This article examines Chinese spirit photography practiced by a spiritualist (lingxue 靈學) group during China's enlightenment movement in the late 1910s. Integrating the trope of photography with Daoist divinatory rituals (fuji 扶乩), lingxue scholars claimed to have finally “photographed” immortal spirits but used shadow to render their spectral likeness. Situating this conception of photography in the Daoist practice of visualizing the formless and the true, this article asks: what is the implication of marrying the ancient search for the invisible with an obsession with the empirically real? This article argues that Chinese spirit photography was not simply superstition nor a local appropriation of modern visual technology. Rather, it offers a provocative take on the nature of photographic likeness and encapsulates a turn-of-the-century, visual-epistemic shift in the relationship between seeing and imaging. This case study encourages the exploration of the conceptual potential of the Chinese designation of photography, sheying 攝影, not as “writing with light” but as “capturing shadows.”
Yet I am still wandering between light and darkness. I don't know whether it's dusk or dawn.
Let me just raise my shadowy hand and pretend to drain a cup of wine.
I will depart alone at a time when I do not know the time.—Lu Xun, Farewell of the Shadow 魯迅《影的告别》(1924)
In 1931, the Chinese Institute of Mentalism's journal published an article on spirit photography. Written by one of its founders, Yu Pingke 余萍客, the article contrasted the authenticity of American and British spirit photographs, such as those by William Mumler, with the artificiality of the spirit photographs made and sold by the Shanghai Lingxue Society (Shanghai Lingxue hui 上海靈學會 [SLS]). While Western spirit photographs, argued Yu, included lifelike details such as the dark spots around the mouth of a woman dying from erysipelas, the Chinese photographs were “obviously produced by photographic alteration or photographing paintings.”1 Yu's intention was to restore trust in the evidentiary status of photography to scientifically explain psychic phenomena. His comparison between the indexical and the mimetic painterly images, however, revealed basic assumptions about what a photographic image was supposed to look like.
Photographic likeness is usually seen as the byproduct of its indexicality, the undeniable, existential relationship between the representation and what is being represented.2 Since the index always signifies the presence of things as things past, the ontology of the photographic image has been explicated in relation to a kind of irreversible absence, that is, death.3 Although the photographic image documents death or even, as the art historian Hans Belting has suggested, makes what is being represented a living dead, it also serves to deny death: “We shy away from looking death in the face, so we mask its visage with an image of life.”4 Such theorizations of the photographic image imply that likeness works against death; it evokes the dead's living presence through preserving its lifelikeness.5 Photography is thus an invitation to haunting. This inherent hauntology is boldly foregrounded in spirit photography, which emerged roughly twenty years after the patenting of the daguerreotype. The pre-photographic visual culture's desire for the living to step back in time is visualized as the dead's return to life, in the form of translucent, imagistic souls.
Likeness also mattered in the Chinese portrait-making tradition but not against death. Instead, likeness and mortality were bound together by a strong, positive connection. This connection is best encapsulated by the Chinese character ying 影, which referred to projected shadows, shadowy images, specular images, and portraits, but which could also refer to ghostly souls.6 Apart from revealing the etymological link between apparition and vision, the term ying further hinted at the power of visible images to convey and house spiritual presences. For example, in commemorative rituals, portraits of deceased ancestors functioned similarly to—but were never able to fully replace—spirit tablets. The reason, however, was not denigration of images per se but anxiety over their imperfect likeness. Ancestral portraits were seen not merely as mnemonic icons for the living but also as the this-worldly homes of the departed souls. Because these portraits addressed both the living and the dead, they needed to capture the essential, permanent features that the ancestors brought with them into their afterlife, rather than the fleeting lifelikeness at a particular instant in life. Likeness mattered because a tiny mismatch between a person's physiognomy and its pictorial representation might cause the spirit to lose its way and fail to recognize its imagistic residence.7 Likeness thus functioned as a medium, enabling the commute of the spirits' homecoming, the communion between one's true self and self-image, and the communication between the living and the dead.
The character ying 影 eventually became the second character in one of the most common Chinese terms for photography, sheying 攝影 (“capturing shadows”). In late 1910s and early 1920s China, sheying replaced zhaoxiang 照相 (“reflecting a portrait with a mirror”) to become the more popular designation for photography. This nomenclatural shift, as Gu Yi has suggested, went hand in hand with a rising awareness of visual veracity.8 Yet the contemporaneous practice of photographic portraits, regularly featuring performative scenes like “twin-selves picture” (erwo tu 二我图) and costumed photographs, also ventured into the realm of the illusionary.9 These photographic illusions made people aware that, instead of providing a definitive likeness, photography registered the variety of angles and expressions that could pass for an image of the self. This insipient modernist doubt over photographic indexicality10 echoes with the questions ying's polysemic past begs us to pose: if the discovery of photography consummated the preservationist desire in Western representational tradition,11 what did this discovery mean for the mediumistic desire epitomized by the very character ying, signifying simultaneously portrait and ghost? What happened to conceptions of photographic likeness, when what was being preserved and represented was not life but afterlife? What happened when ying's optical dimension was foregrounded, and why was “shadow” instead of “light” (photo-graphy) perceived to capture the essence of the subject, or at least what the image-machine captured?
These questions about photographic likeness are what SLS's spirit photography, the photographs derided by Yu Pingke, could help expound upon. The SLS's spirit photography was not just the Chinese appropriation of a Western tool or concept—visualizing what was invisible to human sight. It was also a modern iteration of a pre-photographic communicative desire. Long before photography was invented, ancient lore of postmortem portraits (xianren chuanying 先人傳影 or zhui xiezhen 追寫真) already abounded. These portraits were said either to be created by a talented painter or artist-medium who had never seen the person or to emerge automatically on a piece of rice paper locked up in a (dark)room.12 This desire to communicate with the otherworldly and to obtain an automatically generated likeness as the trace of such communication reemerged during the heyday of the New Culture Movement— China's enlightenment (qimeng 啟蒙) movement—in the late 1910s and early 1920s.13 Yet the SLS's spirit photography was unlike the automated postmortem portraits or the Mumlerian indexical documentation of the soul. They were, purportedly, “photographs” of immortal spirits (xianling 仙靈). Considered along the lines of folk gods, “immortals” 仙 referred to those who were not born gods but achieved the state of immortality through mental and bodily practices; some were accorded the immortal status after their death.14 If the souls in Western spirit photography were invisible because they had departed from their corporeal bodies, the immortal spirits in Chinese spirit photography, however, became invisible not by relinquishing their bodies but by transforming them into a formless state.15
One goal of this article is to point out both the SLS's awareness of Western spirit photography and its iconographic, formal, and conceptual departure. But elaborating on such difference is only a means to writing a global history of photography. In her extensive treatment of the SLS's photographic activities, Shengqing Wu has situated the SLS in a larger process of “how traditional lyrical sensibility and aesthetic ideas were involved in adopting and refashioning the technical medium of photography.”16 Admittedly, the dualistic categories such as aesthetics/culture and technology, tradition and modernity, the subjective and the objective, and ultimately East and West were prominent in these historical actors' own thinking. In my discussion, however, I treat this dualism as something whose very emergence and ossification were historical, demanding to be explained instead of being explained away. The SLS's “photographs” did not result from the courteous encounter between two preexistent and coherent entities. They encapsulated a clash from which the photographic as a new type of image emerged in early twentieth-century Chinese visual environment. To analyze the newness of this new type of image, I am inspired by Batchen's genealogical approach to examine the SLS's practice as a set of discourses about photographic ontology.17 I hope this case study shows that such conceptions did not stabilize after the invention of the camera but kept emerging as the medium was reinvented through its global circulation.
