extensive collection of shop signs in Republican Beijing — 101 coloured plates with captions in Chinese and English — was published in 1931.22 This book served as a guide for the Japanese representative of the Tenri School for Foreign Languages (Tenri gaigo gakkō) to collect shop signs in Beijing at the end of 1939. All other books on shop signs published in English are also just hand-painted albums of shop signs in China.23 One of them was even the production of schoolchildren from a Beijing middle school, though we suspect this was due to the personal interest of the director of the school, himself the author of a book on shop signs.24 In general, these books present around 100 shop signs. An interesting feature is that some of them state in their preface that these books will be handy for tourists going shopping. These publications reflect a certain interest in Chinese shop signs and customs among foreigners, and were offered to foreigners as practical visual guides to wandering around the streets shopping. This tends to point to the actual use of shop signs as visual markers, both for the native people of Beijing and for foreigners.

The Japanese also became interested in this topic before the Sino-Japanese War, as part of a more general ethnographic interest in Chinese popular customs. Besides the translating of Louise Crane’s book into Japanese, various studies were published after the mid-1930s, but all of them dealt with Manchuria or China, though one suspects the focus was on north China. The approach privileged by these scholars puts the emphasis on shop signs as elements of Chinese crafts or customs.25 After 1945, various scholars approached the subject of shop signs as a source for understanding and protecting the Japanese culture of shop signs. They believed that the Japanese kanban (shop signs) had their origin in Chinese shop signs, and that by studying the different characteristics of Chinese and Japanese shop signs they would discover the origin of Japanese shop signs. In his study of Kobe shop signs in 1977, Miki Shobo stated that when looking at Chinese shop signs one cannot but notice the similarity of designs and conception.26 This is, of course, not a very original argument.

The most important contribution, however, comes from the fascinating collection of the Tenri Museum. It holds more than 100 Beijing shop signs that were collected at the end of 1939. They are probably the only remaining actual artefacts that exist throughout the world today. In April 1939, a certain Fukuhara Tokia, a Chinese language teacher in the Tenri School of Foreign Languages, went to Beijing to prepare for his superior’s planned trip there. Eventually, because of bad relationships with the Japanese army in the capital city, the superior was not able to go to China. Instead he asked Fukuhara to collect shop signs. We do not know why he made this decision. We only know that the superior was interested in Chinese culture, that his attention was caught by a magazine advertisement for Louise Crane’s book, and that he had bought the book Shop Signs in Peking, published in 1931. Fukuhara used it as a guide to buying shop signs through an antique shop on Hatamen (Chongwenmen), a famous commercial street at that time.27 The antique dealer provided a complete list of the shops, with their names and addresses, but this document was eventually lost. Today the museum still has 125 shop signs from the original collection amassed by Fukuhara in Beijing.28

Thanks to the collection of shop signs brought back by Fukuhara in 1939, the Museum of Tenri University (Tenri Sankōkan) has become a major place for the study of shop signs. The most prolific scholar is Nakano Teruo. He published a paper as early as 1948, and over the next forty years he produced several studies until he finally edited a wonderful volume on the whole collection of shop signs held in the museum.29 In his work, the author argues that China and Japan belonged to the same cultural realm of Chinese writing. Through continued cultural exchanges between the two countries Chinese shop signs came to Japan, but because of differences in commercial traditions and public sensibilities shop signs in Japan acquired their own characteristics. Shop signs developed particularly during the Edo period and came to be known as Edo kanban. According to Nakano, the Chinese shop signs usually aimed to reflect the characteristics of a given business as defined by guilds and trade associations. In Japan, on the other hand, Edo shop signs did not develop under these kinds of controls. They were produced by artists who could let their imaginations run free. Chinese shop signs sought to preserve certain traditions and customs, not only in design and colours but also in terms of materials or crafting. Edo shop signs became more sophisticated, whereas the Chinese shop signs remained somehow more simple and straightforward. Chinese shop signs privileged continuity. Nakano cites the words of Carl Crow in 1939 about the behaviour of Chinese consumers. If they are fond of something, they will become faithful patrons. Whatever the product — tobacco, soap or toothbrush — once they have a favourable impression they will remain faithful to the trademark. Nakano believes this provides an explanation of why Chinese people trust the old and famous shops and their shop signs. As a result, shop signs and shop boards served as reminders to customers of the good products they liked.30 Yet one can also point out that since shop signs worked as a concrete visual language, this left less room for the imagination as the meaning would be lost if each individual shop came up with its own shop sign.

