A Centennial Review of Chinese Cinema

A Centennial Review of Chinese Cinema

A Centennial Review of Chinese Cinema

Yingjin Zhang (Universidad California, San Diego)

Introduction: Chinese Cinema

Since its first attempt at short feature with Conquering Jun Mountain (1905) in Beijing during the final years of China's last dynasty, Chinese cinema has gone a long way to reach its present status as a significant player in international cinema. Like its counterparts elsewhere in the world, Chinese cinema started with fascination with new visual technology, developed from a cluster of family businesses to a market of competing studios and theaters, survived war devastation and government interference, and has enriched cinematic arts with ingenious narrative and visual inventions. Now near its own centennial celebration, Chinese cinema has regularly received top awards at international film festivals, and the phenomenal success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (1999) is just one example.

But Ang Lee's film, a coproduction of the U. S. China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, raises a question: what is meant by "Chinese cinema" in the era of globalization? Addressing this discussion elsewhere, I would remind the reader that in current academic practice "Chinese cinema" includes films produced in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as those in the Chinese language or dialogue directed by the Chinese diaspora if "transnational" is added to the term. Ideally, a centennial review of Chinese cinema should include all these aspects, but the limited space allocated to this essay allows for only a consideration of the mainland production in the twentieth century, leaving interested readers to pursue Hong Kong and Taiwan cinemas elsewhere. Since the majority of recent surveys of Chinese cinema have covered areas of politics and aesthetics (as referenced in the notes throughout this essay), I will focus more on industry and mention arts, ideology, and politics along the way, thus implementing a slightly different perspective in this essay.

Early Cinema: Exhibition and Production, 1890s-1920s

Right after its invention, cinema was introduced to China in the late 1890s by French, American, and Spanish showmen, as they rented venues such as teahouse, restaurant, theater, and skating rink to show short movies amidst Chinese variety shows or as interludes to featured operas. Old habits of theatre attendance such as chatting, eating, and drinking continued in early film exhibition, and the audience watched films as the exotic spectacles of "Western shadowplays." It was not until 1908 that a cinema exclusively for film exhibition was built in Shanghai by Antonio Ramos, a Spaniard who would gradually build a theatre chain in the city in subsequent years.

Film production started in China with documentary filmmaking, as Thomas Edison reportedly had dispatched a photographer to China as early as 1898. In addition to exhibiting shorts in a big tent along Shanghai streets, an Italian expatriate named A. E. Louros also made documentaries in China, and so did the French company Pathé in the late 1900s. The Chinese participation in production was not far behind. A sideline product from a Beijing photography shop in 1905, Conquering Jun Mountain was based on an existing Peking opera episode performed by a leading actor, who ensured the film's popularity because opera fans always loved to watch their favorite actor and could now afford the cheaper movie tickets. As if by coincidence, the opera movie as a distinguished Chinese genre came into being. But a more conscientious effort at feature production did not materialize until 1912, when Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu cooperated with the Americans in charge of the Asia Company (set up by Benjamin Brasky in 1909) and produced The Difficult Couple, a comic short ridiculing elaborate Chinese wedding rituals. Like Conquering Jun Mountain, Difficult Couple projected ethnic culture as spectacles, thereby foregrounding an exhibitionist mode connected to both traditional theater and compatible with "cinema of attractions" elsewhere in the early decades.

The cooperation between Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu resumed in 1922, when they and two other friends founded the Mingxing (Star) Company in Shanghai with the money they had initially raised for stock speculations. Indeed, film production was often treated as speculation in the 1920s, as a succession of small companies made a single film, grabbed profits, and closed shop. A famous example was the first Chinese long feature, Yan Ruisheng (1921), a 10-reeler based on a sensational Shanghai case in which a renowned courtesan was murdered for money in 1920. The film managed to open at the Embassy Theatre, a first-run Shanghai cinema normally screening foreign features. In comparison, Mingxing's comic shorts were not very successful, so Zhang and Zheng produced their 8-reeler, Zhang Xinsheng (1922), based on a real-life patricidal case, which unfortunately ran into censorship problems. Only until 1923, when Orphan Rescues Grandfather became an exceptional success, did Mingxing secure its position as an industry leader in early cinema.

Mingxing specialized in the family drama, a kind of story about the tribulations of life in a changing society that tended to glorify Confucian virtues such as female chastity and filial piety. Mingxing's emphasis on traditional ideologies thus situated the studio closer to "butterfly literature"--a type of popular urban fiction steeped in conservatism--than to May Fourth literature, the latter known for its radical anti-traditionalism. Although Mingxing recruited butterfly writers such as Bao Tianxiao, it is important to remember that it did not oppose the concept of enlightenment. Indeed, Zheng Zhengqiu dedicated his career to moral education through popular entertainment, but he believed that enlightenment could be achieved only step by step, at a level accessible to the average audience.

