A well-known Chinese ‘giant’ has received quite a bit of media attention lately. Yao Ming, the 7 foot 6 inch retired NBA player, recently became an ambassador for China’s Shanghai Disney Resort. However, based on a recently discovered collection of photographs from the mid-nineteenth century, the towering basketball center doesn’t measure up against some of his less famous countrymen.
The images unearthed by a news blogger are from the late Qing Dynasty, a period of famine and malnutrition for many of the nation’s inhabitants. It was also the time when Westerners were first making inroads into the country. In the course of their activities, these foreign-born merchants encountered the abnormally large men. Among them was Zhan Shicai, the most famous giant of the imperial period. He was from Fujian Province and was eight feet tall. On the advice of a British businessman, he moved to London in 1865 at the age of twenty-four. Once settled in England, Zhan performed in a freak show under the name ‘Chang the Chinese Giant.’ While amazing sellout crowds, Zhan also went on to graduate from an English college and learn ten languages. After his Chinese wife, Kin Foo, passed away, he married an Englishwoman, had two children, and opened a store in London that specialized in Chinese tea and imports. He lived to be fifty years old.
The collection of photographs also includes images of Chang Yanming. A bailiff at the local imperial government office in the Yunnan Province, he towered above prisoners at a height of 7 feet 11 inches. George Ernest Morrison, an Australian political advisor to the local Chinese military commander, befriended Yanming. Although unable to convince his giant friend to travel to Australia, Morrison used his connections with The Times newspaper in London to circulate pictures of the man around the world.
As well documented as Zhan and Chang’s stories are, the collection of photographs also includes individuals with gigantism whose names have been forgotten by history. Descriptions in an index associated with the images simply include the individuals’ heights and that they were brought to Europe to perform in theatrical productions. While these were some of the tallest men of the late Qing Dynasty, they were all at least a foot shorter than the world’s tallest man, Robert Wadlow. At the time of his death in 1940, the 22-year-old from the United States weighed 439 pounds, stood 8 feet 11 inches tall, and was still growing. For scale, the man next to him is his 5 foot 11 inch tall father.