China Girl

China Girl


A “China Girl”, sometimes called a “China Doll” or a “girl head”, is a reference image used in commercial film laboratories since the late 1920s, and continuing in limited use today.  The imagenearly always a woman positioned next to colour swatches and patches of white, grey and black—is clipped to the leader of a film reel (also where those countdown numbers live) and used throughout the processing, developing and printing of celluloid film to determine the desired exposure, density and ideal appearance of the human body.

Why China Girl? That’s not super clear. The Chicago Film Society website (which hosts a fascinating collection of “Leader Ladies”) says:

“One popular theory connects the term to a “Chinese-style” garment (most often a colorful shirt) worn by the model in some test frames. Another suggests that early test frames used porcelain (“china”) mannequins instead of live women.”

The China Girl has appeared in more films than any actress. Despite appearing in countless films, they were never actually meant to be seen by the movie-going public … and nor were they. Outside of the film laboratory, China Girl is rarely if ever seen. Behind the scenes, however, she is essential to setting the appearance of a film. While the China Girl is a crucial part of the film production process, her essential role in film history has been most often overlooked, and some see this as a emblematic of the often marginal role of women in film history.

A selection of China Girls featured throughout the ending credits of Death Proof, a 2007 film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It’s a treat. Watch it HERE.

The Tarantino tribute confused some fans. Writes Bkiddo in a fan forum:

“OK please don’t laugh at me because I honestly don’t know who these chicks are: At the end of Death Proof, while the credits are rolling, there is a series of photographs. Does any one know who these women are? Are they actresses from some of QT’s favorite 70’s flicks?”

Needless to say, Bkiddo was soon put straight by the filmmaker geeks.

Also, a 2008 film by Julie Buck and Karin Segal called Girls on Film pays tribute to these forgotten women. You can watch that HERE.

Finally, there’s the 1983 recording of “China Girl” by David Bowie, but that is a reference to the song co-writer Iggy Pop’s Vietnamese ex-girlfriend, so nothing to do with this story … BUT a cultural full stop nonetheless.

Story Idea: Ian Hobbs



1. A China Girl submitted by Chrystel Bonne to the Chicago Film Society's Leader Ladies Project.
2. 35mm celluloid film and camera
3 to 9. China Girls selection. Credit: Chicago Film Society Leader Ladies Project.
Video: Ending credits for 2007 Quentin Tarantino film Death Proof 
11. Video: 2008 Girls on Film by Julie Buck and Karin Segal
Video: "China Girl", David Bowie, 1983

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