Since the 1980s there has been a flurry of short articles on shop signs in Chinese journals and newspapers. Several books were also published, indicating a new interest by Chinese scholars in this subject. This may be due to the recent nostalgia about the ‘old’ in Chinese culture throughout the country (see, for instance, the proliferation of ‘Old China photographs’ albums). These works on Beijing shop signs were produced by scholars in the field of folk customs. The trend began with Qu Yanbin, the author of several books on shop signs. In his initial work, Fuyuyan xisu (The Traditions of Auxiliary Language), published in 1988, he argues that totems and shop signs alike form an autonomous auxiliary language that conveys a certain type and flow of information.31 Totems, shop signs and signboards are markers of auxiliary language communication. In his second book, Zhongguo zhaohuang (Chinese Shop Signs), the author studies shop signs by interpreting them by name, characteristic and function. In the final chapter, ‘Shop signs and shop boards culture theory’, Qu relates shop signs to their origins, relying on legends of popular folklore. Yet none of these authors come up with substantial evidence to support their arguments.

Another major scholar is Yu Xuebin, with a book on shop signs in northeast China.32 The author examines the origin, the background and the development of shop signs in the northeastern provinces. He argues that shop signs had characteristics that varied by region and local popular tradition. The book is especially valuable as it includes old pictures and photographs of shop signs. More recently a new book has also tackled the issue of shop signs in China.33 This work again comes with pictures and photographs inserted in the text to explain the history of shop signs, including a doubtful comparison with today’s ‘shop signs’, since the latter are actually only signboards.34 There are several other books on the market, but they are no more than pictorial reproductions of shop signs.35 Research on shop signs by Chinese scholars has been carried out from the perspective of folklore studies, with a focus on material appearance and meaning rather than a historical concern for their place in the urban context and actual role in commercial traditions. These studies take shop signs as an expression of popular art and folk customs that constituted a unified business behaviour throughout China. In other words, they assume there existed a form of shop signs culture in late imperial and republican China.36 Nevertheless, these arguments are not based on any solid evidence. The authors of these studies generally fail to incorporate their lines of reasoning about commercial practices within a given urban context or to examine how these shop signs could actually work within Chinese urban culture. One can also question, in fact, whether shop signs were a nationwide practice.

Shop Signs in the Urban Context

The origin of shop signs is not easy to trace. Various authors have argued that the earliest historical record of shop signs is Jiuqi, a wine flag that served as a general symbol of wine shops in ancient China.37 According to such records, about 2,000 years ago a wine-selling hawker raised a flag supported by a pole to imitate the setting of some military troops. This would enable customers to spot the position of the wine-selling hawker from a far distance, and hence would attract more customers. A historical advertising flag in textile material printed or embroidered with Chinese calligraphy was simply attached to a flag post. The earliest wine flag was made of a piece of green textile and embroidered with a single Chinese character meaning ‘wine’.38 Yet actual shop signs as discussed here — visual representations of the merchandise on sale — probably did not appear before the Song dynasty or, most likely, until the Ming. Chinese authors support their argument with only one late publication published in the Qing period.39 Despite the lack of visual records, there is no doubt that shop signs have a long history in Chinese cities, at least in some parts of China.

In Beijing the earliest record of shop signs is to be found in Xijin zhi ji yi (Edited Records of the Xijin Gazetteer) by Xiong Mengxiang, a city guide produced under the Yuan dynasty. The book listed the city’s shop signs for barbers, physicians and veterinary surgeons.40 Thereafter one has to jump to the modern studies of Beijing shop signs such as Louise Crane’s Shop Signs of Peking. The limited amount of research on Beijing shop signs is perhaps due to the lack of archives and textual records, but also to the fact that shop signs, despite their prominence in the street, were a lowbrow form of popular craft; the local people were used to them and may not have paid much attention to them. They were the objects of a long series of short articles dealing each with one shop sign in a Beijing pictorial journal in the late 1930s.41 This was quite exceptional and the visual sources have proved to be an essential resource for exploring this field of research, as I discuss below.

As most of the shop signs hung towards the street, they could be a source of inconvenience for people or cars and could therefore be an object of regulation. Unfortunately the imperial and early republican authorities do not seem to have regulated this aspect of commercial life. My own explorations of the Beijing Municipal Archives at various intervals have revealed very little.42 For instance, there is only scanty information about their size, unless one reconstitutes this from the photographs, or their positioning in the street. The municipal archives have revealed nothing about any type of regulation. After 1911–12, in Shenyang Zhang Zuolin (1875–1928) banned shop signs that reached into the street as an impediment to transportation.43 In Beijing, the first instance of regulation we have found occurred only in 1931. A local newspaper, the Beiping chenbao (the Beiping Morning Post) published a notice about the taxation of shop signs.44 This taxation was probably introduced in 1931 under the nationalist administration. While it may just have been an announcement of the annual collection of the tax, we failed to find previous notices. Shop signs were taxed according to their position (nailed to the wall, hanging on a vertical pole on the roadside or hanging in the middle of the street) and their size. The monthly tax was 1.2 yuan per square chi (33 cm2) for the latter, but it was free for those that did not extend more than 1.5 metres beyond the front of the shops. The first two paid respectively 0.4 yuan and 0.6 yuan. The municipal government favoured those shop signs that did not exceed a certain extension towards the street.

