“Ellen Thorbecke: From Peking to Paris”, edited by Ruben Lundgren and Rik Suermondt


From Peking to Paris tells the story of Ellen Thorbecke (née Kolban, 1902-1973), a free-spirited woman who holds a singular position in international photography. Her work has been largely forgotten, but is currently making a revival, because—among other reasons—her photographs provide a unique portrait of  China ruled by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government. Over several years in the 1930s, Thorbecke made six photo books (of which five have been published) covering China. From Peking to Paris compiles these into a single volume, which also includes Thorbecke’s photography of France, the Netherlands and the newly-established state of Israel.

Thorbecke was a remarkable woman. Her Austrian mother was an opera singer, her German father a rich landowner. After her first marriage ended in divorce, she worked as a journalist and photographer to make a living for herself and her daughter.

At a reception held at the Dutch embassy in Berlin she met Willem Thorbecke, grandson of the famous Dutch politician. Willem Thorbecke was married when he met Ellen, but when in 1931 Willem was assigned as the Dutch envoy to Beijing,  Ellen followed him. They lived separately, for Willem was also accompanied by his wife. After his divorce, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs still opposed Willem’s intended marriage to Ellen, due to their “sinful” past. The two were only married in 1935 in Prague, once Willem had resigned.

Ellen Thorbecke bought a Rolleiflex-camera before her departure to Beijing, but didn’t seriously engage in photography until after she moved to China. Initially she used photography to illustrate the articles she wrote as a correspondent for the Berliner Tageblatt. She lived in China during the turbulent 1930s, a period of civil war and threat of war with Japan. It was a time when Western thinking made its way into China, where traditional Confucian values were still very important.

Her purpose was to refute the negative image of China held by many westerners.

Ellen Thorbecke: From Peking to Paris, Ruben Lundgren (ed), Rik Suermondt (ed) (Lecturis, June 2021)
Ellen Thorbecke: From Peking to Paris, Ruben Lundgren (ed), Rik Suermondt (ed) (Lecturis, June 2021)

The clash between Eastern tradition and Western modernization is central in Ellen Thorbecke’s portrayal of China. Photography and journalistic talent come together in her publications, illustrated with cartoons and watercolors made by the Austrian artist Friedrich Schiff (included in this book), who portrayed the behavior of both Chinese and westerners in a humorous way.

In Thorbecke’s first (unpublished) photobook China, please smile! (1933), the reader is guided through the country by two cartoon characters, the British Mr Pim and his guide Mr Wu. They also have a role in Ellen Thorbecke’s second book Peking Studies (1934), where they introduce the reader to the city of Beijing and its inhabitants.

In her third book, People in China, Thorbecke’s talent for portraying the people of 1930s China she encounters and how they lived is particularly evident. From street vendors and fortune tellers to a Manchu duke and a factory owner; Thorbecke portrays the people of China prominently, often cropping  larger photos to focus on individuals. Children are also prominent: for example a 13-year old groom and a toddler who sneaks a bite of a large New Year’s cake.

ellen03aWhat makes Ellen Thorbecke’s photo books—and hence this compilation—so special are the involved descriptions that she, as a journalist, annotated her photos with. The 13-year old groom, for example, was marrying a 15-year-old village girl because his mother broke her leg, and the daughter-in-law was needed to keep the household running. Thorbecke describes the people she portrayed from their own perspective, and does so with empathy. Whether she describes the life of a sing-song girl, or a young jet-set couple living in Shanghai, or a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law, her descriptions display her familiarity with Chinese culture and society.

Her purpose was to refute the negative image of China held by many westerners. Or, as she describes herself in “Mystical China”, a special publication handed out to passengers traveling on the Java-China-Japan-Line:


You will meet with a good-natured, polite and intelligent people, ready to trust the stranger, though he may seem a little queer to them. Therefore, do be good to them, don’t let yourself be influenced by disappointed, bitter Westerners who have failed to understand their hosts properly. Try your best to enter their country with an open heart and a kind disposition towards their peculiarities. After all, you are not without faults yourself, are you? You love to be judged from your very best side, which undoubtedly you strongly posess – just as well as these Chinese.

In leafing through the book one can easily recognize the people who lived in the China of the 1930s in the people who shape the China of today.

ellen02aEllen Thorbecke’s work was consigned to oblivion for years, but was donated to the Netherlands Photo Museum by her family in 2008. The curator, and author of this book, Ruben Lundgren, states that the main reasons for the revaluation of her work are the increased value put on  photography as a form of art in the Netherlands, an increased interest in female photographers in general, and mostly, the position of China in today’s world, which according to Lundgren has been “turned upside down”.

In the turbulent period of history during which Thorbecke lived in China, China was also “turned upside down”. Her oeuvre is an unique document showing a period in Chinese history in which photographs were still rare. At the same time, her work is timeless for in leafing through the book one can easily recognize the people who lived in the China of the 1930s in the people who shape the China of today.

Ellen Thorbecke portrayed the people she met honestly and objectively, knowing the context of their lives and from what seems today an almost sociological point of view. This new publication of her combined work achieves the goal she had ninety years ago: her view of China is one free from politics and prejudice, something that is desperately needed in times of increasing international tensions and polarization.

Judith van de Bovenkamp has been writing about China for over a decade. She is managing editor of the Dutch China crowdblog China2025.nl.