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2010/75/1-31 Lantern slide (1 of 89), stone statue of Qilin (Kylin or legendary Chinese unicorn), glass / metal, Serge Vargassoff, Peking, China, 1920-1949. Click to enlarge.

Lantern slide by Serge Vargassoff

These glass slides were taken by the Russian-born photographer Serge Vargassoff (1906-1965) who established himself as a professional photographer, at the age of 20, in Peking (Beijing), China and became a long-term resident of the city. Later he established a studio 'Serge Vargassoff Photography' at 3A Wyndham Street Hong Kong, as well as working at "Gainsborough Studio, Morning Post Building, Hong Kong". Vargassoff was well known to Hedda Hammer Morrision. Hedda Morrison writes fondly of Vargassoff in her book, A Photographer in Old Peking (1985), "[Serge Vargassoff] was an excellent, though not very businesslike, photographer. We enjoyed a firm friendship and it was he who brought me the news of the Japanese surrender - and a bottle of vodka with which to celebrate the event."

The slides were most likely selected from a vast collection of Vargassoff's black-and-white silver gelatin photographs. A great many capture the city of Peking (Beijing), its sites and people. The glass slides depict historical sites and people of Beijing, including the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, the Great Wall, white dagoba, marble bridge and the Dragon Wall in Pei Hai (Bei Hai), the main temple of Ta Hui Ssu, Buddhist monks and street scenes. Early photographs of China are important historical documents and many of those that have survived may be found in public collections. Photographs provide perspectives on the places photographed as well as perceptions of photographers about those places. Photographs taken by Serge Vargassoff, document aspects of Chinese life from a western perspective in the days before the rise of the Communist Government. The photographs enable viewers to better understand the complex social and cultural changes that have taken place in China over the past sixty years. This collection is particularly valuable because it documents the oeuvre of one photographer - Serge Vargassoff, a contemporary of Hedda Hammer Morrison whose work is also well represented in the museum's collection. It provides important insights into his commercial practice and the subjects that were of interest to him.

Based on the subject matter of the glass slides, it is estimated that some images were taken between 1910 and 1920. The first national flag of the Republic of China, known as wuseqi (five-coloured flag), appears in one slide with Chinese solders. The flag was mainly used in Shanghai and northern China from the establishment of the government of the Republic of China (RoC) on January 1, 1912 until the demise of the warlord government in 1928. Five coloured stripes in the flag represented, according to Sun Yat-sen, the five ethnic groups divided under the Han Dynasty in China: the Han (red), the Manchu (yellow), the Mongol (blue), the Hui (white), and the Tibetan (black) people.

Many aerial shots of in and around Beijing included in the slide collection are also precise images of Beijing during the time. Given that the airways were strictly controlled by the Chinese Nationalist Government and private aeroplanes were not allowed at that time, the slides provide important documentation of the city. One aerial image depicts a view of the Forbidden City with part of the plane wing which has Chinese characters visible on it. In addition, the colours of the glass slides are a significant part of their aesthetic value as the images are in good condition and are very clear, sharp and vibrant in colour. The colours were chosen with artistic intention and hand-painted using fine brushes. A wide range of colour spectrum captured in Vargassoff's images is rarely found in coloured glass slides of the period.

By 1920, photography was established as a popular pastime and a profession. Given the difficulties of making pictures with early cameras, it is not surprising that the oldest photographs were mostly the work of professional photographers. Foreign travellers to Asian countries often purchased photographs taken by professional photographers, such as Vargassoff, during their visits.

Hedda Morrison, A Photographer in Old Peking, Hong Kong; Oxford University Press, 1985, p.11

Alastair Morrison, Hedda Morrison in Peking: A Personal Recollection, in East Asian History, Number 4 December 1992, p106

Written by Anna Kim, Research Assistant Curatorial


Object No.


Object Statement

Lantern slide (1 of 89), stone statue of Qilin (Kylin or legendary Chinese unicorn), glass / metal, Serge Vargassoff, Peking, China, 1920-1949

Physical Description

Hand coloured glass lantern slide showing a stone statue of Qilin (Kylin or legendary Chinese unicorn) in the Fahai Temple, Peking. This statue was built in white marble thus should be a white colour. However, in this photograph, it was painted yellow probably in order to show its Imperial Provenance.


No 1769.



81 mm


102 mm


2.5 mm




Produced from around 1920 to 1949.

The majority of the slides are duplicate images of Serge Vargassoff's black and white photographs from five albums titled 'Views' and loose prints from the Museum's collection.

This slide shows a stone statue of Qilin (Kylin, a Chinese unicorn of legend) in the Fahai Temple, Peking. This Qilin statue is typical Ming style as flame-shaped decorations can be seen on the head and back of the animal. Qilin statues in the Ming dynasty were also unique by their claws which were like a dragon's claws, in other dynasties, the images of Qilin all had hoofs.

The Fahai Temple is located at the southern foot of the Cuiwei Mountain in the Shijingshan District of the western suburbs of Beijing. The temple was first built in the 4th year of Zhengtong reign (1439, Ming Dynasty) and was completed in the 8th year of Zhengtong (1443). The funds was raised by Litong, a favorite official eunuch of the Ming Emperor Yingzong who bestowed a horizontal tablet with his inscription "Fa Hai Chan Si" (Fahai Zen Temple). The temple is well known for its ten large murals in the Mahavira Hall.




The glass slides were donated by Vera Vargassoff, niece of Serge Vargassoff.

Vargassoff's photographs were awarded and published. His studio works are found in Mario Prodan's 'Certain Ming Ivories' published in 1941 by Popular Island Press Peking. His two photographs that are also part of the collection of this collection of lantern slides were contributed for the article 'The Lotus' by Eleanor Consten published in '20th Century, Volume 6'. His photograph of 'The main temple of Ta Hui-Ssu in Peking' also won the second prize of the first photo contest of the magazine under the theme of Buddhism and is also included in this collection.

Cite this Object


Lantern slide by Serge Vargassoff 2021, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 5 March 2021, <https://ma.as/414886>


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