Tuesday, 31 July 2012


This is the first in a series of six posts tracing the history of Chinese cinema. Each post will focus on one of the "six generations" which comprise the chronological basis for most histories of Chinese filmmaking.


The details about exactly how and when the first films were shown in China is unclear (many records of this embryonic phase have been lost or destroyed in the intervening years). But it could not have been later than August 11, 1896, when a set of short films were screened at the Xu Garden in Shanghai.

One theory is that the Lumiere Brothers brought film to China; another is that the experimental films of Thomas Edison were the first to be shown.

Perhaps Chinese spectators' first glimpse of the new medium was something like Edison's 1898 short below, of a parade by overseas Chinese in San Francisco.

As in the West, some early Chinese screenings got off to a less than auspicious start. According to the online journal The Chinese Mirror:

"In 1904, for a celebration of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi's 70th birthday, a British envoy in Beijing contributed a film projector and several films to be shown at the festivities.  Unfortunately, during the performance a generator supplying power to the equipment malfunctioned and exploded.  The superstitious Empress Dowager took this as an omen, and issued a decree that motion pictures should never again be allowed in the palace.  This decree was short-lived, however, as an advertisement in Shenbao two years later trumpeted the arrival of several new films for exhibition in the Summer Palace from "9 each evening till midnight, closed Sundays."  Even the Empress Dowager herself seems to have reconsidered, as records show that in 1906 she presented a local official she favored with a film projector and several films for his enjoyment."

But the first Chinese-made motion picture was not completed until 1905 - a recording of the popular Beijing opera The Battle of Dingjunshan. All recordings of it were lost in a fire, and the image below is the only still that remains.

The first Chinese feature-length (semi-) fiction movie was not made until 1921 - a docudrama entitled Yan Ruisheng, based on a real-life murder case that scandalised Shanghai's high society.

Besides technical constraints, one of the reasons for the initial slow start was political. In the years preceding the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the Empress Dowager belatedly accepted the need for certain limited reforms of education, the economy and governance, aimed at strengthening the imperial state against foreign "barbarians."

This required Western technology and practices, and also careful management of the process of opening by the state to preserve the "essence" of traditional Chinese culture. It meant that new technologies should be introduced gradually, and only once the rulers felt it was safe to do so.

In practice, the weakness of late imperial authorities was such that all they really did was slow down the penetration of particular technologies. But Chinese critics, artists and intellectuals still faced the challenge of persuading elites and masses alike that cinema was Western in "form" yet Chinese in "essence."

The film historian Jubin Hu has described the response in Projecting a Nation: Chinese National Cinema Before 1949. He notes the importance of the first Chinese term used to describe motion pictures - "Western shadowplay" (xiyang yingxie) or "electric shadows", which framed the new medium as nothing more than a slight modification of popular traditional Chinese shadow-play theatre (piyingxi). In this way, cinema was imagined as less a Western invention of a new art-form, but merely a Western technical adaptation of a longstanding Chinese art-form. Foreigners rented tea-houses to screen movies during variety shows.

Here is a clip from Zhang Yimou's To Live (1994) that features the protagonist acting out a shadow-play show at 04:25:

As a result of this sort of cultural positioning, the first Chinese movies were simply recordings of already-popular Chinese art-forms, like Beijing opera, and so movies appeared to be a curiosity (and cheaper than going to see a real opera), but not anything portending a step-change in "serious" art. Filmmaking suffered from a lack of investment, and it was held in low regard. Writes Jubin: "Film screenings were inserted between fireworks and conjuring, both traditionally seen as trivial, low culture entertainment... They saw film as a plaything."

That began to change when China became a republic.


In the 1920s a new impetus was given to making "national cinema" (guopian), which now meant cinema that the Nationalist government of the Kuomintag considered conducive to the forging of a modern, strong and efficient nation-state.