Shop Signs in the Photographic Record

During her stay in Beijing, Hedda Morrison photographed about 130 shop signs, quite a large number, but she often took several views of the same sign. Morrison’s collection actually recorded 63 different shop signs (eight remain unidentified), including 18 pieces not to be found among the 101 items presented in Shop Signs of Peking. Conversely, the book lists 85 shop signs absent from Morrison’s photographic record. It is difficult to know how many shop signs were in use in the city. According to Chinese scholars, there were almost 1,000 different shop signs in China at that time.45 For Beijing more than 200 shop signs are pictured in Lao Beijing dianpu de zhaohuang, a book based on a late Qing publication, although the original source is not known.46 The comparison between the various sources, however, yields a range of about 200–250 different types of shop sign, a lesser number than the conventional and probably mythical ‘360 trades’ (360 hang) referred to in Chinese publications.47

What first strikes the eye in the photographic record is the variety of shop signs and their diversity in shape. This variety makes it difficult to sort them out and to categorise them in a meaningful way. One could group them according to their physical form, or according to the type of business they represented or the way they were positioned in the commercial streets of the city. To study the shop signs presented in Hedda Morrison’s work along with those identified in the publications mentioned above, I shall follow Yu Lin’s basic classification into three main categories, to which I shall add another one. His criteria to define these categories are based on the degree of realism or abstraction to be found in their shape or appearance: his categories are ‘real good’ (shiwu shi), ‘good-shaped’ (xingxiang shi), ‘symbolic’ (xiangzheng shi). I have added ‘character shop sign’ (wenzi huang).48

The first category — ‘real good’ — denotes shop signs that represented the real object the shop was selling. Usually, it was a plain representation of the good in real size (e.g. swords, musical instruments), either as a single object or as a string of objects. Among the shops that used such shop signs were those selling coiffure frames, drums, rugs, mirrors, straw flowers, musical instruments and bone-made objects. All these real goods were presented as shop signs by hanging them up directly in front of the shop. In Picture 1 the real musical instrument is displayed as a shop sign (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/11613). It is a jinghu, an instrument that was played in Beijing opera. This kind of small and light object could be hung up and recognised immediately by prospective customers. In this case, shopkeepers simply used what they sold as shop signs. A similar type of such shop signs used the specific container for the merchandise they sold, such as a bottle for oil shops, as liquids could hardly be turned into a shop sign.49

The second category of shop signs — ‘good-shaped’ — also took the form of the real good, as can be seen in this picture (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/16451), where noodles and hemp are displayed. Yet even if these shop signs were made according to the real good on sale, they were exaggerated in size, either oversized (e.g. noodles) or in miniature (e.g. rug). As a result they have more character than the real good, and a more artistic effect. For example, for the candle shop in Picture 3, we can see that they are reproduced in other material than the real good and are obviously oversized (http://www.commonpeopleandartist.net/GetFile.php?Table=Image&ID=Image.ID.15720.No.0&Op=O). Under this category one would find shops selling wine, candles, cotton and wool, noodles, soap, shoes, bellows, tobacco pipes and funeral paraphernalia.

With the third category — ‘symbolic’ — the goods are no longer represented as such but are replaced by a conventional and metonymic symbol of the given line of trade. This was especially true of those offering services rather than goods. In Pictures 4 and 5, for instance, signs represent a pawnshop (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/11169) and public bath (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/11163) respectively. These shop signs drew their inspiration from a characteristic feature of the good or service offered to consumers. One cannot recognise the nature of the business directly from the signs, as they are not direct representation of the merchandise. Passers-by needed to be familiar with the conventions of such shop signs and actually learn them as they would learn a code. But for local residents these shop signs were part of a familiar language. Beijing residents were used to these customs through experience and only had to glance around to know the line of business of the shops in the vicinity, and their level. For those familiar with this language, it was extremely easy and convenient to locate the place suited to their needs. The list of shops that used such symbol-based shop signs is very long. We shall cite only a few of them: pharmacies, pastry shops, pawnshops, jewellers, painters, umbrella shops, public baths, etc.50

In some cases, shop signs in the fourth category — ‘character shop sign’ —used a mixture of visual representation and Chinese characters. They selected the words that expressed most closely their line of business, as in this picture (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/7997). These shop signs were like posters or flags that waved with the wind in the streets of Beijing. They formed an intermediate type between the hard signboards and the ‘quasi’ signboards that hung upright along with the other shop signs. Most of them seem to have been made of cloth, with some of paper and wood. They displayed Chinese characters that gave the name of the shop. There was therefore no hard boundary between the shops’ various ‘advertisement boards’. Commercial streets were literally covered in a complex mix of visual artefacts. Shop signs and signboards supplemented each other to convey the full identity of shops to prospective buyers.

