IN THE RECEPTION HALL of a gentleman's house in Canton, two seated men in loose white summer gowns confront us with an easy air that is both gracious and guarded. The room is rich with teak furniture, porcelain, and hanging scrolls. There is a jarring Western note as well - clustered gas chandeliers and at the rear a large mirror of European manufacture. But the mirror, though it doubles the room, is tilted up and does not reflect the one thing we look for - the invisible, controlling element in the picture, the photographer. He was an unknown occidental who had come in the rear guard of an informal army of photographers entering China around 1860. They arrived on the heels of the missionaries and traders who had finally taken by brute force the right to make themselves at home anywhere, to impose opium, railroads, and a mean-minded Protestant Christianity on 400 million people whose forebears had kept a closed, self-sufficient world going for 2000 years.

Two similar books of photographs taken between 1850 and 1912 with useful texts and commentaries (both catalogues of recent shows) give us transfixing glimpses of what westerners saw, or thought they saw, in a country of whose culture and history they were largely, and often contemptuously, ignorant. By mid-century, when they broke through the walls, it was a country in deep distress. The equilibrium of the Middle Kingdom (midway, that is, between heaven and earth), based on a state bureaucracy that anyone could enter by passing punishing civil service examinations, had begun to falter. (One bleak photograph shows a double row of cubicles - a sampling of 7500 at one site - in which candidates were shut up for 26 hours with the injunction, "Write all you know.") The system had been sustained by unquestioning acceptance of a social pyramid, held together by respect and humility. But China was not timeless or ageless; the Confucian bureaucratic machinery did not run by perpetual motion, and the "barbarians" were to bring it to a stop.

Since the 18th century missionaries and merchants had been clamoring for entry to save heathen souls and debauch them with opium - an illicit trade that played havoc with the Chinese and made British traders obscenely rich. When their stores of opium in Canton was confiscated in 1842, the British began a war that ended in a treaty securing them the right to trade in large ports, take over Hong Kong and receive a colossal indemnity. Other nations demanded the same rights: the Celestial Kingdom was henceforth a colony to be plundered and divided. Another war produced another treaty signed at gunpoint: more open ports, foreign legations in Peking, unbridled missionary activity, legalized opium. When the Chinese proved reluctant to honor the treaty, the British sacked Peking in 1860, looting and burning the imperial Summer Palace. Internal turmoil, a war lost to the Japanese, the Boxer Rebellion, and last stratagems of the malignant Dowager Empress brought a final end to the Ch'ing dynasty in 1912.

The sufferings they had so lavishly heaped on the Chinese made little impression on the exultant merchants and missionaries, to whom their victims were heathens, "morally degraded" and "half-civilized." The people back home who bought stereoscope cards (showing a risible tooth extraction Chinese-style, a Fu Manchu-type opium den, to "the American Counsul's Four-in-hand" - four barefoot Chinese carrying a wizened dignitary suspended in a chair) or the superb 4-volume Illustrations of China and Its People (1873) by John Thomson, enjoyed what seemed to them comic, weird, even sometimes charming; but with their lordly assumptions they hardly appreciated the humiliation, bewilderment, and contempt that must heve been among the feelings of the subject in every confrontation with a photographer.

Not that the photographers weren't heroes, traveling unpaved raods with their cumbersome cameras and glass plates big as breakfast trays. Felice Beato, an Italian accompanying the invading armies of France and England in 1860, was one of the first. In fallen forts he photographed Chinese corpses, begging soldiers not to throw the bodies of "deada mansa" into pits until he had his pictures. And here they lie, among rolls on matting, cannon balls, antique muskets, and crossbows, while the invaders' ladders poke over the walls and their flags fly blurrily over the desolation. Beato recorded the haunted face of Prince Kung after his surrender to the Allies in 1860; the walls and towers of Peking with new railway tracks and heaps of coal in their shadow; the Summer Palace, just before its pagodas, garden houses, temples, and pavilions were burned down, to teach the Chinese a lesson.