This historical account also encourages us to take the Chinese designation of photography as sheying seriously. It is not simply a cultural variation nor a convenient translation. Instead, it reminds us of the photographic image's liminality, of a mode of photographic seeing that has been obscured by its subsequent history: photography is also a medium of shadows. Media studies scholars have noticed how the occultist boom in early twentieth-century China coincided with the emergence of an intermedial environment. What brought the two together was the desire to communicate between and transcend thresholds, be it spatial distance or the boundary between the body and the environment.18 As an imaging technology, the photographic medium directs our attention to a particular threshold, that between the visible and the invisible. Examining the persistent desire to photograph what remains invisible to the human eye, Peter Geimer has pointed out that photography does not simply transfer an object from the state of invisible to the state of visible; it always creates a new visibility across such opposition.19 The SLS's spirit photography took shadow as its formal language, shifting our attention from the decisive moment of exposure of an essence to the recognition of that essence through tonal difference. This shadowy formal quality encapsulated a challenge to the existing epistemology of seeing in China: What happened once the ancient search for the invisible, which was characteristic of the true (zhen 真) in traditional visualization practices (especially Daoist), was brought to light and subjected to the enlightenment era's obsession with the empirically real? Did photographic likeness function with the same spatiotemporal imagination as the previous mediumistic effect of likeness did?
With these issues in mind, I now turn to the SLS's discourse and practice of immortal spirit photography. In the first section, I introduce the “origin myth” of this Chinese iteration of spirit photography. Underlying this myth was a particular conception of photography as both a medium of representation and a medium of communication. Though the two functions were expected to complement the efficacy of each other, in the subsequent two sections I show how this was not the case. As a medium of representation, Chinese spirit photography challenged the necessary connection between indexicality and likeness. In order to pass for a record of communication with the immortals, the photograph's spectral likeness became (and had to be) radically different from human likeness; the more shadowy the photograph was, the more spectral indexicality there was. On the other hand, as a medium of communication, Chinese spirit photography also reified an ontological split between the visible and the invisible, thus undermining the likeness's mediumistic promise discussed earlier. In Chinese spirit photography, photographic indexicality and traditional visualization practices clashed against each other, creating a unique understanding of the photographic image that departed from both.
A Tale of Two Mediums
The SLS was founded in the fall of 1917. Like other spiritualist and occultist groups at the time, the SLS's goal was to scientifically study, explain, and prove the existence of numinous phenomena.20 Yet unlike the psychical studies and mentalist groups, the SLS's activities began with a divinatory ritual (fuji 扶乩). Fuji first appeared in the fifth century as a folk divinatory ritual at festivals. Since the Song dynasty (960–1279), as fuji became more closely associated with the literati class and Daoism, written texts became the dominant form of spiritual communication.21 The photograph of the SLS's divinatory altar (see fig. 1) showed a similar setup: during fuji the immortal spirits worshiped by the SLS were embodied by a spirit medium holding a T-shaped wooden pen, who would write down their teachings on a sand plate.22
The SLS's fuji activity was practiced at Shengde Altar 盛德壇, a public fuji organization started by third-generation diviner Yang Xuan 楊璿23 and his father, Yang Guangxi 楊光熙. Through Yang Guangxi who worked at Shanghai Book Company 中華書局, Yang Xuan became acquainted with Lufei Kui 陸費逵 (1886–1941), founder of the publishing house, and the company's employee Yu Fu 俞復 (1856–1934). Yang successfully convinced both of the efficacy of fuji. The four followed divine instructions obtained through fuji to found the SLS and started publishing texts obtained through fuji on the society's journal, Lingxue Congzhi (LXCZ), in 1918.24 Even though fuji was the core activity of the SLS, the society rejected fuji's common applications such as divining herbal-medicinal recipes. Instead, the SLS restricted its fuji practice to the theoretical discussion of the soul, ghosts and spirits, philosophy and morality, the scientific foundation of fuji and, occasionally, global politics.25
This combination of the positivist agenda, typical of the enlightenment spirit, and the desire for mediumistic communication with Daoist spirits further necessitated the incorporation of an evidentiary medium: for the texts to be credible, SLS had to prove the ontological existence of their sources—the immortal spirits. As a prelude to the introduction of such evidence, the SLS published a few letters by Yan Fu 嚴復 (1854–1921) in LXCZ.26 Yan Fu was the translator of Thomas Henry Huxley's lectures Evolution and Ethics and was acclaimed as the harbinger of Western scientific ideas in China. Yan was reframed in LXCZ as a skeptic willing to be persuaded by adequate evidence: “As my chronic illness develops, I am reaching the end of my life. I used to remain hesitant to either acknowledge or deny the religious idea of the immortal soul. Instead, I chose to remain agnostic, just like Huxley, towards what is beyond the apparent world. It is only now that I start to believe in its existence and to engage in lengthy discussions with other intellectuals.” Yan Fu also emphasized that, as “90 percent of Shanghai Lingxue Society's theories were still arguable,” the SLS should rigorously adhere to scientific methods, providing “ample evidence and facts” to end the dispute.27
Similar to its Western counterparts, the SLS introduced photography as this much-needed evidence.28 First appearing in the aftermath of the American Civil War in 1862, Western spirit photography mainly visualized the soul of the deceased. The photographic images' authenticity was verified through the physiognomic likeness between the deceased person and his or her ghostly, photographic double.29 Yet even though one can match the ghostly figure in the photograph with the identity of the person, this evidentiary relationship is already caught up in what Carol Armstrong calls a circular logic: “data are used at once to produce and to verify a theory.”30 In the case of spirit photography, the data is the photograph, and the theory is the presence of the soul represented by the photograph.
This prior history of Euro-American spirit photography should be well-known to the Chinese spiritualists, many of whom were educated in Japan in the early 1910s.31 The SLS also referenced spirit photographs of celebrities such as Wu Tingfang 伍廷芳 (1842–1922), a Chinese diplomat and politician who served as the Republican China's minister of foreign affairs.32 Yet in spite of this awareness of Euro-American spirit photographs, the SLS still told a drastically different origin story about its immortal spirit photography. Instead of an accidental discovery, immortal spirit photography was claimed to be the spirits' own ordainment. The immortal spirits were said to be the ones who permitted SLS members to experiment with spirit photography.33 On the seventh day of the eighth lunar month, Yu Fu and a veteran photographer replaced the tools for fuji—the medium of communication–with a camera, pointed the camera toward the divine altar, kept the electric light on, and made their first attempt. The sixth issue of LXCZ printed the arduously developed photograph and announced that on that day, Shengde Altar obtained the first immortal spirit photograph of an immortal spirit called Chang Shengzi 常勝子 (fig. 2).34 Comparing this “photograph” with a divinatory painting of the same immortal spirit (fig. 3) acquired at a previous fuji session, Yu Fu marveled at how the photograph “really achieved a likeness” to a painting of Chang Shengzi obtained in an earlier fuji session.