What photographs are able to convey to us is precisely the sense of that particular aspect of material culture. Shop signs were displayed in a very prominent way. Most hung on long sticks that pointed towards the middle of the street, suspended in the air well above the head of passers-by, and people walking in the middle of the street could spot all the shops from a distance (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/11613). Besides their very object, shop signs also played on the consumer’s senses and imagination. Most carried a little piece of cloth that waved under the shop sign. Photographs fail to catch the actual colour, but this can be retrieved from the hand-painted pictures or the Tenri Museum collection. The little piece of cloth was red: ‘This was to the effect that it was added to attract attention, red being the colour with the greatest long distance carrying power.’51 The red colour, in Chinese tradition, spelled success and happiness. Red was the colour for weddings and New Year cards, and spots of vermilion were painted on a baby’s face. Red was credited by the Chinese with the power of dispelling all evil influences.52 There is no doubt that the shop signs added much colour to the otherwise grey appearance of Beijing streets.

Shop signs were positioned on the shops in various ways. First, as in the following picture (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/16451), they hung directly under the eaves of the roof. Yet the most popular way of hanging shop signs was on a long pole that stuck out into the street. These poles were made of wood (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/11163) or bamboo (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/11613). Another was a kind of metal hook that was bent one or twice towards the sky (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/11169) in order to hang higher than the eaves of the roof. Sometimes the head of the stick was carved artistically to look like a plum blossom (http://ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/11359) or another symbolic figure like a dragon. The stick could thus become a real piece of art in itself. Shop owners were not afraid of making prominent displays. Some hung several shop signs together to make sure customers would not miss them.

Looking at these hundreds of shop signs, one wonders who made them. Previous studies have failed to raise this question. Shop signs were made of all kinds of materials: paper, cloth, leather, bamboo, wood, straw, copper, iron, tin, etc.53 In some cases, it could have been done by the owner of the shop, but only for the more simple types like musical instruments. Many shop signs were very artistic and elaborate in terms of design, materials and size. Most required a certain level of craftsmanship. Unfortunately, the sources are silent on this aspect and may not lead to any trace of the shop sign makers. One hypothesis is that they could have been produced by different types of craftsmen, such as carpenters, metalworkers, etc., either alone, when the object is made up of one single material like wood or metal, or in successive stages by various craftsmen. Given the number of shops in the city and their rate of renewal, there was definitely a small market for shop signs. I cannot discuss the artistic dimension in this paper, as this would require far more pictures, but this point will be explored more fully on the Common People and Artists platform.54

While we have not found any formal indication of common rules by trade on the making of shop signs, one is struck by the homogeneity of shop signs for a given trade. Various authors argue that, apart from advertising for individual shops, shop signs also expressed membership to a trade association or guild.55 Shop signs could be seen as a certificate that qualified the shop to produce or sell the goods or offer the services they marketed.56 Fukuhara, the collector of Beijing shop signs, also made a trip to Hong Kong and was struck to observe that the local shop signs resembled those of Beijing. He concluded that there was common business representation across China, namely that shop signs were a kind of symbol of a given line of the same business and its association. This is the only testimony we have about a comparison between Beijing and Hong Kong, and actually about the existence of shop signs in the British colony. In a recent study of shop signs in pre-war and today’s Hong Kong, one gets the sense that they were signboards rather than the Beijing-style shop signs.

The major function of shop signs was visual advertising. ‘When used by a business, the purpose of the sign is basic advertising: to attract new customers to a shop and to remind old customers and their friends that the establishment behind the sign remains both accessible and reliable.’57 While both shop signs and signboards served to point to a shop, the former used the visual shape of the merchandise to ‘tell’ what the shop sold and catch the eye, even from a distance.

As such they are helpful signs to strangers when they go to new places, the shopper can locate the place to get his or her needed article by simply looking for the signs on the street. If you will become well acquainted with the signs … you will feel quite at home when you come to China and go up and down the streets shopping!58

Signboards could only be seen when one was standing in front of the shop, not from a distance. Of course, the trademark (brand, name of the shop) was a very important element for the shopkeeper, and some had cloth-made vertical signboards along with their shop sign (see Picture 8). Yet one can see in Hedda Morrison’s photographs that shop signs and shop boards had their respective positions and functions. Along with the usually decorated façade, they constituted the ‘face’ of shops in Republican Beijing.