Just as family dramas dominated the screen in the first half of the 1920s, family operations characterized several early studios. Dan Duyu, for instance, established the Shanghai Photoplay Company in Shanghai in 1920 and employed his relatives. Dan cast Yin Mingzhu, an illustrious Shanghai socialite, in Sea Oath (1921), an urban romance featuring sentimentalism and modern fashions. Yin soon became a star and married Dan in 1926. A gifted painter of portraits of beauties featured in commercial calendar posters, Dan made sure that his films were always rich in visual quality. What was amazing about him was that he had acquired film skills all by himself, serving as director, screenwriter, cinematographer, lighting man, editor and laboratory worker all at once. Apart from his versatility, Dan was exceptional because the majority of filmmakers at the time were affiliated with the stage (either operas or spoken dramas).

Another noted family studio was the Tianyi (Unique) Company, founded by the Shaw (Shao) brothers in Shanghai in 1925. Like Zheng Zhengqiu, Shao Zuiweng had experience managing a Shanghai stage. But contrary to the trendy features on contemporary issues produced by Mingxing and other studios like the Great Wall-Lily and Minxin (employing artists like Shi Dongshan, Hou Yao, and Bu Wancang), Tianyi developed its brand name by adapting Chinese folk tales, myths, and legends already popular among audiences. What further distinguished Tianyi from its competitors was its early investment in Southeast Asia, signing deals with exhibitors and building its own theater chain--an investment that paid off immediately. Their two-part White Snake (1926) broke all records of Chinese films in Southeast Asia, and this kind of overseas success was crucial to Shanghai studios because the majority of movie theaters in China were owned by the foreigners and showed mostly foreign films.

Tianyi's success engendered a fierce competition in Shanghai to produce costume dramas, the kind of historical films that initially aimed to correct the tendency of "feminization" in contemporary urban films by displaying the incredible feats of ancient heroes and immortals. Since little or no location shooting was required, costumes and props were readily available from theater troupes, and undereducated Chinese overseas were eager to watch their familiar stories on screen, making costume dramas was a lucrative business in the mid-1920s. Mini trends rushed out one after another, from historical films to martial arts pictures to films about immortals and demons. Mingxing's 18-part martial arts picture, The Burning of Red Lotus Temple (1928-31), set a record of serial production in China.

For critics, the martial arts pictures might still convey a sense of justice by righting the wrongs in an idealized fictional world, but images of immortals and demons--captured by trick cameras and revered by the audience--were not only escapist and superstitious but detrimental to the industry's finance. The increased prices of film stocks forced small companies to use cheap material and rush their unpolished products to the market, and the overproduction of costume dramas gave the overseas exhibitors the advantage to cut purchasing prices. All this compounded to drive the majority of companies to bankruptcy. From 179 film companies listed in 1927, the number nose-dived to twenty in 1928, and fewer than a dozen were in business by 1930.

In general, film production in the 1920s was market-driven and relatively free from government interference because regional warlords had divided the country and the KMT did not establish its central government in Nanjing until 1927. However, since the exhibition sector was under the foreign control and there was no horizontal or vertical integration in the industry, the prospect for Chinese cinema was rather dim. A few visionary producers were aware of the situation and attempted to build Chinese exhibition networks, but it required a great deal of time and money, which was in short supply while cinema approached the sound era at the same time and the world headed toward economic depression.

National Cinema: Industry and Ideology, 1930s-1940s

Several fundamental changes occurred in the early 1930s. First, the KMT government asserted its power by cracking down on martial arts pictures and strictly policing films' ideological content. Second, a "national cinema" movement briefly united producers and exhibitors and brought new looks to the screen and new audiences to theaters. Third, the emergent leftists successfully launched ideological film criticism, maneuvered through cracks in the censorship system, and produced leftist films exposing class exploitation, national crisis, and social evils. All these changes were interrelated, and all responded to the issues of modernity and nationalism.

The government's ban on the martial arts pictures was meant to curtail the widespread superstition and promote modern images of China--a nationalistic project of modernity that resulted in skirmishes with Hollywood over the latter's offensive portrayals of the Chinese. In this respect the government found a perfect ally in Luo Mingyou, the owner of a successful theater chain who ventured to film production by organizing a giant enterprise, the Lianhua Company (United Photoplay Service), in 1930. Lianhua had the support of major Chinese theater-chain owners and producers and re-organized former companies such as the Great Wall-Lily and Minxin into its branch studios in Shanghai and Hong Kong. With its popular slogan to "revive national cinema," Lianhua recruited directors like Sun Yu and Cai Chusheng and produced a number of films attractive to urban intellectuals who had been turned off by the martial arts pictures in the late 1920s. Although many of the Lianhua releases were still bathed in Confucian ethics, such as Song of China (1935), films like Three Modern Women (1933) and New Woman (1934) highlighted the spirit of social intervention related to the May Fourth tradition.

While Lianhua concentrated on silent pictures in the early 1930s, a practice Luo Mingyou believed would appeal to those theaters that had difficulty making the transition to sound, Mingxing and Tianyi competed in producing talkies. Interestingly, Tianyi's conversion to sound gradually altered its tradition in costume dramas because most sound picture audiences preferred modern subjects. After helping to install sound systems in 139 theaters in Southeast Asia, Tianyi established its Hong Kong studio in 1934 and started producing Cantonese cinema (a distinction not necessary in the silent era). Together, these strategic investments secured Tianyi's dominance in the region, and when the Japanese troops entered central China in 1937, Tianyi quickly terminated its Shanghai operations and shipped its equipment to Hong Kong, where it eventually rose to prominence as the Shaw Brothers in the 1950s.