How should we understand such statement that by no means held at the formal level? The automatism of the photographic medium was mobilized to assure the authenticity of the photographic evidence. Yet to judge whether it was authentic evidence of its referent or not, Yu still needed to confirm its likeness to the divinatory painting, which bore the irrefutable fidelity to the invisible referent. In other words, though the camera was used as both the medium for communicating with the immortal spirits and as the evidentiary machine to document their visage, its evidentiary and communicative power was still modeled after fuji. Hence, this origin story of immortal spirit photography betrayed a similar circular logic: the conceptual possibility of the SLS's immortal spirit photography was premised upon the efficacy (ling 靈) of what it was supposed to authenticate—the immortal spirits and the fuji medium through which they manifested themselves. As a result, the discursive legitimacy of the mediums themselves became dependent upon each other. The circular logic that disrupted Western spirit photography's indexicality went one step further in this context: either the immortal spirits themselves conjured up the evidence for their own existence or the camera produced the immortal spirits it was trying to prove.
The SLS was the global echo of mid-nineteenth-century spiritualism not only because of direct or indirect influences but also because of their similar appeal to the evidentiary power of photographic likeness, as well as their shared logical failures. Spiritualism was the product of the rise of popular science in a post-Enlightenment positivist culture. Similarly, organizations like the SLS emerged as a response to the modernization and secularization of the Chinese society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this process, categories such as “religion” and “science” were “defined and confined”; practices of traditional religiosity, such as spirit-writing, moral teachings, and the worshiping of gods, were labeled “superstition.”35 In this sense, “superstition” did not refer to any intrinsic quality. Rather, it functioned as an emergent category to house the dark spirits that the qimeng (enlightenment) agenda aimed to cast aside.
To disassociate itself from this category, the SLS tried to self-exorcise with the scientific spirit, presenting itself as an academic society with membership fee and journals, proposing alternative forms of spiritual universalism, and most importantly, appropriating the trope of photographic evidence to recast its belief in a positivist light. This attempt to unsettle emerging cultural boundaries paralleled the fuddled status of the immortal spirits, as well as the SLS's conception of the photographic medium. However, collapsing fuji with photography did not legitimize photography as a communicative-representational medium—rather, its potentiality for both was undermined. This aporia was further captured by the formal language of immortal spirit photography. The next section delves into immortal spirit photography's semiotics of the shadow as well as its conceptual foundation: the lingguang 靈光 (numinous light) that was invisible to human eyes. Asserting that it was this invisible light that hit the camera's light-sensitive plate, the SLS introduced a particular mode of spectral likeness that denied the link between photographic indexicality and iconicity.
The Invisible Likeness
Spirit photography was by no means the starting point of the desire to see the invisible. In China, this desire has a long genealogy in Daoist visualization practice. The process of visualization, of making present in one's mind images of the god, of seeing the true self beyond one's ordinary self, was already “a cultivating process of seeing the hidden and unknown.”36 This inner vision looked beyond the visible, physical form (xing 形). It sought to see the spirit (shen 神), to see that which was truer, or the invisible and formless Dao that was the cause of all presence. This connection between the invisible and the true was manifest in the Daoist notion of true form (zhenxing 真形). The true form of Daoist deities was linked to a constant process of metamorphosis.37 Appearing in a different form and medium, in this case photography, was part of this transformation.
SLS tied the visualization of the invisible to the concept lingguang. Emanated from both the living human as well as the nonhuman such as gods, Buddha, Daoist immortals and animals,38lingguang was defined as light invisible to human eyes; but “the immortal beings can evaluate a person's moral and ethical behavior based on such light. . . . This light can be photographed and can be used to photograph.”39 Thus, unlike the effluvists' idea of “vital fluid,”40 numinous light was not a neutral sign of vitality. Equated with the Buddhist idea of Samadhi fire, lingguang's shape and intensity reflected its source spirit's moral achievement.
Because of such moral quality of lingguang, when SLS was looking for a photographer to conduct the first experiment of immortal spirit photography, they evaluated the photographer's moral quality and commitment to lingxue. This qualification criteria was again received as divine instruction obtained through fuji. The fifth issue of LXCZ recorded that in February 1918, when two immortal spirits visited the altar, they suggested: “Try placing a dry, light-sensitive plate, wrapped with a clean sheet of paper and a thick sheet of paper, onto a person's forehead or navel. The Samadhi fire of the acquired state of enlightenment flows out from the former, the primordial vitality from the latter. You can try either one of them . . . whoever leaves the clearest image, it will be easier for that person to photograph the immortal spirits.”41 In this view, the numinous light that emanated from all beings placed humans, ghosts, animals, and different types of immortal spirits into an inclusive moral universe. As light became moralized, it was the being's moral quality that was visualized and became measurable via shades of brightness and darkness on the photographic paper. The camera thus functioned as a channel through which morally adequate beings became present for each other due to their moral affinity. The immortal spirit photograph was a record of this mutual recognition, a trace of the resonance (ganying 感應) between the numinous light emanated by different beings. While scholars such as Weihong Bao and Shengqing Wu have both emphasized how the occultist and spiritualist engagement with modern media contributed to the rise of an affective spectatorial environment, the SLS's conception of lingguang revealed the moral undertone of mediated resonance and representational practices.
Along with their emphasis on the moral quality of the invisible light, as Shengqing Wu argues, SLS formally brought together the visual trope of light with Daoist iconographic representations of qi-transformation. However, while translating invisible metamorphoses into optical effects, the SLS also formally sustained the ontological difference between visible and invisible light. This was achieved through reinterpreting tonal qualities of the image to differentiate human likeness from spectral likeness. Commenting on the spirit photographs of deceased people's souls produced at Shengde Altar,42 for example the one shown in figure 4, Yu Fu identified the shadowy silhouette as two humanoid figures. The point where the dark shades connected was interpreted as their joined hands. Though there was no clear visage, the ying of the male figure showed its majestic manner so that it was “unquestionably a shadowy ghost (guiying 鬼影).”43 The lighter shade between the two guiying was interpreted as the ghost's numinous light.
Besides exemplifying how one should translate photographic tonality into spectral figures, Yu also described another spirit photograph as a counterexample to what spirit photographs ought to look like:
[The figure's] hair and beard are white and bright. The photograph can barely be differentiated from portraits of living human. Additionally its eyes are retouched by thick ink, to the extent that it already lost its authenticity (shizhen 失真), so I chose not to include a print of it here. However . . . [as the inscription on the back of the photograph implies,] how it was photographed was similar to the process of spirit photography among the British spiritualists. They ask a human to sit in front of the camera. It seems that the human not only aids the focus. It may be that souls can resonate with each other . . . and the ghost can obstruct the human figure, so that what is captured by the photograph is not the likeness of the human helping with the focus [but the ghost].44
This comparison between the clarity of the living person's face and the blurriness of the ghost's image was further corroborated by another Japanese spirit photograph published in the next issue of LXCZ (fig. 5).45 Though the female specter's face was still vaguely recognizable, the figure was semitransparent and miniaturized compared to the monk's sharply defined visage in the same photograph.
Hence, SLS established for its readers the iconography of spirit photography as portraiture without the exact likeness one would have anticipated in usual photographic portraits. When Yu Fu justified the truthfulness of Mr. and Ms. Xu's spirit photograph, he emphasized that the referents of spirit photographs were once alive, and the likeness of their souls appeared only as an approximation of their living faces. The blurry and shadowy quality was not only tolerated but also preferred as it was directly associated with the lack of the referent's visibility to the human eye. In other words, spirit photography was supposed to offer an obscure trace of something belonging to the realm of invisibility.