Several authors have pointed out one specific reason for the use of shop signs. They were a visual substitute for advertising to a population assumed to be by and large illiterate.59 Almost all Chinese scholars argue that in the ‘old society’ lots of people were unable to read, including the Manchus. The shop signs made their lives easier. I have serious doubts about this line of reasoning. As we have seen, there were also many shop signs that mixed Chinese characters with visual representations. Moreover, while many shop signs were easy to identify, most had to be learned:

finding oneself ill-prepared for such an experience in China, one insistently postpones acceptance of the probable explanation of the symbols, i.e. the illiteracy of the Chinese masses. Moreover, this obstinate course appears to have some basis in logic, when it transpires that in many instances the subjects suspended at the shop entrances do not readily interpret themselves to the Chinese themselves.60

A significant segment of the Chinese urban population had command of enough characters to read and make sense of signboards. Moreover, Beijing was the capital of the country for several centuries, with a high concentration of highly educated people. There was hardly any need for such adjuncts to the character-based signboards. In fact, visual advertisement was probably the main reason for the existence of these shop signs.

Another practical reason for the use of shop signs must have been related to the absence of display windows. Photographs show that there were no shop windows or even glass windows as there are nowadays. Traditional shops in Beijing were like houses, with paper windows that did not allow passers-by to see inside what the shop had to offer. When there were windows, they were small and of little help (see Picture 2). Besides, in northern China shop owners had to protect themselves from the cold weather in winter and dusty winds in spring. South China, by comparison, enjoyed warm weather that allowed shops to leave their doors open and even display their goods outside. In order to put customers on the right track, Beijing shops used these visual markers to advertise their goods and brands.


Obviously, these ‘intriguing symbols’, as Louise Crane defined them, were a major artefact of Chinese urban material culture. They were produced under various forms, with a keen sense of their aesthetic value — hence the elaborate compositions of most shop signs — and their function as a symbol expected to bring good fortune. They were set on the façades of shops that were themselves highly decorated. Chinese shops played along a continuum of visual/textual signs to assert their identity and to advertise their goods or services. By their sheer number, they created a permanent visual animation in the street. As such they served as urban markers within the city, both to ‘reveal’ to people the areas where trade was concentrated and to indicate within these areas the specialities that were available. In other words, shop signs can be seen as macro-level markers that punctuated the urban territory according to its degree of commercialisation. At the micro level, they constituted a visual language that guided the eye and the pace of people as they moved along the streets. Shop signs were a coded language that required various levels of ‘literacy’. Many were quite plain to read, but the more symbolic ones had to be learned. Local residents and outsiders were not on a par, at least for those who came from cities where such signs were not in use, as in south China, or who were outright foreigners. Yet, strolling on the streets for a while, it would not take much time to learn the main ‘words’ of this visual language.

Shop signs were definitely a prominent feature that shaped the image of the city. They did not exist solely by themselves as material artefacts of local customs or expressions of Chinese crafts. They were an integral part of the urban landscape and, more precisely, of the commercial landscape created by the rows of shops that lined commercial thoroughfares. Louise Crane encapsulates very well that vision of

long stretches of low buildings, in which the strictly native shops ply their trades. Their façades, elaborately carved and touched with gilt, bristle with a horizontal forest of iron poles ending in dragon heads; and from these swing the gaily-coloured and intriguing symbols whose elucidation forms our text.61

The shop signs literally and visually shaped the image and perception of commercial streets in Republican Beijing. The bright colours of the signs, their faint movement in the wind, and the juxtaposition of a forest of various signs and flags contrasted sharply with the grim grey rows of regular hutong. They created an atmosphere that was propitious to leisurely walking and shopping. The ordinary viewers of the shop signs — the Beijing crowd — are usually absent from the photographs of Hedda Morrison, except in a few cases. Nevertheless, it needs no stretch of the imagination to suggest that Beijing residents or travellers enjoyed the colourful signs. These decorative visual advertisements must have cheered up the eyes and minds of passers-by.

Finally, I hope to have established the relevance and value of using photographs in exploring the Chinese urban setting in the Republican period. The record of Hedda Morrison served first as the developer of an otherwise forgotten and occulted feature of the street scene in Beijing. It triggered my interest in exploring what these shop signs were about, how they fitted into the urban context and what they meant for the casual onlooker or local resident. Shop signs in Hedda Morrison’s lens are not disincarnated artefacts, even if she focused on them as art objects with, perhaps, some commercial value. Her rich record allows us to perceive and understand a fascinating dimension of visual culture in Republican Beijing, one of the numerous layers of signs that were displayed quite extensively through the city.




1 Hedda Hammer produced all her work on Beijing before she got married in 1946. Her few published photographs are listed under her maiden name or as Hammer-Morrison after 1946. Nevertheless, since she became known through her books under the name of Hedda Morrison, we shall use this name in the present paper.

