The spread of postcards in China during the 1860s was primarily driven by a growing Western market looking for images of exotic Eastern culture. Chinese postcards from the mid-19th century typically depicted places that would have been visited by outsiders, like treaty ports or colonial outposts including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Qingdao, Hankou, and Hong Kong. These also happened to be cities where the postcard-printing industry was just beginning to flourish.
The images on these postcards were often crafted in a photographer’s studio and catered to existing Western stereotypes, featuring photos of women with bound feet or people smoking opium, as well as sights that would have seemed curious to Westerners, like Mongolians in traditional garb or rickshaws. Through the mid-20th century, Chinese postcards designed for Western buyers used much older photographs as their source images, which appealed to the outside world’s assumptions about the Chinese and their old-fashioned way of life.
Postcards made in China also captured major events that would have been of interest to Europeans, like the violent anti-foreigner uprising known as the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. However, the majority featured scenic landscapes or impressive architectural sites such as the Temple of Heaven in Beijing or views of the famed Great Wall.
Following the 1949 establishment of China’s Communist Party, Chairman Mao Zedong and his accomplishments became a popular subject for postcards, which were increasingly designed as propaganda pieces for Chinese nationals.