The emphasis shifted in favour of more rapid importation of Western technologies and techniques. China's ability to develop a thriving national cinema industry became an important indicator of the nation's general fitness to catch-up to the West and reclaim its former standing in the world. Jubin has described how, for most of the 1920s, the government's goal was a Chinese-owned and Chinese-operated film industry making films that would contribute to a renewed sense of national identity, rather than explicitly pro-KMT film censorship that might alienate audiences and retard the industry's growth:

"The major concern of advocates of a Chinese national cinema was the Chinese nation, rather than Chinese cinema per se... The emphasis was therefore placed on the national ideology of this cinema, rather than on national culture as form."

The simple fact was that Chinese audiences loved watching foreign films (even, apparently, ones with blatantly racist overtones). If China was to develop an indigenous movie-making industry, it would need to make movies that could compete with foreign imports by catering to Chinese audiences' taste for Hollywood romances, dramas and comedies. This implied an overdue recognition of the newness of national cinema in China on the part of artists and critics - Jubin quotes Paul Clark:

"Film is the most foreign art form introduced into China in the Westernising cultural upsurge known as the May Fourth movement at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Film (along with modern-style spoken drama) was totally new, with no precursors in traditional Chinese literary and artistic activities."

Chinese cinema of this period was driven by commercial imperatives, and popular genres varied from adaptations of so-called "butterfly literature" (conservative, pro-family dramas) to more sensual and erotic pictures taking their cue from the Chinese writer Mao Dun's advocacy of "love for the sake of love." Melodramas with artificially-imposed happy endings (guangming de weiba) proved popular. There were also "ghost" thrillers, costume dramas, some slapstick comedies, and action films that were early incarnations of the martial arts for which Chinese cinema would become famous (many such films can be viewed here).

One of the earliest such films to use martial arts effects is Poor Daddy (1929) by the Kung Fu pioneer Ren Pengnian.

Here is a clip from the film - a fight when a man catches a burglar in his house.

The Orphan (1929)
Another early action film was The Orphan (1929), which you can view here. Films like The Orphan set the mould for "women warriors" (nuxia) like Pearl Chang in later Kung Fu movies. As the commentary on the Classical Iconoclast blog suggests, the film is also a historical curiosity, since many silent pictures of the time lack English subtitles:

"The English titles show that the film makers wanted to reach a wider audience, outside China itself. The "Orator" is John Chow who also "storied" the text. That's a historical archive, too, a very rare example of China Coast English, which was a curious hybrid of Victorian formality filtered through Missionary school, but "Chinese" too, because it follows Chinese grammar which doesn't use as many non essentials as English. When Chun Mei rues her fate, her words could come straight out of a Bible tract. People really did use to talk like that."

Even among the commercial fare it would be unfair to ignore the more idealistic filmmakers who used allegory and allusion to give voice to a social conscience. On the subject of national cinema, Yingjin Zhang writes:

"Not only can one locate in Zheng Zhengqiu's films of the 1920s an allegorical structure whereby family dramas were eventually made to play out on the overarching theme of "national salvation", but one can also discern in Zhang Shichuan's "escapist" films of romance (derogatorily referred to as "Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies") and swordsmanship (gongfu) in the same period a fundamental concern with the fate of the nation."

Zhang Shichuan
The partnership of Zheng Zhengqiu's determination to change society and Zhang Shichuan's ambition to make a lot of money is crucial in the story of early Chinese cinema.

Zheng Zhengqiu

Zhang, a hard-headed businessman, decided to invest in setting up a film production company after getting tired of waiting for his stock exchange trading license to be approved. Zheng was a filmmaker with an earnest view of his own profession's responsiblity toward society, closely modelled on the ideology of the founder of the republic, Dr. Sun Yat-sen: "To strive for the development of Chinese cinema, we must unite those film companies who cherish the same ideals and struggle together."
Thus, the commercial and the communal converged on the need for greater market concentration in what was an extremely fragmented industry composed of small "grab-and-run" one-production studios. One was motivated by profit, the other by national identity and prestige, but the end was the same.

Together, they co-founded the Minxing Film Company (Star Studios) in 1922. It was one of the first well-resourced, professional Chinese film outfits. Here is a picture of its first offices.