The visual idiom of the SLS's immortal spirit photography was later adopted by another spiritualist group, the Wushan Society 悟善社, or the Society for Awakening to Goodness, founded in Beijing in 1919. The Wushan Society actively associated itself with the SLS, but it never tried to take up the SLS's strategy to scientize its beliefs. The Wushan Society was unapologetically moralistic, later changing its name to “New Religion to Save the World” (Jiushi Xinjiao 救世新教) in 1924.46 It nevertheless inherited the peculiar style of the SLS's immortal spirit photography and made its first immortal spirit photography in 1920 (fig. 6a).47 The immortal spirit in the image was identified as Lord Fuyou 孚佑帝君 or Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓, one of the Daoist Eight Immortals. This image continued to be worshiped at later gatherings (fig. 6b)48 and to the present day by some Daoist groups in Hong Kong and San Francisco (fig. 6c). Probably not even knowing how and when the image was first made, worshipers continued to refer to it as the “true image” (zhenxiang 真像) of this immortal.49
The SLS and the Wushan Society incorporated the concept of lingguang and the logic of visualization practices to justify their unique idiom for photographic likeness. Shadow figured prominently as the visual trope to convey that which was true yet invisible: the more shadowy the spectral likeness, the more spectral indexicality there was understood to be. The invisible light was thought to obey a reverse correlation between indexicality and likeness. But what happened once the invisible likeness was made visible, once this formless, fluid, and constantly changing true image was fixated and embalmed in a photographic image? The following section explores how the logic of inner vision—“seeing is becoming”—was subjected to the evidentiary use of the photographic image—“seeing is believing.”
“Inner Vision, External Evidence”
The relationship between the invisible inner vision and the visible external images might seem reminiscent of the image/picture distinction, in which the picture is conceived as the immaterial image appearing through a physical medium. Hans Belting has dismissed this distinction as a manifestation of the age-old spirit-matter dualism. Instead, “mental image” should be more accurately described as a picture realized in the medium of the body. For Belting, mediality should not be reduced to materiality; it is that which “channels our perception” and animates an image.50 In other words, the transformation from images to pictures invites the help of mediality in order to exercise their due effects.
The relationship between external images and the inner vision in Daoist visualization practice involved a similar sense of mediality. Daoist visualization practice also used the aid of visible images, especially of Daoist immortals. These iconic images were integrated into Daoist practices under the influence of Buddhism. Yet rather than being indexical, these images were “not identical with what they represent, but copies that may facilitate the real presence of the spirits in the medium of the human mind.”51 These iconic images, similar to other aniconic Daoist images like the “true form,”52 functioned more like diagrams for the emergence of the inner vision. The inner vision was also considered, as Poul Andersen has pointed out in his discussion of how images partake in Daoist cultivation of the self, to be true and real (zhen 真); rather than referring to something else, they were ultimately true reality that referred only to themselves: they “come to be what they represent.”53 They were in turn an intermediary that enabled the self to overcome the inner-outer division and fused the inner microcosm with the larger cosmos. Similar to earlier ancestral portraits,54 the visible form (xing 形) still mattered but not so much for its formal correspondence with an ontological existence. Likeness, whether of the inner vision or external image, was self-referential rather than referential, as it enabled the communication between the transitory form (xing 形) and the transcendental spirit (shen 神), the outer and the inner, the visible and the invisible, bringing each pair into a synchronic and coeval correspondence. Seeing is becoming. This was supposed to be the logic of seeing and likeness that reigned the realm of the invisible numinous light, not “seeing is believing.”
This sense of mediality was disrupted by the SLS's evidentiary use of immortal spirit photography. In a passage attributed to the immortal spirit Chang Shengzi, the SLS offered an explanation for the relationship between the inner vision and the external image:
Light exists in different spectrums . . . some light cannot be seen, that is because . . . human retina has its limitation and it cannot adjust its structure. . . . There is a threshold to the light that is visible to the human eye. . . . This is why Buddha and immortal spirits can experience spiritual transformation [and see a broader spectrum of light]. They can adjust their eyes so that their eyes no longer function as projecting external vision onto their interior perception (外視內映). They can see internally and obtain evidence for their inner vision (內視外證). . . . External vision perceives light. Internal vision does not perceive light, nor does it not perceive light. The capacity of external vision is limited to forms (形式). The capacity of internal vision is not limited by form, so that it changes without any [external] change.55
The external image was conceived as an outward projection of the inner vision, its exact double. Moreover, when Chang Shengzi's photograph was published, Yu Fu opened his article with three pairs of enthusiastic proclamations, each accompanied by three exclamation marks:
!!!Shengde Altar's great achievement, Spiritual Society's Lingguang
!!!The presence of a five-hundred-year-old soul, Satisfying result of the first photo attempt
!!!Pioneer of communication between two worlds, Future of scientific revolution.56
What Yu Fu was celebrating was not just that one photograph of the immortal spirit Chang Shengzi alone but the achievement of a new type of image—not instructive diagrams for becoming but indexical photographs of an icon to believe in. Such an indexical image was what could admit SLS into what Wang Hui has called the enlightenment era “community for scientific discourse” during the New Culture Movement.57
As the communicative capacity of inner vision was subjected to the representational and evidentiary logic of the external photographic image, the previous correspondence between the inner and the outer became no longer possible. That synchronicity, though in constant transformation and metamorphosis, was premised upon a timeless, transcendental state. Philologist Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613–1682) once commented that the achievement of the state of the true (zhen 真) was rather like a return to the beginning, the absolute absence (guizhen 歸真).58 Once the inner vision was externalized through photography, this temporal scheme was altered by the photographic image's linear temporality.59 By claiming to have captured the true look of a real presence, the true form that one ought to see once one reached a certain level of moral perfection, immortal spirit photographs presented beings that were fixated in their own time and space.
This shift in the temporal scheme of the image echoed a shift in the cosmological imagination of the relationship between the worlds of the living and of the afterlife. Wu Hung has pointed out that in Confucian and Daoist cosmology, the immortal land was conceived as the extension of the living's world, only appearing unreal because it was extremely difficult to reach.60 Hence instead of showing a static presence, previous depictions of the scene of fuji often showed the spirit's arrival at the divinatory alter, as shown in figure 7. Similarly, the visualization process was likened to a spiritual journey; the mediality of the image/picture transformation discussed by Hans Belting was a commute between the living and the transcendental. These were not two ontologically different categories, only different modes of inhabiting the same world, one as presence and the other as absence. Likeness made it possible to traverse such difference.
What was lost in the static presence conveyed by the readymade, photographic view of the immortal spirit was exactly this sense of transport. Indeed, one prominent feature of the SLS's immortal spirit photography was that it never represented the coexistence of human and the suprahuman, as the two were already driven to different sides of the threshold of visibility. The demarcation of two worlds can be further discerned by examining the SLS's advertisement for selling these portraits, as shown in figure 8.
Though the lighting condition of each shoot ranged from “a hundred electric lightbulbs” to “lights off,”61 the background of the immortal spirit photographs remained unanimously shadowy.62 This formal quality betrayed an either-or choice the camera had to make, between the physical light and the invisible light lingguang, between the two ontologically different worlds illuminated by each respectively. The static, “objective” representation of the immortal spirit only provided a window between these two worlds, permitting sight but without promising a simultaneous spiritual journey.