2 Zhuang Bohe, ‘Yunhan minsu quwei de lao zhaopai’ (The folk customs contained in old shop signs), in Zhuang Bohe, Minjian meishu xunli (A Survey of Folk Art) (Taipei: Li Xianwen, 1980).

3 Wang Rui, Zhongguo shangye minsu gaishuo (Generality of Commercial Art in China) (Shijiazhuang: Hebei Renmin Chubanshe, 1997), p. 103.

4 The Sanliujiu huabao published an interesting series of papers on shop signs and other local customs. Sanliujiu huabao (369 Pictorial), 1939–43.

5 For an overview of Hedda Morrison’s work in China, see the beautiful website set up by the Harvard-Yenching Library at http://hcl.harvard.edu/libraries/harvard-yenching/collections/morrison/

6 For a more complete presentation of Hedda Morrison, see Claire Roberts, ‘In her view: Hedda Morrison’s photographs of Peking, 1933–1946’, East Asian History, No. 4 (December 1992), pp. 81–104.

7 The production and fate of Hartung’s Photo Studio remains a mystery. Although it was a major photo studio from about 1913 to 1946, very little is left of its photographic record. We have identified various pictures in city guides, but no complete albums. Moreover, the conditions of its closing after 1945 remain obscure, as it was targeted as an ‘enemy national firm’ by the Nationalist authorities in 1946. The studio was transferred to two successive German nationals in 1946 and 1947, but nothing is known of what happened to the stock of images the studio possessed. Beijing Municipal Archives, Files J1-7-547-2, ‘Beiping shi zhengfu guanyu ping-jin qu diwei chanye qingcha weiyuanhui chengli bangong de ling’ (Order on the establishment of the Committee for the control of enemy properties of the Beiping–Tianjin area), 1 April 1946-04-01; J13-1-175-13. ‘Hebei ping-jin diwei chanye chuli banfa’ (Directive on the audit of enemy properties in Beiping–Tianjin, Hebei), 1–31 December 1945-31; personal communication, 3 May 2006, private archive, Studienwerk Deutsches Leben in Ostasien.

8 ‘Interview with Alastair Morrison talking about his wife, photographer, Hedda Morrison’, interviewer Edward Stokes, 26 and 30 November 2003, 25 May 2004, National Library of Australia, Oral History Section.

9 See: http://hcl.harvard.edu/libraries/harvard-yenching/collections/morrison/ A separate website was set up recently with Hedda Morrison’s Hong Kong photographs at http://www.heddamorrison.com/

10 Tenri Daigaku and Tenrikyō Dōyūsha (ed.) Pekin no kanban (Shop Signs of Beijing) (Nara-ken Tenri-shi: Tenrikyō Dōyūsha, 1987)

11 Interview with Alastair Morrison.

12 Untitled album, private collection, Texas.

13Pékin: ses palais, ses temples, et ses environs (Paris: Librairie Française, 1937); Hsiao San-tiao, Peking on Parade: A Pocket Guide (Beiping: Standard Press, 1935).

14 Hedda Morrison also took a lot of portraits, but people were generally absent from her images of buildings or streets.

15 The Tenri Museum has a copy of The Shop Signs of Peking (Yan du shangbang tu) (Beiping: Chinese Painting Association of Peking, 1931), which includes a document (Yan du shangbang tu dizhi) with the addresses of all the shops that displayed the shop signs represented in the book. I hope to get a copy of this document and to map out these locations on a map of Republican Beijing. Pekin no kanban, p. 16

16 Sanliujiu huabao, 1939–43.

17 Louise Crane, China in Sign and Symbol (London: B.T. Batsford; Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1926), p. 11.

18 Aweinaliwusi, Zhongguo gongshang tongye gonghui (fu gongshang yingye biaohuang tushi)) (Trade and Crafts Associations of China, with a Supplement on Shop Signs of Trade and Crafts) (Dongsheng wenwu yanjiuhui lishi ren zhongke congshu) (Harbin: s.n., 1928). The name of the author is made to sound Russian, but it does not correspond to an actual Russian name.

19 The text is in Chinese, but the captions of the shop signs are also in Russian and English.

20 Qu Yanbin, Zhongguo zhaohuang cidian (Dictionary of Chinese Shop Signs) (Shanghai: Shanghai Cishu Chubanshe, 2001), p. 16

21 In fact, there is another book by the same painter that would have been published in Beijing between 1890 and 1899, but I have yet to obtain it. Zhou Peichun, Xi ri Zhongguo shang dian huang zi cai tu (Colour Pictures of Shop Signs in China of Bygone Days) (Beijing: s.n., s.d.).