Unlike the market-driven Tianyi, Mingxing soon followed Lianhua in opening its doors to the leftists, partly because of its financial difficulties and partly because of the vision of mass education shared between the leftists and the liberal directors like Zheng Zhengqiu. In the early 1930s, Mingxing was deeply in debt after the martial arts pictures had been banned, audiences no longer welcomed the butterfly stories, and conversion to sound exhausted much of their cash flow. Through Hong Shen's connection, Xia Yan, Yang Hansheng, and a number of other leftists were invited to contribute screenplays to Mingxing in 1932. The leftists seized this opportunity and expanded its influence on the progressive directors like Cheng Bugao, and before long leftist films such as Spring Silkworms (1933) and Wild Torrents (1933) brought fresh images to the screen. By foregrounding class exploitation and national crisis, leftist films engaged contemporary social issues and resorted to melodrama to heighten emotional impact. Zheng Zhengqiu himself directed Twin Sisters (1933), a family drama about contrastive fates of the rich and the poor, which had a lot in common with Song of the Fishermen (1934), an acclaimed leftist film Cai Chusheng directed for Lianhua.

Two new studios were also active in leftist film production. Diantong specialized in sound pictures such as Plunder of Peach and Plum (1934), and its Children of Troubled Times (1935) featured "The March of the Volunteers," a theme song that would be adopted as the national anthem of the People's Republic of China (PRC) decades later. Yihua, a studio established in 1932 under the guidance of Tian Han, an active leftist, produced a number of leftist films in 1933. The ideological left-turn in several companies in 1933 alarmed the KMT right wing, which engineered a much publicized vandalism of the Yihua studio facilities and increased pressure on film censorship. After the leftist pullout in 1935, Yihua was taken over by the advocates for "soft film" such as Huang Jiamo and Liu Na'ou, who produced a kind of entertaining urban light comedy that ignored sociopolitical issues and indulged in visual treats. The soft film's opposition to ideological films and criticism provoked immediate counterattacks by the leftists in major newspapers, and the former's vision of an alternative film aesthetic in line with the cosmopolitan outlook of Shanghai has been used as a negative example in official historiography. The leftists, on the other hand, had claimed a number of outstanding films to their credit, such as Goddess (1934), Big Road (1934), Crossroads (1937), and Street Angel (1937).

Singing at Midnight (1937), marketed as China's first horror picture, also showed visible leftist influence, but it was from Xinhua, a company Zhang Shankun founded in 1934 that would rise to preeminence after 1937, when Lianhua and Mingxing had closed shop. During the resistance war against Japan, Zhang Shankun followed the prewar Tianyi tradition and produced politically neutral but commercially successful films in Shanghai, and the chosen genre was costume drama. Some films, like Mulan Joins the Army (1939), subtly conveyed patriotic sentiments and were extremely popular. But the Japanese occupation forces quickly pushed Zhang Shankun to make Eternity (1943), set in the Opium War and supposedly propagating the ideology of the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Also promoting the sphere ideology were the products from the Manchurian Motion Pictures (Man'ei), a Japanese-controlled studio located in northeastern China. But Man'ei films rarely made it big in Shanghai or other occupied regions, except for those featuring Li Xianglan (Yamaguchi Yoshiko), a Japanese actress passing as Chinese.

During the war, two KMT studios--the Central Film and the China Motion Pictures--were relocated to Chongqing, the wartime capital, and produced several patriotic films, but the limited film stocks prevented the growth in production. On the other hand, a large exhibition network was set up as government projection teams toured the battlefronts with newsreels and documentaries. Before Hong Kong fell to Japan in 1941, a KMT film office there had helped a group of Shanghai directors produce a few titles in Mandarin, thus beginning Mandarin cinema that would flourished in postwar Hong Kong. A small-scale film production team was established in the Communist-controlled Yan'an area, which shot documentaries and provided training for film personnel.

Right after the war, a team of Communists transported part of Man'ei equipment out of Changchun and set up the Northeast Studio in 1946. Later in the year, the KMT Department of Propaganda confiscated the rest of Man'ei equipment and set up the Changchun Studio, but major postwar KMT facilities were the Central Film's two studios in Shanghai and one in Beijing. Ironically, several films critical of KMT corruption, such as Diary of a Homecoming (1947), came out from these studios, reflecting the popular mood of disillusionment in the postwar period. But the majority of the Central Film's releases glorified the KMT images. For example, Code Name Heaven No. 1 (1947), a spy film, sold 150,000 tickets at the first-run Empress Theater in Shanghai, compared to 170,000 tickets Gone with the Wind sold when it premiered in Shanghai in 1947. There is no question that Hollywood dominated the market in terms of the total numbers of films exhibited, but the Chinese audience, despite skyrocketing inflation, watched more domestic films in the postwar than in the prewar period. And this new development boosted postwar film production considerably.