Hence, the SLS's immortal spirit photography introduced the antagonism of the visible and the invisible into this long-existent pair. As John Durham Peters points out in his genealogy of Western ideas of communication, nineteenth-century spiritualism was a primary source for our present-day longing for unmediated communication.63 Admittedly, the SLS's divinatory core departed from Western spiritualist discourses. Yet its conception of immortal spirit photography contributed to the introduction of similar antagonism between mind and matter, between an ethereal idea and the corporeal body, between belief in the actuality of the supernatural and the blind faith in science.64 Thus, besides disrupting conventions of photographic representation, the SLS's immortal spirit photography also marked the end of one mode of communication. In this mode, an image made present what was absent; transport and transformation across the threshold were still possible; seeing something meant becoming it. This end also initiated another mode of communication that reified the gap between the visible and the invisible. In this mode, the transmitted likeness was so exact that it almost resembled a living dead impossible to be animated. Seeing thus became believing in a promised yet no longer reachable view across spatial, temporal, and metaphysical distance.
Connecting photography with fuji and indexical picture with inner vision, the SLS's conception of immortal spirit photography revealed an emerging doubt over photographic likeness and proposed that the lack of likeness could be where visual truth resides. Earlier, I pointed out how the SLS's practices, including this expansive definition of photography, were an attempt to untangle itself from the emergent category “superstition.” It was a failed attempt not only because “superstition” remained what the SLS was criticized for, first and foremost by its contemporaneous intellectuals including Lu Xun 魯迅. Lu Xun, along with several other progressive May Fourth intellectuals, derided the SLS in 1918 in the base camp of the New Culture Movement, La Jeunesse magazine. Lu Xun later ridiculed superstitious ideas about photography in a 1925 essay titled “On Photography and Its Kind” (“Lun Zhaoxiang zhi Lei” 論照相之類). Yet, as recent scholarship has pointed out, Lu Xun's satirical mode of writing also revealed a structure of the unconscious. This unconscious was bothered by the very persistence of what he ridiculed, or what his fellow reformers had failed to cast behind.65
The SLS and its immortal spirit photography were not an exception. They were the forward-looking reformers' shadowy image in a dark mirror. Pressed into speaking through the discourse of scientism, the SLS's failed attempt paralleled the continued deferral of the enlightenment project. This failure commenced (and made itself predicated upon) the demarcation between two senses of presence. The previous coexistence of beings emanating light of different intensity became beings inhabiting different worlds illuminated by different kinds of light. In the realm of visibility illuminated by physical light, we find the stable presence of material matters. In the realm of invisibility illuminated by the numinous body's metaphysical light, we find the shifting, ethereal presence of the spirits. The two worlds became ontologically different and separated, to the extent that the previous relationship between the visible form (xing 形) and the invisible spirit (shen 神) was inverted. In subsequent discourses on photography and art in China, the former became the unchangeable absolute, the object of xiezhen 寫真 (same Chinese characters as the Japanese word shashin, with an emphasis on copying with fidelity and visual truth), whereas the latter became the subjectively variable, the subject of xieyi 寫意 (sketch conceptualism) and the locus of artistic ingenuity.66
However, I also want to argue that this failed attempt signifies not just the SLS's historical limitation but also its lost possibilities. This negativity was the very reason why the SLS's conception of photography, as a medium of shadows, continues to shadow both the history of Chinese modernity and the history of photography. The history of Western spiritualism has shown that the very dualistic separation at the core of the dream for immediacy also necessitated the existence of a medium. In the case of the SLS's conception of immortal spirit photography, though such an image separated seeing from inner transformation, seeing was nevertheless premised upon a transformation that could only happen inside the camera-as-medium, taking shadow instead of light as its idiom. An optical understanding of ying as shadow, the meeting point of light and darkness, did not simply sever the connection between likeness and mortality. It effectively made shadow itself the medium between the two. In the language of photography and physical space, shadow indicated the obstruction of light, lack of illumination, the under or unexposed, the interior. As this pictorial understanding of shadow was used to render the invisible lingguang, the true likeness also became housed within the chest of the medium. Immortal spirit photography was not an indexical image, ontologically or formally, aiding the living's step back in time—visualized through the uncanny return of souls as the photographic double of the deceased body.67 It was a foresight, a copy of something that was yet to happen, a futuristic image at the end of the linear trajectory of moral and spiritual enlightenment. For the SLS, such enlightenment, though achieved through returning to what was becoming obsolete, was what the New Culture Movement's scientific and social enlightenment could not do without. It was this very invitation for both an elusive future and a clinging past into the photographic moment that constituted the palimpsestic temporality of the SLS's immortal spirit photography.
It might seem conflicting to open this essay with Lu Xun's “Ying de Gaobie” 影的告別 (The departure of the shadow), a gesture that suggests the parallel between Lu Xun and that which he opposed. Yet the bodiless wandering shadow, hesitating between light and darkness, is reminiscent of the dubious ontology of immortal spirits caught between its appearance as external evidence and as inner vision. In Lu Xun's story, the shadow is unwilling to attach itself to a body striding into an enlightened future, fated to disappear in dazzlement; nor is it willing to be engulfed by darkness. Though darkness is where it eventually heads, the shadow's hesitance in twilight is what compelled Lu Xun to become a chronicler of shadows in an age of modernity and enlightenment.68 This liminal realm, between the blinding exposure of day and the blind darkness of night, is where shadowy ghostly shapes can be recognized, remain latent and unexposed, freed from choosing between being true or false.
I would like to thank Jie Li, Shigehisa Kuriyama, the anonymous reviewers, and TAP editors, as well as Dingru Huang, Tim Teng, and Shaowen Zhang for their insightful comments and critiques. I would also like to thank David Wang and Eugene Wang for their comments on an earlier version of this article. Special thanks to Chuan Xu who brought these materials to my attention and to Ichiko Shiga, Jiechen Hu, and Yuqing Luo for generously sharing with me their research on fuji. All remaining errors are mine.
See Yu, “Linghun Sheying Tan,” 117. Yu founded the Chinese Hypnotism School 中國心靈俱樂部 (Zhongguo Xinling Julebu) in 1909 in Tokyo and a Shanghai branch in 1918, later changing its name in 1923 to Chinese Institute of Mentalism 中國心靈研究會 (Zhongguo Xinling Yanjiuhui). All subsequent translations from Chinese into English are by the author, unless otherwise noted.
This view goes back to Peircean semiotics; see Doane, Emergence of Cinematic Time, 93–94.
For example, film theorist André Bazin analogizes photography with the act of mummification: the latter preserves the deceased's physical body from decay, the former preserves its memory through a representation that functions as a mnemonic aid. See Bazin, “Ontology of the Photographic Image.” See also Sterne, “Preserving Sound in Modern America,” for a discussion of the late Victorian period's attitude toward death, which resulted in a preservationist impulse shared between new media technology (especially sound recording) and other chemical preservation processes, such as canning food and embalming dead bodies.
This theoretical standpoint is further corroborated by early photographs of death. As visual anthropologist Jay Ruby shows in his study of the social practice of postmortem photography in the United States, one prevailing convention was to portray the dead as if the person was sleeping. This particular photographic practice betrayed the contradictory desire to both acknowledge and document the last view of the newly dead and to try restoring the person's living presence out of the denial of death. See Ruby, Secure the Shadow.
See Zeitlin, “Life and Death of the Image,” 230. Zeitlin discusses several stories of postmortem portraits in this article. See also Liu, “Shadows in Chinese Art,” for a discussion of the multivalent meaning of the Chinese term for shadows, ying 影.
