The acknowledged first recorded film made in China is The Battle of Dingjunshan by Ren Qingtai from 1905. As such, the China National Film Museum in Beijing has on exhibit signage that notes this acknowledgment, along with the recreation of the filming. However, there are a number of Chinese film scholars who have their doubts about whether it was ever actually made.
Mention is made in a July 1904 article in the professional magician’s journal Mahatma on the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo (Zhu Liankui), a contemporary of Houdini. The article talks of a film being recorded by him for his use onstage before the time the article was published, which would mean this film predates the acknowledged first Chinese film.
Zhu became a sensation in the US, not once, but twice. His first touring period ran from 1898 to 1900, and he returned triumphant again from 1912 to 1915. Between the two, he toured around the world and returned to China. In 1911, he filmed and produced the undisputed first Chinese documentary film, Wuchang Uprising. He later started and was president of the Colon Cinema Company of Tien Tsin, while owning several film theaters in Tianjin and Shanghai. Zhu passed away in Shanghai in 1922. There is scant information published on him. In fact, the first biographical overview was not published in English until 2020. It is a very welcome overview of sources and information dating to publication during Zhu’s lifetime.
Our search for information regarding Zhu’s footage, which could very well be the actual first Chinese film, began at the aforementioned China National Film Museum in Beijing, and had various twists and turns before taking us to the American Museum of Magic (the largest magic museum in the US open to the public) and their extensive clipping files. Unfortunately, even with their extensive holdings, no further information was found. Next, we consulted the English translator of a single chapter of an entire book published in Taiwan in 2018 before corresponding with noted early Chinese film scholars Paul Pickowicz and Zhang Yingjin. The end result was their best wishes in what Zhang said would be “a major breakthrough” if found, but neither could suggest anything to help further the search. Conversation with Christopher Rea, professor and author of Chinese Film Classics, led me to the Chinese-language, Republican Era Chinese Periodicals Database. Just two entries on the entire site made for another dead end. Other than hitting the streets of Shanghai searching for a dead man, gone for almost 100 years, the trail seems to have come to an end. Perhaps, as any good magician would, he has taken his secrets and disappeared into the mists of time.