Solid steel through solid steel: The enduring history of the Ancient Chinese Linking Rings

December 23, 2017

Passing solid steel through solid steel is an incredible feat, but most people, audiences and magicians both, groan when they see a set of linking rings. The linking rings trigger memories of every amateur, kid, and stage performer that’s ever underwhelmed us with mediocre magic. Perhaps the collective cringe is a function of the act’s longevity; with as many as 250 years of history on world stages, the linking rings have certainly fallen victim to the hands of a few flop performers.

And yet, the linking rings have endured, both as act and as legend. The true origins of the linking rings have never been nailed down, although magicians who perform the act today tend to have their own opinions on its history. Legend has it that touring performers from China introduced the linking rings to the Western world, and while the history to support this claim is weak, popular attachment to the classically “oriental” story lingers.

Contemporary consensus around the Ancient Chinese Linking Rings admits that they are probably neither Chinese nor particularly ancient. Ching Ling Foo, a popular Chinese magician in the 19th and 20th centuries, performed a version of the linking rings while touring internationally. Of course, plenty of non-Chinese magicians performed the linking rings on tour throughout the 1800s and 1900s, including Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, one of the fathers of modern magic.

Throughout decades of investigation and research, magician historians have latched on to series of rings appearing in art, performance, and public record, seeking to support the legend with fact. Like a hunt for the Holy Grail, each seeker crafts his own path to the history of the rings with or without evidence or corroboration beyond their own beliefs and discoveries. One of the oldest confirmed records of the linking rings appears in Hokasen, Hirase Hose’s 1764 treatise on street performance.

Magician Max Maven presented Hokasen in a 2016 issue of Genii magazine, interpreting and analyzing the work alongside an English translation of Hose’s description of “The Iron Rings,” a clear account of a performance of what we know as the linking rings today. While Hokasen does not secure the origins of the rings in China, Japan, or the West, it does give us a confirmed written record of the linking rings as a performance piece dating back to the mid-1700s. 

The performance of the linking rings detailed in Hokasen utilized up to five rings, introducing another debate that has existed amongst magicians for centuries. Acts over the years have included anywhere between two and 11 rings. Dai Vernon, known to many in magic circles as The Professor, solidified a six-ring routine. Chris Capehart is renowned as a master of the linking rings, and for him, there’s nothing to debate when it comes to the correct number of rings in an act.

“The right number is very simple,” says Capehart, “it’s three. It used to be when people would do these ring routines, that’s when people would get up and go to the bathroom. They’d say, ‘oh, I’ll be right back.’ No you won’t.” Needless to say, Capehart uses three rings in his act. When he first started doing magic, Capehart had no interest in the linking rings. “I hated it. I hated all the clanking noise, and instead of just proving that the metal would go through metal, they would make these designs. I used to think to myself, ‘what is the point of all that?’ Usually, when I saw the linking rings, I walked out the door,” he says.

When Capehart was asked to perform the linking rings at a club performance, he had to bone up on it. “I had to learn it, so I set out to do the shortest version I could and just get rid of it,” Capehart says. “It came with eight rings, so I threw away five and only kept three.” Drawing inspiration from the way karate practitioners break boards, Capehart pioneered a crashing motion that focuses on what, to him, the linking rings are really all about: metal passing through metal. Gone were the patterns and designs, butterflies and Dolly Parton jokes. A trademark of Capehart’s act is its simplicity—he passes metal through metal, the singular impossible feat, over and over again, mere inches away from the audience’s eyes.

Classics of magic like the linking rings present an enduring question of presentation. What is magic? Or rather, what part of an act or a show is the magic moment? Is it patter and performance? The way the audience feels? What they remember when they leave the theater? Or is magic the momentary act of accomplishing something impossible? “Linking rings is not supposed to happen,” Capehart says. “Putting steel through steel makes people go, ‘whoa, you can’t do that.’”

For almost 100 years, the official magazine of the International Brotherhood of Magicians has been called The Linking Ring. Among the classics of magic, the linking rings stands out with a history that is integral to our understanding of magic as an art that has developed over the course of centuries. Magicians hate the linking rings and magicians love the linking rings, mirroring the conflicting groans and gasps of audience members. “Some tricks, if they’re performed right, they’re fantastic,” says Capehart. “But you get the wrong performer, and that’s it.”

In this sense, the enduring success of magic, or of a particular trick, does rest in the hands of the performer. In the words of magician Jamy Ian Swiss: “Magic is largely an interpretive art, and it is invariably the singer, not the song, that makes for beautiful and effective art.” Today’s young professional magicians work diligently to distinguish themselves from the classical image of a stage magician. They forego the reputation of stodgy old men in top hats and tails for a more contemporary take on magic—focusing on attraction and charisma, ushering even classical illusions into the digital age with technology, regardless of whether or not the audience can see it. But performers developing their own takes on classics like the linking rings don’t stray too far from the work of their predecessors.

Is this a result of the limitations of conjuring? Is it out of some kind of veneration of magic’s heritage as an art form? Possibly both. Sometimes, the metal shrinks down to smaller rounds like in Shoot Ogawa’s Japanese Ninja Rings. Joshua Messado ditched the popular shiny steel look for a matte black finish in creating his own Messado Rings. Performers invent pretty new moves and, to the chagrin of seasoned professionals like Capehart, invent new shapes and patterns. But through these subtle tweaks and new takes over the course of at least 250 years, and probably more, the actual feat of the act remains unchanged: metal cannot pass through metal. Steel cannot melt through steel.