A gifted M. Miller, of whom nothing much is known, took many poignant, searching portraits, imposing on the Chinese convention of seated figure facing the artist, fingers lovingly curled round a fan or flower, his own sensitive treatment. A keen-eyed, rather chinless young mandarin sits at ease, informally dressed, with his family, his youngest son on his lap. The next son wriggles in his chair, but the eldest, about seven, looks at the camera with reproachful dignity. Opposite sit the wife and a pretty daughter about 10, looking modestly aside. Their tiny bound feet just kiss the floor in miniature shoes smaller than those of the baby boy - the girl's feet probably still torment her. Miller presents with the same delicacy the wife of a mandarin, with long fingernails, rich clothing, and white face whose paint does not disguise her gentleness, and a pregnant working-class girl holding a chrysanthemum in one hand, who has a dark gown, shiny shoes on unbound feet, and a plain little anxious, unpainted face. The book on the table beside her is probably a Bible. The subjects abound: a cotton broker in a simple white gown, holding a delicate spray of flowering grass and refusing to look us in the eye; three haughty shopkeepers giving their all to the camera; three translators, fat, thin, and medium - fat and thin looking somehow pathetic in horn-rimmed spectacles; a high official who has done a heap of living and looks at Miller with a confident, humorous half-smile. Among these Chinese faces, that of a British merchant is unsettling with its big nose, tough mouth, and deep, pale eyes. His mid-Victorian costume sets him further apart; for most Chinese dress looks entirely "modern" - unlike the array of 1860s clothing to be seen in the photograph of the grandstand at the Hong Kong race track, crammed with bell-shaped women in bonnets and swaggering gents in stovepipe hats and whiskers.

A third outstanding photographer was John Thomson, a Scot, who began his extended journeys across China in 1868 and published one of the first travel books ever illustrated with photographs. He recorded people of every class, trade, and profession, and had a keen eye for feminine beauty. A lovely high-born young woman sits at a dressing stand, one satin-trousered leg crossed over the other, showing her tiny hoof; her face is as luminously pale as the porcelain vase on the rug; an equally beautiful young servant, faintly smiling, stands behind her on unbound feet dressing her gleaming hair. The image is one of ineffable chic. The beauty of a working-class woman, seen in profile, has been refined by age to an essence. Her eyes are lowered, her chin rests lightly on one hand, her hair is fashioned in a shell-like knot that balances the pure profile. It is a no less ravishing portrait than Mrs. Cameron's of Virginia Woolf's mother, but in composition and spirit more complex and satisfying.

A later photographer, E. H. Wilson, who came to China to collect and photograph plants, took marvelously sophisticated pictures of landscapes with figures very like those of Cartier-Bresson. But he too was attracted, once anyway, by grisly Chinese punishments (several are shown in these books) and made an appalling picture of two condemned men awaiting strangulation. Nastier yet is a picture taken by someone else of a doomed criminal in a cage surrounded by gloating Europeans with spotless white shoes, straw hats, waxed moustaches, and whangee sticks: one beams fatuously at the camera; another glares at it scoldingly, while a Chinese gawks. No less shaming are pictures of a crinolined Western woman posing by her sallow child, who sulks in a fancy ricksha with a young Chinese between the traces; of three vain Englishmen buttoned up in smart suits taking tea poured of them by a frightened Chinese in a wadded jacket; of a natty pair of young westerners in in their factory, with a smug chinese overseer between them, while cheap labor - miserable-looking dispossessed peasants - sits on the floor weaving rattan.

The China in these photographs is no flowery land made familiar by painted scrolls and porcelains. A chill of uniformity hangs over the drab, dusty landscapes in which it is impossible to imagine color; and over the cities, that are no more than immense, low villages rambling on and on in a monotony of stinking streets and decaying brick walls. But the faces of the people, clever, practical, dignified, and humorous, are far from inscrutable, and a century later we can examine them with respect and humility.