This exploration of different roles of likeness suggests that in cross-cultural comparison, what needs to be specified is how likeness is deployed and what kind of presence it tries to evoke. Art historian Jan Stuart argues against the notion that Chinese ancestor portraits, both painted and photographic, only schematically present homogenous types and do not care about the representation of individual physical likeness. She points out that likeness in Western portraiture usually aims at conveying the person's inner spirit by capturing a transient likeness of the person as if he or she were still alive (Stuart, “Face in Life and Death”). Ancestor likeness, on the other hand, conveys faithful descriptions of the more permanent features (usually the physiognomy) of the person; the resulting likeness, with “dispassionate clarity,” reflects the person's achievement of ancestorhood in his or her afterlife. This concern of realism and the standard of mimesis in ancestor portraits can be traced back to debates among Confucian scholars in the Song dynasty (960–1279), especially Confucian scholars such as Cheng Yi's 程頤 (1033–1107) insistence that ancestor portraits should not replace spirit tablets. Art historian Wu Hung points out that spirit tablets are usually a piece of plain wood inscribed with the deceased person's name and title but no representation of any figurative likeness. Its significance, as Wu points out, “lies in locating the subject, not portraying it” (Wu, “On Tomb Figurines,” 28). Spirit tablet and ancestral portraits share the emphasis on positioning rather than representing.
See Gu, “What's in a Name?” This shift corresponded to the popularization of portable cameras, which disseminated photography from professional studios to news presses and to the hands of individuals. Accordingly, photography was deployed to represent things other than human likeness. For a survey of this decade's photographic practice, especially the importance of the availability of Kodak films in the popularization of photography, see Han and Zhao, Zhongguo Yingxiang Shi.
For a detailed discussion of these illusionary portraits, see “Multiplying the Self,” the first chapter in S. Wu, Photo Poetics, 33–73. Wu points out that these photo tropes of multiple bodies were informed by a wide range of cultural resources and their understandings of the self and body, such as Buddhist and Daoist ideas of fenshen 分身 (lit. dividing bodies), huashen 化身 (lit. transformation bodies), fenxing 分形 (lit. dividing forms), as well as other ideas in folk myths and worldviews of synchronicity. Along with China's poetic tradition, these cultural resources constitute what Wu calls the lyrical eye, enabling Chinese practitioners to assimilate photographic mode of inscription into the enduring poetic mode of inscription, making possible experimental image-making practices beyond the dominant paradigm of photorealism. See also Tarocco, “Wailing Arhats,” in which the author discusses Buddhists' use of photography as well as Buddhist costume photographs. Tarocco points out that in Buddhist engagement with photography, photography did not supersede but coexisted and complemented existing traditions. Wu and Tarocco both take a stance opposed to technological determinism and emphasize existing aesthetics' employment and appropriation of photography as a technical medium. I take a slightly different stance by teasing out how traditional aesthetics and new technology clashed against and twisted each other while being gradually stabilized.
In his research on the modernist writers, designers, and artists' way of engaging with photography in 1920s and 1930s Shanghai, William Schaefer foregrounds their association between photography and shadow. Schaefer points out that this association, primarily understood in formal and optical terms, was often at odds with conceptions of photographic indexicality, creating “images that do not depict but metamorphose the objects projecting them or the spaces on which they take form” (Schaefer, Shadow Modernism, 9–10). Building on Schaefer's argument, I hope to excavate how other implications of the term ying 影 might have also informed alternative conceptions of photographic likeness.
In the 1930s, thinking about and through photography was productive for debates on civilizational and aesthetic differences between China and the West; photography became the model for realism that was thought to represent Western aesthetics by Chinese artists and aestheticians such as Zong Baihua and Feng Zikai. See Schaefer's discussion in chapter 1 of Shadow Modernism, 25–60.
Zeitlin, “Life and Death of the Image,” discusses several stories of postmortem portraits.
The beginning of this movement is usually marked by the launch of the Chinese vernacular language journal Xin Qingnian 新青年 (La jeunesse) in 1915. The journal's founder and chief editor, Chen Duxiu 陳獨秀 (1898–1942), was also the founder of China's Communist Party and its first general secretary. The journal's opening statement emphasized the importance of breaking with traditional Confucian values, which was regarded as the archenemy of China's modernization project. The New Culture Movement promoted the creation of a new Chinese culture through the vernacularization of language and literature, democratization, and the adoption of Western science. “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy” eventually became the two banners of the ensuing May Fourth Movement in reaction to the signing of Treaty of Versailles, which allowed Japan to take over German-occupied territories in Shandong province, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Inheriting the ethos of the New Culture Movement, the May Fourth Movement pushed for further political mobilization, eliciting nationalistic, anti-imperialist and anti-traditionalist sentiments in the greater mass. For discussions of the significance of the New Culture Movement as China's enlightenment movement, see Schwarcz, Chinese Enlightenment. See also Li Z., “Qimeng yu Jiuwang de Shuangchong Bianzou.”
For genres in Daoist paintings and their relationship to classifications of Daoist deities, see R. Wang, “Daojiao Renwuhua ji qi Wenhua Toushi,” 53; Hu, Guiqi Qingya, 123–24.
For a discussion of Daoist conceptions of the relationship between form 形, body 身, and spirit 神, see Li G., “Xingshen Jumiao, Xingshen Kegu” 154–61. The author emphasizes that in Daoist conceptions, the relationship between form and spirit is not a corporeal-soul dichotomy; the cultivation of form and its transcendence are crucial for the achievement of the formless, spirit state of being.
See Batchen, Burning with Desire, 37; See also Fukuoka's discussion of the use of shashin 寫真, a word originally imported from China and later used to designate photography in Japan among a group of Japanese bencao (materia medica) scholars, in Fukuoka, “Toward a Synthesized History of Photography.”
For discussions of the synergy between occultist discourse (spiritualism, hypnotism, mentalism, psychical research, etc.), an intermedial environment, and the emergence of a resonance spectatorship in the same historical period, see Bao, “Culture of Resonance.” For comparative cases, see Peters, Speaking into the Air; Sconce, Haunted Media; Andriopoulos, Ghostly Apparitions.
For further critical reevaluation of this group and the significance of spiritual revival during China's enlightenment movement, see Max Huang, “Research into Spiritualism in Early Republican Shanghai”; Shiga, Daoism and Spirit-Writing. Other occultist groups include Bao Fangzhou's 鮑芳洲 China Society of Psychical Study 中國精神研究會 (Zongguo Jingshen Yanjiuhui), founded in 1911 in Kobe, Japan, as well as Yu Pingke's 余萍客 Chinese Institute of Mentalism, discussed at the beginning of this article. Some additional notes on translation: when the occultist studies were first introduced to China, several disciplines were conflated into the phrase lingxue. As Zheng Guo points out, “What lingxue studies is can be defined both broadly and specifically. Broadly speaking, the subject of analysis of lingxue is any mythical psychical phenomena; specifically, it refers to the study of ghost, gods, and soul” (Zheng, Biandong Shehuixia De Xinyang Fenhua, 18). (Despite the flaw in Zheng's analytical framework, he nevertheless rigorously traces the conflation of psychical research, psychology, psychoanalysis, hypnotism, mesmerism, spiritualism and most broadly idealism into lingxue.) One source of the lack of a clear definition is likely the use of the character ling in phrases that refer to a wide range of concepts such as psyche (xinling 心靈), soul (linghun 靈魂, which is often conflated with spirit 精神, the opposite of the bodily), mystical (lingyi 靈異), ghost (youling 幽靈), and immortal spirits (xianling 仙靈). Zheng also points out that some of these phrases, such as xinling 心靈, originally existed in the Chinese language, yet the meanings of these phrases were renewed due to the introduction of their Western counterparts since the beginning of twentieth century. In this paper, due to Shanghai Lingxue Society's unique integration of scientistic agenda (to systematically establish a scientific discipline, xue 學) and divinatory practice (the communication or tong 通 with the numinous or ling 靈), I choose to keep the word lingxue untranslated in the title of the organization.
