Theses Doctoral

Multiple Exposures: Ghosts, Buddhism, and Visual Heritage in Early Twentieth–Century China

Shahaf, Nataly

This dissertation explores the use of new mass-media forms and technologies in early twentieth-century China to preserve and disseminate Chinese cultural heritage. It focuses on the contributions of Di Baoxian (狄葆賢 1873–1941), a publisher of art and Buddhist texts who established one of the earliest photography studios in Shanghai and a publishing house for art, the Youzheng Press (有正書局). Di pioneered the use of collotype reproduction to publish traditional Chinese art and founded the major newspaper Shibao, through which he preserved traditional literary genres in the form of newspaper columns. He was also interested in the practice of ghost photography to investigate supernatural elements associated with Buddhism and provide scientific evidence for these phenomena.

This study situates Di’s work within the context of other art and Buddhist publishers and examines the emerging public art arena and political press as key sites for legitimizing Chinese Buddhism and creating new images of China’s past at a pivotal moment in the country’s history. The turn of the nineteenth century saw China’s territory partitioned among imperial powers, leading to the plundering of artistic treasures by rampaging armies and art collectors. Meanwhile, political reformers advocated art education to combat what they saw as superstitious Chinese religions obstructing China’s emergence as a powerful modern state. Despite these challenges, Buddhist literati like Di saw the miraculous aspects of Chinese religions as fully compatible with art education, modern science, and technology. Engaging with Victorian science and spiritualism, they used new technologies like photography to investigate supernatural phenomena associated with Buddhism, seeking to explain and substantiate them with evidence. Visualizing the seemingly invisible through practices like ghost photography became central to their efforts to preserve China’s cultural heritage amid the fall of the Qing empire (1644–1911).

This dissertation argues that visual media became the preferred mode of authenticating the past and establishing a common Chinese culture in the early Republic, marking a shift away from a text-based literati culture. It brings Buddhist studies into dialogue with histories of art, print culture, and science and technology to explain how mass media and public art culture emerged in early twentieth-century China, how the preservation of art and literature became linked to Buddhist culture, and how Buddhist literati engaged with global trends of spiritualism, science, and media technologies.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia Y.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 9, 2023