22 The Shop Signs of Peking (Yan du shang bang tu) (Beijing: Chinese Painting Association of Peking, 1931).

23 Chao Wei-Chung, Shop Signs of Peking (s.l.: s.n., 1900s); Samuel Constant, Trade and Shop Signs (Beiping: Beiyang Press, 1930); H.F. Chiang, A Collection of Shop Signs of China (Beiping: Bible Treasury, 1948).

24 Tsunhua Hui Wen Middle School, Shop Signs of North China (Tsunhua: s.l.: s.n., 1930–1940s). The school principal was H.F. Chiang (see previous footnote).

25 Tamezō Osumi, Shina tempo no kanban (The Shop Signs of Chinese Shops) (Dairen-shi: Chū-Nichi Bunka Kyōkai, 1930); Masaru Aoki, Kanban ko (Examination of Shop Signs), Bunka (Culture), Vol. 1, No. 3 (1934); Shigeo Miyao, Shina gaitō fūzokushu (A Collection of Chinese Street Customs) (Tokyo: Jitsugyō no Nihonsha, 1939); Manshū Jijō Annaijo (ed.) Manshō shōhai ko (The Shop Signs of Manchurian Merchants) (Shinkyō: Manshū Jijō Annaijo, 1940); Yutaro Yoneda, Shina no tempo to kanban kokoku (The Shops and Advertising Shop Signs in China) (Tokyo: Kyōzaisha, 1940); Daisuke Inooka, ‘Manshi no kanban(Shop Signs in Manchuria) in Manshi shūzokukō (A Study of Manchurian Customs) (Osaka: Yugawakō Bunsha, 1942).

26 Xu Ping, ‘Peking zhaohuang’ (Beijing shop signs), Zhongguo minjian gongyi (Folk Arts and Crafts of China), No. 12 (1993), pp. 84–5.

27 Pekin no kanban, p. 16. When Fukuhara first tried to purchase a shop sign directly from a restaurant in Hatamen street, the owner became very angry, fuming that his business was very good, that he did not need any money at all and that he felt no need to sell his shop sign. Of course, the wartime context may not have been favourable for approaching the restaurant owner, but one can also read the reaction of the owner as a genuine refusal to part with the symbol of his business, a sign that brought good luck and good fortune to his enterprise. Pekin no kanban, p. 14.

28 Pekin no kanban, p. 149.

29 Nakano Teruo, ‘Shōhai (Shina no kanban) no wa’ (A word about shop signs [Chinese shop signs]) in Tenri bunka kenkyūjo fuzoku sankōkan, Chūgoku minzoku sankōhin chinretsu mukuroku (Catalogue for the Exhibition of Artefacts of Chinese Customs) (Nara: Tenri Daigaku Fuzoku Tenri Sankōkan, 1948); Nakano Teruo, ‘Chūgoku zairai no shōten kanban — huangzi’ (Shop signs — shop signs in the Chinese tradition) in Tenri sankōkan chinretsuhin annai (Guide to the Collections of the Tenri Museum) (Nara: Tenri Sankōkan, 1954); ‘Howantsu (Shop signs), in Minzokushiryō (Materials on Folk Culture) (Nara: Tenri Sankōkan, 1962); ‘Senkyūhyaku yonjū nendai pekinshi no tentōhyōshiki [Howantsu] shichishu(Seven trade [shop] signs on Beijing shop fronts in 1940) in Tenri daigaku fuzoku tenri sankōkan zuroku (Pictorial Record of the Tenri Museum — Tenri University) (Nara: Tenri Daigaku Shuppan, 1986); ‘Howantsu sanki Chūgoku no kanban (shōten hyōshiki) ni tsuite’ (On Chinese shop signs [commercial symbols]) in Pekin no kanban, pp. 148–69.

30 Xu Ping, ‘Beijing zhaohuang’ (Beijing shop signs), Zhongguo minjian gongyi (Folk Arts and Crafts of China), No. 12 (1993), pp. 83–5.

31 Qu Yanbin, Fuyuyan xisu (The Traditions of Auxiliary Language) (Shenyang: Liaoning Daxue Chubanshe, 1988); Zhongguo zhaohuang (Chinese Shop Signs) (Shenyang: Liaoning Guji Chubanshe, 1994).

32 Yu Xuebin, Dongbei lao zhaohuang (Old Shop Signs of the Northeast) (Shanghai: Shanghai Shudian, 2002)

33 Wang Shucun, Zhongguo dianpu zhaohuang (The Shop Signs and Sign Boards of Chinese Shops) (Beijing: Beijing Waiwen Chubanshe, 2005).

34 Liu Qiulin, Lao Beijing de chuanshuo (Hearsay of Old Beijing. Signboards, Shop Signs and Cityscape) (Beijing: Zhongguo Wenlian Chubanshe, 2006).