For a history of fuji in China, see Xu, Fuji Mixin di Yanjiu. As fuji was textualized, it also became a means for Daoist canonization, or compiling sacred texts ascribed to one god. See Goossaert, “Spirit Writing, Canonization, and the Rise of Divine Saviors,” 83.
Shiga, Daoism and Spirit-Writing in Hong Kong, 42–43. The image is from the Shanghai Lingxue Society's Xianling Zhaoxiang 仙靈照相 (Photographs of the immortal spirits).
Yang Xuan used to work for Bao Fangzhou's China Society of Psychical Study. According to Max Huang, after learning about Western occultist studies, Yang regarded the Chinese techniques (shu 術) as superior to Western occultist techniques such as hypnotism. This realization made him restart fuji practice. See Huang, “Research into Spiritualism in Early Republican Shanghai,” 110–11.
Lufei Kui described how he never believed theories of ghosts or gods and was actively advocating for the eradication of superstition until he observed Yang's fuji activities. See Lufei Kui, “Lingxue Congzhi Yuanqi” 靈學叢志緣起 (Why we started Lingxue Congzhi), LXCZ 1, no. 1 (1918): 1–3. Between 1918 and the fall 1920, the SLS published two volumes (eighteen issues in total) of LXCZ. For the role of periodicals in Republican China's scientific knowledge production, see Shen, “Periodical Space.” For comparative studies on scientific periodicals in the Romanticist period, see Cantor and Shuttleworth, Science Serialized; Belknap, From a Photograph.
Yu Fu, “Da Wu Zhihui Shu” 答吳稚暉書 (A rejoinder to Wu Zhihui), LXCZ 1, no. 1 (1918): 2–4. See also Zheng, Biandong Shehuixia De Xinyang Fenhua, 56–59. The SLS also rejected the interpretation of fuji as being fraudulent or the result of automatic writing in a state of unconsciousness or the work of ghosts possessing the diviner's body, see Zheng, Biandong Shehuixia De Xinyang Fenhua, 63–65.
Yan Fu 嚴復, “Yan Jidao Xiansheng Shu” 嚴幾道先生書(正月十九日) (Mr. Yan Jidao's letter), LXCZ 1, no. 2 (1918): 5. In this letter, Yan used the word lingxue to refer to the Shanghai Lingxue Society, to the British Society for Psychical Research founded in 1882, and to studies of unexplained physical phenomena caused by force, light, or electricity. Yan's conflation of all these disciplines within the same word of lingxue also suggests that lingxue should not be understood as simply referring to a well-defined discipline in the context of early twentieth-century China. It was rather an encompassing yet effective concept allowing the negotiation of epistemological, moral, and metaphysical boundaries in the process of cultural translation and social transformation.
Yan Fu, “Yan Jidao Xiansheng zhi Hou Yishi Shu” 嚴幾道先生致侯疑始書(二月二十三日) (Mr. Yan's letter to Hou Yishi), LXCZ 1, no. 3 (1918): 4.
For a history of photographic evidence in Victorian England and its deployment in spiritualist movement, see Tucker, Nature Exposed. Tucker uses “evidentiary paradigm” (3) to refer to the micro-level material and epistemological conditions under which a photograph comes to possess evidentiary power, instilling photography's central role in macro-processes such as the development of disciplinary institutions. Tucker also points out that spirit photography was probably the only site to observe the negotiation of the evidentiary paradigm, which should not be merely subjected to the binary judgments of photographic truth or falsity in science.
In 1862, the American photographer William Mumler started a business of spirit photography after a technically flawed double-exposure self-portrait became cited by the American spiritualists as the “first photograph of a spirit.” For a relatively more contemporaneous discussion of Mumler and spirit photography, see Coates, Photographing the Invisible. See also Gunning, “Invisible Worlds, Visible Media,” 60; Cloutier, “Mumler's Ghosts,” 20; Kaplan, Strange Case of William Mumler; Elcott, Artificial Darkness. For practices in Europe inspired by Mumler, see Chéroux, “Ghost Dialectics,” 47.
For a discussion of photography's evidentiary power in Victorian-era illustrated natural history books, see Armstrong, Scenes in a Library, 42.
For the reception of spiritualism in Japan, see chapter 3 of Foster, Pandemonium and Parade, 77–114.
Max Huang, “Research into Spiritualism in Early Republican Shanghai,” 121. See also Zheng, Biandong Shehuixia De Xinyang Fenhua, 68. Wu Tingfang also displayed a photo album of a Western photographer's spirit photography during a public lecture on the soul and its relationship with the body in 1916. See “Wu Tingfang Yanshuo Linghun,” 2.
For example, “Mingyue Xianzi Xianling Sheying ji Tanqin Panci” 明月仙子仙靈攝影及彈琴判詞 (Immortal spirit Mingyue on spirit photography), LXCZ 1, no. 4 (1918), stated that “(spirit) photography is a skill. Common people cannot easily grasp its essence. One has to simultaneously study lingxue, knowledge, and photographic techniques to take spirit photographs. . . . Spirit photography should be practiced under commands” (4).
After successfully shooting Chang Shengzi's immortal spirit photograph, the SLS obtained a couple of other photographs in subsequent experimental sessions. In one photograph, Chang was seen with another immortal spirit in front of a cave. In another photograph, these two immortal spirits were standing in a landscape painting. Yet another photograph depicts pure landscape of the immortal land. See Yu Fu, “Shengde tan Shizhao Xianling Ji” 盛德壇試照仙靈記 (Shengde Altar's first spirit photograph), LXCZ 1, no. 6 (1918): 2–4.
As Goossaert and Palmer amply point out, it was actually the Christian missionaries and the anti-traditionalist political reformers and revolutionaries like Chen Duxiu who constituted religion as an autonomous category in modern China while relegating Chinese religious practices to the status of superstition. Goossaert and Palmer, Religious Question in Modern China, 10–11.
S. Huang, Picturing the True Form, 9. This might explain why, even though Chang Shengzi's photographic image did not look like his painted image formally, the two images were still formally comparable: they were tied to the same true form.
The immortal spirit Chang Shengzi states that “light exists in three realms.” In Buddhist cosmology, the idea of three realms, trailokya, refer to the entire world of karmic rebirth, humans living in the lowest world of desire, populated by other beings such as animals. Ghosts, and demi-gods. “Lunshuo: Changshengzi Guangshuo” 論說：常勝子光說（九月初一日宣示）(Chang Shengzi on light), LXCZ 1, no. 7 (1918): 19. In another theorization of lingguang attributed to an immortal spirit called “Yunwei,” three kinds of lingguang were differentiated: light (guang 光), light beam (mang 芒), and halo (cai 彩): “Those who emit too many light beams does not have halo; those who have a complete halo no longer emit any light beam. The less light beam, the strong is the light; when light appears as a whole, light beams become hidden. . . . Light beams are extremely violent, its essence is matter; light is the result of heated friction, its essence is force; halo is neither matter nor force. Light can be bright or dark, halo won't and is thus omnipresent” “Lunshuo: Yunwei Xianzi Guanglun” 論說：雲蔚仙子光論 (The immortal spirit Yunwei on light), LXCZ 1, no. 7 (1918): 13–14.
