The Chinese linking rings is considered to be a classic of illusion magic. In the traditional effect, solid metal rings appear to link and unlink, pass through each other, and form chains and other complex patterns and configurations. The rings may even be handed out to audience members for examination. Sometimes an audience member is invited onto the stage to perform alongside the magician as part of a 'do as I do' routine.
It was believed that Ching Ling Foo was one of the early performers of the linking rings in the form known today. Speculation about the rings' origin has been traced to Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East and as far back as the 1st century. A painting by Giacomo Mantegazza in 1876 shows a harem girl holding a set of rings above her head.
French magician Philippe (Jacques Andre Noel Talon) was one of the first recorded magicians to use the rings. During the second half of his show, he donned an Oriental robe and conical cap. He took 8-inch (200 mm) solid metal rings and had the audience examine them. He claimed that he learned them from a troupe of Chinese jugglers in Britain. After the rings were returned, Philippe proceeded to link and unlink them. From there he made combination of glittering circles into complicated designs. According to Robert-Houdin, he said that for a finale, Philippe blew on them and they fell separately on the floor. Robert-Houdin himself also performed a version of the trick.
Recent magicians who are known for their performances with the linking rings include Dai Vernon, Richard Ross, Jack Miller, Michael Skinner, Whit Haydn, Ian Ray - "The Genie Ali Pali", Jeff McBride, Shoot Ogawa, Fu Manchu, Tina Lenert, Fábio De'Rose, Jim Cellini, Chris Capeheart, Tom Frank, Galina Christian Bale's character, Alfred Borden, performs the trick in The Prestige. The number of rings used can vary from two to as many as ten or more. A standard set of commercially available rings typically includes eight rings.
In 1988, Japanese magician Masahiro Yanagida performed with miniature Ninja rings, using four rings that were four and a half inches (or 11.43 cm) in diameter. Since then, the Chinese linking rings have also become a favorite performance item for close-up magicians.
One method of performing this illusion would be that the magician appears to show several separate and solid rings, but some of the rings are gimmicked. The ability to show that the rings are all separate and solid is usually done using a false count. The illusion of the joining and unjoining of the rings is achieved by sleight of hand and optical illusion. Performers strive to make the penetration of one ring by another appear smooth, plain, and clear.