And here is the entrance to the Minxing studios.

One of their crucial insights was that Chinese cinema needed its own pool of talent to recruit from, independent of the stage and variety troupes that until then had supplied Chinese films with their casts. So Minxing opened its own film school to train new talent, and they encouraged continuity in allocating specific actors to specific directors, in order to build working relationships that would pay dividends in the finished product. They also set up their own magazine to promote awareness of their Chinese-made, internationally-competitive films, the "Morning Star." For their concerted effort to raise standards in the industry, the Minxing co-founders were known as the "tiger generals."

Warner Bros.-inspired logo of Shaw
Brothers Studio, estd. 1930
Two other significant film companies were established soon afterwards - Tianyi, founded by the Shaw Brothers in 1925, and Lianhua in 1929. But by the end of the decade, Chinese cinema was still overwhelmingly dominated by foreign imports. According to the Shanghai Historical Film Materials

"The film market in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s was monopolised by British and American films... The Americans and British had their distribution companies in all big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, and Guangzhou... China produced 89 feature films in 1933, while the figure of imported films in that year reached 421. Among those imported films, 309 were American."

Chinese film companies had to compete with an integrated network of modern movie theatres such as Empire and Odeon. They responded by trying to modernise and consolidate - in 1927 there were around 180 Chinese-owned film production companies (150 of which were located in Shanghai, "China's Hollywood") and by 1930 this had been reduced to about a dozen significant companies. However, this restructuring was also the result of many smaller companies going bankrupt after the market bubble in martial-arts costume dramas burst in the late '20s. Film companies taking the long view established theatre chains across the South East Asian Chinese diaspora (foreign-owned theatres on the mainland showed foreign-made films).

But they were beset from all sides by social and political instability. In 1925-6 the film industry was temporarily throttled by a General Strike that reached into Shanghai and Hong Kong. Recovering from the instability was one of the reasons Chinese film still lagged behind the West technologically.

The Hero Gan Fengchi (1928)

For instance, in adopting sound some time after the first Western "talkies" appeared. The perceived financial risk was too great; Lianhua's star director Cai Shusheng was not alone in this: "I still don't trust sound machines. Therefore, I would rather make silent films (in peace) than take the risk of making sound films." When Minxing began making "talkies", the wax recording instruments they had to rely on were so poor that Zheng Shichuan started taking large doses of opium in between scenes calm his nerves.

If that wasn't bad enough, at the beginning of the 1930s China's film industry became a target of Chiang Kai-shek's "New Life Movement", aimed at purifying the nation with an ethos of military discipline. Essentially, the Generalissimo was against almost everything that Chinese moviegoers enjoyed going to watch. In his Brief History of Hong Kong Cinema, Paul Fonoroff writes: "In an effort to stamp out superstition and moral decadence, the KMT banned what had become the bread-and-butter of the Shanghai film industry: ghost stories and martial arts films."

More specifically, Yingjin tells us that the KMT set up a National Film Censorship Commitee in 1931:

"The Nationalist government sought to incorporate film-making in its nation-building project. Specifically, it promoted the following as crucial elements of a modern nation: Mandarin as a unified national language (it tried to curtail if not terminate the production of Cantonese-dialect films in southern China), a rational mind (it banned films with explicit religious and superstitious themes), a healthy body (it promoted the athletic look in a new generation of film stars), and Confucian ethics (it frequently ordered the pornographic and sexy sequences to be cut before the films could be released)."

In place of ghosts, swords and sex went a return to Chinese tradition - the KMT wanted more films based on Beijing operas in order to build a shared cultural identity around history. The focus of the Nationalists had thus shifted from technique to content.

Quite apart from the New Life Movement, dramatic events off-screen after 1932 would turn the 'second generation' of Chinese filmmakers away from melodramas and towards "national salvation" - though not of the sort the KMT wanted.

1 comment:

  1. The superstitious Empress Dowager took this as an omen, and issued a decree that motion pictures should never again be allowed in the palace.
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