China: A Manchu Bride


This photograph by the great Scottish traveler, geographer, and photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) shows a young woman of the Manchu ethnic group in her wedding dress. She is dressed in a richly embroidered costume and a large floral headdress with tassels. Her face is powdered white. As an ethnographer, Thomson took many photographs of brides in lavish costumes, but he also expressed a gloomy view of the brides’ future lives, which he compared to slavery. "No Manchu maiden can be betrothed until she is fourteen years of age. Usually some elderly woman is employed as a go-between to arrange a marriage, and four primary rules exist to guide the matron. First the lady must be amiable. Secondly she must be a woman of few words. Thirdly she must be of industrious habits, and lastly she must neither want a limb nor an eye and indeed she must be moderately good-looking." Thomson also wrote that the wife “is even liable to be beaten by her mother-in-law, and husband too, if she neglects to discharge her duties as general domestic drudge.” Thomson’s collection of more than 600 glass negatives, made between 1868 and 1872, was acquired by Henry S. Wellcome in 1921.

Last updated: September 25, 2015