35 Lin Yan, Lao Beijing dianpu de zhaohuang (The Shop Signs and Signboards of Shops in Old Beijing) (Beijing: Bowen, 1987; Fan Wei, Lao Beijing de zhaohuang (The Shop Signs of Old Beijing) (Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe, 2004).

36 Qu Yanbin, Zhongguo zhaohuang.

37 Zhuang Bohe, ‘Yunhan minsu quwei de lao zhaopai’ (The characteristics of folk customs of old signboards), in Minjian meishu xunli (A Survey of Popular Art) (Taipei: Xingzhengyuan Xinwenju, 1980), p. 63; Yu Xuebin, Dongbei lao zhaohuang, p. 11

38 Siu Tin Anne Lee, ‘Traditional Chinese shop signs in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong: the search for historical, cultural and architectural identity’ (MA dissertation, Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong, 1998), p. 55.

39 Shi Xiyan, ‘Qiantan shangye de biaozhi – shangye zhaohuang’ (Discussing commercial marks — commercial shop signs, Shangye yanjiu (Research on Commerce), No. 7 (1994), p. 42.

40 Fan Wei, Lao Beijing de zhaohuang, p. 5

41 Sanliujiu huabao, 1939–43.

42 The collection of archives for the 1920s and 1930s is very uneven and quite disappointing. There is a lot more for the 1940s, but I found no trace of regulations on shop signs by the municipal government. By the 1940s, shop signs may already have disappeared.

43 Pekin no kanban, p. 153

44Shangdian paigaoshui zuori kaishi zhengshou’ (The collection of taxes on shop signs began yesterday), Beiping chenbao (the Beiping Morning Post), 29 March 1931.

45 Yu Xuebin Dongbei lao zhaohuang, p. 3

46 Lin Yan, Lao Peking dianpu de zhaohuang (Shop Signs of Old Beijing). The original source of this book is probably a book held in the Beijing historical museum (Beijing lishi bowuguan) which is not open for consultation. Its title is Qing Beijing dianpu menmian (The Face of Shops in Qing Beijing), dated as a late Qing document. Qu Yanbin, Zhongguo zhaohuang cidian, p. 26.

47 Qi Rushan, Beijing sanbai liushi hang (The 360 Trades of Beijing) (Beijing: Bao Wen Tang Shu Dian, 1989); Qi Rushan, Gu du sanbai liushi hang (The 360 Trades of the Ancient Capital) (Beijing: Shumu Wenxian Chubanshe, 1993; Wang Yinju, Jiu du sanbai liushi hang (Beijing: Beijing Lüyou Chubanshe, 1986); Li Zhongqing and Yang Xiaomin (eds), Manhua sanbai liushi hang (360 Trades in Caricatures) (Beijing: Xiandai Chubanshe, 1999); Xia Lin'gen, Jiu Shanghai sanbai liushi hang (The 360 Trades in Old Shanghai) (Shanghai: Huadong Shifan Daxue Chubanshe, 1989).

48 Yu Lin, ‘Guahuang shidian maihuo — beifang shangye fengsu shi ou’ (Hanging shop signs, knowing shops and buying goods — the business customs of north China), Caifeng bao (Caifeng Journal), No. 15 (1984), p. 4.

49 Qu Yanbin, ‘Gujin zhaohuang’ (Shop signs now and then), Baike zhishi (Encyclopedic Knowledge), No. 11 (1990), p. 23.

50 A more complete list would include paints and dyes, brassware, hemp and peanut oil, glass toys, beads, shoes, bellows, metalwork.

51 Crane, China in Sign and Symbol, p. 33

52 The red colour also had its place in a parallel symbolism for the seasons, with blue the colour of spring (symbolising promise), red the colour of summer (fulfilment, consumption), and white and black for autumn and winter respectively.

53 Xiu Lan, ‘Lao beijing dianpu de menmian’ (The shop front of the old Beijing shops), Minsu (Folk Culture), No. 2 (1988), pp. 15–17.

54 See http://commonpeopleandartist.net/

55 Manshū Jijō Annaijo (ed.) Manshō shōhai ko, p. 183.

56Li Qiao, Zhongguo hangye sheng chongbai (The Cult of Trade Gods) (Beijing: Zhongguo Wenlian Chubanshe, 1999), pp. 3–35.

57 Frank B. Gibney, ‘The marks of a Japanese merchant’, in Kanban — Shop Signs of Japan (New York: Japan Society and The American Federation of Arts, 1983) p. 7.

58 Chiang, A Collection of Shop Signs of China, p. 1.

59 Hsiao San-tiao, Peking on Parade, p. 39

60 Crane, China in Sign and Symbol, p. 12.

61 Crane, China in Sign and Symbol, pp. 4–5.

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