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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Technologized Vision in Modern China
1: Ghost in the Machine, or the “Trick” Beginning of Chinese Animation History
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
University of Chicago, United States
This paper traces the “apparitions” of stop-motion tricks in so-called live-action Chinese films in the silent era. In my endeavor, the ghost serves as a powerful metaphor for stop-motion tricks, or what we now call object animation, a subgenre of stop-motion animation that literally enlivens lifeless objects, such as a pair of boots or a string of pearls. Exemplary films are An Empty Dream (Qing xu meng, 1922, nonextant), The Pearl Necklace (Yichuang zhenzhu, 1926, extant), and The Knight (Daxia ganfengchi, 1928, partially extant). The use of the trick of stop-motion substitution enables a technologized vision: seeing the impossible. While troubling the conventional historical narrative that treats An Empty Dream—adapted from the story entitled “The Taoist Priest of Laoshan” from Pu Songling’s (1640–1715) Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio—as the first trick film in Chinese film history, I show that the notion of the trick becomes a site of encounter between the Chinese classical tale and the modern medium of animation, as it takes shape in the confrontation between the world that Pu conjures up—one thick with ghosts, fox-spirits, and fairy maidens—and the ghosts in the machine. By examining an account of how to make stop-motion animation published in Photography Pictorial (Sheying huabao) in 1931, I demonstrate that in the Chinese historical context, this species of animation was surprisingly understood as part and parcel of trick photography.