“Lunshuo: Jilu: Changshengzi Lingguang Shuo” 論說：乩錄：常勝子靈光說 (Chang Shengzi on Lingguang), LXCZ 1, no. 5 (1918): 26. Emphasis added.
The underlying assumption of this is that “light, soul, and thought were essentially interchangeable concepts.” Traverse, “L’Âme Hu(main)e,” 537.
“Changshengzi Shizhao Xianling Fa” 常勝子試照仙靈法 (Chang Shengzi's instruction of spirit photography), LXCZ 1, no. 5 (1918): 1.
The seventh issue of LXCZ published an article titled “Linghun Zhaoxiang Ji” 靈魂照像記 (Chronicle of spirit photography) written on the twenty-third day of the ninth lunar month, attributed to a politician Yang Tingdong 楊廷棟. Yu Fu added his comment and announced that Shengde Altar produced eight photographs of mortal's souls in total, but will not take any spirit photography request ever since. See LXCZ 1, no. 7 (1918): 8.
Yu Fu, “Xu Banhou Xiansheng ji Furen Linghun Sheying” 徐班侯先生曁夫人靈魂攝影 (Mr. and Ms. Xu's spirit photograph), LXCZ 1, no. 3 (1918): 1.
See Yu Fu, “Xu Banhou Xiansheng ji Furen Linghun Sheying,” 1.
“Riben Youling zhi Xiezhen” 日本幽靈之寫真 (Portrait of a Japanese ghost), LXCZ 1, no. 4 (1918). As the commentary texts pointed out, this photograph was published in a Japanese magazine, Nihon oyobi Nihonjin 日本及日本人, May 1918.
Goossaert and Palmer, Religious Question in China, 97.
See, for example, “Fuyou Dijun” 孚佑帝君 (Fuyou Dijun spirit photograph), Lingxue Yaozhi 1, no. 1 (1920).
“Gengshen Dongxi Ji: Wushan Shisan Shiyou Jinian Sheying” 庚申冬禊记：悟善十三诗友纪念摄影 (A memorial photograph of Wushan Society's poetry lovers), Lingxue Yaozhi 1, no. 8 (1921).
Wang H., “Guixing Shenying.” See also Max Huang's observation for the continuing influence of Daoist divinatory practice, symbolizing “the wondering soul that cannot be completely ‘tamed’ by modern science” (“Research into Spiritualism in Early Republican Shanghai,” 132). Huang is very possibly referencing Shiga Ichiko's research on contemporary fuji groups in Hong Kong; see figure 6c, which is a photograph Shiga Ichiko took during her fieldwork.
Shih-shan Susan Huang also points out that the aniconic images are not necessarily devoid of iconic power. This pair of aniconic-iconic should be viewed with the fundamental ambiguity between words and images in Daoist visual culture. See S. Huang, Picturing the True Form, 344.
As Jan Stuart points out, belief in ancestor portraits' capacity to host souls, as well as the preference for otherworldly likeness over this-worldly liveliness, is probably due to the lack of a definite separation of the world of the dead from the living in Chinese cosmology: “Ming [dynasty] thinkers posited a fluid, permeable boundary between illusion and reality, and they questioned whether there was any meaningful separation between the representation of an object and the object itself.” “Face in Life and Death,” 205.
“Lunshuo: Changshengzi Guangshuo,” 20. Emphasis added.
Yu Fu, “Shengde Altar's First Spirit Photograph,” 2.
Wang, Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, 1123. Wang Hui also points out that the scientific community eventually constructed a unique discursive space in which “even their opposers like Liang Qichao was forced to use their language.” Wang, Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, 1124–25. Attacks and discussions in La Jeunesse generated by the SLS's practices also anticipated the 1923 “Science and Metaphysics Debate.” As Yu-sheng Lin points out, Ding Wenjiang and Zhang Junmai, the two representatives of each camp, share the same understanding of the scientific method as primarily a process of induction dealing with problems in the realm of objectivity, and both believed that there is an unbridgeable divide between the realms of objectivity and subjectivity. See Lin, “Origins and Implications of Modern Chinese Scientism.”
Batchen links the automatism of photography to its ability to turn time into a linear movement from the past to the present. See Batchen, Burning with Desire, 93.
See LXCZ 1, no. 7 (1918).
See other photographs in Xianling Zhaoxiang 仙靈照相, an anthology of all immortal spirit photographs the SLS produced.
The latter, as Derrida points out, is the foundation of the Freudian conception of the uncanny, which characterizes experiences with the return of the dead in Western spirit photographs. For an explication of Derrida's critique of the Freudian interpretation of the uncanny, as well as the potential of reconceptualizing the spectral logic as the Derridean deconstructive logic, see Blanco and Peeren, Spectralities Reader.
For an illuminating and in-depth analysis of how such structure of unconscious was registered by the textual structure of “On Photography and Its Kind,” in which Chinese reception of photography was only the surficial symptom for other traumatic experience in the China-West encounter, see Teng, “Archaeology of the Eyeball.”
Here I want to point out a potential genealogical connection that demands further examination. Among those who derided the SLS's practice in La Jeunesse was Liu Bannong 劉半農, a Chinese poet and linguist who advocated for the vernacularization of the Chinese language. Ten years later, Liu published the first systematic theoretical treatise on photographic aesthetics, Bannong Tan Ying (Bannong on Photography), written, of course, in vernacular Chinese. In this treatise, Liu differentiated between two types of photographs, xiezhen 寫真 and xieyi 寫意. In Liu's conception, the former directly transcribes the singular reality whereas the latter communicates subjective impressions that differs by each individual. While the idea of xieyi has existed in Chinese aesthetics for a long time, it is this new association between xiezhen with the singular and unchangeable vs. xieyi with the subjectively variable that completely inverts the previous relationship between form (xing 形) and spirit (shen 神). I think this is the unexpected twist immortal spirit photography introduced to the transformation from divinatory writing and writing conceptualism. See E. Wang, “Sketch Conceptualism as Modernist Contingency,” for a discussion of how the Chinese xieyi tradition became the contested area for the demarcation between traditionalism and modernism in early twentieth-century China.
Scholars have pointed out that the intelligibility spirit photography warranted was always troubled by the metaphysical ambiguity of the very referent it tried to visualize. See Krauss, “Tracing Nadar”; Gunning, “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations.”
The “light and darkness” motif encapsulates the battle between new and old, a tension that is brought to its climax during the New Culture Movement. Advocates, including Lu Xun himself, promoted radical social changes, ranging from the vernacularization of the Chinese language, critique of traditional Chinese thoughts—especially Confucianism—and demands for a democratic regime. Yet as Tsi-an Hsia writes, “The twilight hours hold ghosty shapes, shadowy whispers and other wonders, and phantasmata which are apt to be dismissed in the impatient waiting for the dawn. As a chronicler of those hours, Lu Hsün (Lu Xun) wrote with fine perception and a subtlety and profundity of feeling, qualities which were usually lost to him when he spoke as a conscious rebel. His treatment of the darker themes is particularly important since no one really knows how long the twilight hours will last, if not on the surface of the earth, at least in the heart of man” (Hsia, “Gate of Darkness,” 156). See also D. Wang, “Beam of Darkness.”