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Hedda Morrison: Beijing in the ’30s

Immerse yourself in Old Peking, a Beijing you have never seen


Hedda Morrison: Beijing in the ’30s

Immerse yourself in Old Peking, a Beijing you have never seen


Born in Stuttgard, Hedda Morrison left Germany when Nazi powers began seizing control of the state, and landed in Beijing (then Peking) in 1933. She resided in the city for 13 years, during which time she took thousands of pictures that documented the architecture and everyday life of this enchanting capital. Since then, 80 years have passed, and many of the local customs and architecture have faded into history. Her works in Beijing are rare images that offer a glimpse into 1930s Peking, lost in time.

The worker is in the process of making coarse paper in the traditional Chinese method. The hairstyle he wears in this photo is queue. The front of the head is shaved, and the rest of the hair is braided into a long pigtail at the back. A style worn by Manchu males, the hair was forcefully imposed upon all Chinese during the Qing dynasty.  Hedda Morrison explained how the paper was made:

“The pulp is placed in a tank where it is vigorously stirred and kept in solution. The paper maker stands behind the tank and works with two articles of equipment only. Immediately in front of him is a wooden framework which rests on blocks just above the level of the pulp. Another piece of equipment is a very fine flexible bamboo grid. This is dipped into the solution and removed with particles of pulp adhering to it. Placed on top of the wooden framework the water drains away and pulp can be tipped off in the form of three separate sheets of paper. This is achieved by leaving in the fine grid two strips which are too coarse to pick up the pulp. Behind the worker can be seen piles of prepared paper. The paper makers work in cold unheated sheds and it is bitter work during the winter months.”


Old Peking did not have smog, but it still had sand storms:

dust storm

A look at the old Qianmen Boulevard, with rickshaws and the memorial archway (牌楼, páilóu) called 正阳桥坊 zhengyang qiaofang. The pailou was demolished in 1955, and later rebuilt in 2007.


Below is a photo of a man sitting idly with two children in the winter sun. It reveals more information than it seems:

“The empty wicker basket suggests that this old man and children are probably from a village outside Peking and have come into the city to trade. On the wall behind the children is a graffiti scrawl written in chalk which represents a play upon the opening words of the Thousand Character Classic (Qianziwen), which refers to the creation of the universe.”

winter sun

Although Chinese New Year has been celebrated since ancient periods, many customs have become observed less over time. Traditional celebratory practices include dining with the entire family, setting off firecrackers, sacrifice offering, staying up late (守岁 shǒusuì), and sticking spring scrolls (春联 chūnlián).  In the photograph below, a boy kneels in front of the table of offerings, paying tribute to his ancestors. Morrison recorded:

“The poster of the Kitchen God, his face smeared with a little sugar, was sent off in a bonfire to report on the doings of the household to the Jade Emperor God. Red paper decorations with auspicious phrases written on them were pasted on the doors, as were new posters of the Door Gods. Special dumplings were prepared in the form of a tael, the old Chinese silver piece. All debts had to be repaid. Workers normally received a bonus of one month’s salary but only a few days holiday which was their only holiday of the year. The New Year itself was ushered in with the discharge of many fire crackers. There was much feasting. Temples were visited and family calls made. “

paying respects

Visiting New Year markets (庙会 miàohuì) is a merry tradition and New Year’s activity enjoyed in today’s Beijing as much as it was in the Old Peking. According to Power House Museum:

“New Year markets began in the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911), and were held from the first to the 15th of the first lunar month. At their busiest there were more than 1000 stalls. Going to the New Year market was an important pastime in Old Peking. The New Year markets ceased trading in 1964 but resumed in 2001.”

Look at these men browsing calligraphy, paintings, and antiques at stalls!

Document from the Powerhouse Museum Collection

new year market

Hedda Morrison documented the Old Peking from 1933 to 1946. Power House Museum put up the collection of her photography works online, including street life, portraits, temples, landscape, and many more. Immerse yourself in the disappeared Old Peking! It is a Beijing you have never known.

Image courtesy of Power House Museum.