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Shanghai Film History Before 1949










Shanghai Film History before 1949

Presentation by Chen Biqiang (China Film Archive) at the Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art, Saturday 3 March 2007, as part of the forum 'An Amorous History of Shanghai and Hong Kong Cinema' held as part of the Hong Kong, Shanghai: Cinema Cities program.

If we classify the films made before the establishment of new China in 1949 as early films, then early Chinese films can be divided into the following eras:

Pre-history era (from 1895 to 1904)

Experimental era (from 1905 to 1921)

Flourishing era (from 1922 to 1930)

Reforming era (from 1931 to 1937)

Polarization era (from 1938 to 1945)

Renaissance era (from 1946 to 1949)

I will give a brief introduction to these different eras.

1. Pre-history era (1895–1904)

The reason why it is called the ‘pre-history era’ is because motion pictures were introduced to China soon after they were invented. In Shanghai, the first recorded screening of a motion picture occurred sometime between 1895 and 1896, which showed that films were screened in China’s big cities soon after their invention. Chinese audiences called it the ‘Foreign Western Mirror’, or ‘electronic light shadow opera’, which was simplified to the ‘electronic shadow opera’.

2. Experimental era (1905–1921)

This period was marked by the fact that Chinese people started their own filmmaking experiments. They started to establish their own studios, exploring and accumulating experience in filmmaking and production management.

The first film experiment in China was conducted by Ren Qingtai in the Beijing Fengtai Photo Studio. He shot a few dancing fragments of the Battle of Dingjunshan for the Beijing Opera master Tan Xinpei, which is regarded as the beginning of Chinese films.

In 1909, a Russian American Benjamin Brodsky established the ‘Asian Film Company’ in Shanghai. In 1913, Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu organized the Xinmin Company and took over the Asian Film Company’s production. They made some short films such as ‘Die for Marriage’. Meanwhile, two brothers Li Minwei and Li Beihai formed the ‘Meihua Film Company’ in Hong Kong. They cooperated with Brodsky and made a short film entitled ‘Chuang-Tse Tests His Wife’.

In the following few years, film companies constantly arose and experimented with making new movies. The most important event during this time was the establishment of the motion pictures department in 1918 by China’s largest publisher Shangwu Press (Commercial Press). This department recruited film professionals and made a large number of highly influential films until its closure in 1926

3. Flourishing era (1922–1930)

The main feature of this period was the creation of a large number of film production companies. Filmmaking received stable investment and started to explore unique Chinese themes and styles. Both national and international film markets were developed. Film companies received good results from the box office and expanded their production.

One of the notable events of this period was the official establishment of the Ming Xing Film Company by Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu in March of 1923. They shot a long drama ‘An Orphan Rescues His Grandpa’ at the end of 1923, which established a successful benchmark for Chinese films in choosing resources and establishing ethnic styles. From this time, new film companies arose continuously with new film production companies being established nearly every week during the peak. At the height of this period, there were more than 100 film production companies in Shanghai.

During this era, the three most important film-making organizations in Shanghai were the Mingxing Company and the Tianyi Company, with the Dazhonghua Baihe Company being merged later.

The key feature of Chinese films during this period was that they stopped simply imitating European and American films and started to draw on the resources from Chinese culture, seeking to establish a distinctive Chinese film style and beginning to make commercial films. There were three main highlights in Chinese commercial films, which were the folktale drama in ancient costumes that began in 1926, the Kungfu movie starting in 1927 and the fantasy Kungfu film that commenced in 1928.

However, due to the huge profits made by investing in movies, many speculators started to make films by cutting out necessary expenses. They lowered the price of their films and production costs, leading to vicious competitions. The result was that the quality and reputation of Chinese films began to fall. Both national and overseas film investors started to lose interest in Chinese films, which made many small and medium-sized film companies become bankrupt.

4. Reforming era (1931–1937)

The main characteristics of this period were: the once chaotic competition of film production became orderly; film themes experienced a huge change; left-wing progressive thought had a great impact on films; and the quality and standard of filmmaking improved enormously; so that Chinese movies regained their reputation and market share.

The reformation of Chinese film industry was stimulated by three important factors. These were:

  1. The Chinese film industry had to reform as vicious competitions caused Chinese films to lose their market;
  2. Japanese army invaded and occupied the three provinces of Northeast China in 1931 and provoked war in Shanghai in 1932, which fueled Chinese film makers with ethnic consciousness and patriotism;
  3. The occurrence of sound movies. The majority of cinemas in China only had screening equipment for silent movies. With the supply of foreign silent films being reduced or even halted, Chinese silent films got a chance to prosper again.

The significant event during this period was the establishment of the Lianhua Film Company, which was registered in both mainland China and Hong Kong on 25 October, 1930. It was initiated by the general manager of the Huabei Film Company Luo Mingyou and joined by the Minxin Film Company of Shanghai, the Dazhonghua Baihe Film Company, the Shanghai Film Company and a printing company. The Lianhua Company explored new concepts in film production--‘advocating art, promoting culture, enlightening people and saving the film industry’, which won them a warm welcome from their audience and respect from their colleagues.

The factor most affecting Chinese film reform during this period was the undeniable influence of leftist cultural thoughts on filmmaking. With the influence and participation of Communists and progressive young left-wing film critics and screenwriters, the themes of Chinese films changed dramatically. Serious themes concerning reality, society and national survival became dominant and won much acclaim from their audience. Although pure commercial entertainment films were still being made and sold, and in fact were the leading force at the box office, left-wing views became the main voice of public opinion. Entertainment films became noise that attracted little echo. Many classics in Chinese film history were produced during this period.

5. Polarization era (1937–1945)

The key feature of this period was the interruption of the environment and routine of Chinese film production in Shanghai due to the war. The film shooting bases of the leading film production companies such as the Mingxing Company and the Lianhua Company were bombed by Japanese troops, leaving the companies no choice but to close down. Meanwhile, Chinese film production showed distinct diversities in time, space, nature and principles due to the social context of the Sino-Japanese war.

The Shanghai film industry experienced two different periods during this era, that is, the ‘isolated island’ period (as Shanghai became an isolated island surrounded by Japanese troops) and the ‘occupation’ period (when Japanese troops occupied concessions in Shanghai after the Pacific War broke out). During the former period, Chinese filmmakers made movies independently; while during the latter period, they had to cooperate with the Japanese.

With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, the majority of Shanghai filmmakers fled the city and went to different battlefronts to make documentaries or anti-Japanese films. Some of them relocated to Wuhan, Chongqi, some to Hong Kong and some went to Yan’an where the Eighth Route Army was based.

Obvious polarization occurred with regard to the nature and principles of filmmaking during this era. Firstly, two large film production organizations came into being funded by the Chinese government. These were the Chinese Film Studio affiliated with the Military Committee and the Central Film Studio affiliated with the Nationalist Central Propaganda Department. They became headquarters for the anti-Japanese films. At the same time, Ru Muzhi and some others arrived at Yan’an where the Eighth Route Army’s headquarters were located and formed the Yan’an Film Squad led by the Communists. Shanghai’s ‘isolated island’ movies meanwhile, represented by the Xinhua Company and the Yihua Company entered another flourishing period for commercial films.

6. Renaissance era (1946–1949)

The key feature of this period was that filmmakers returned to Shanghai after winning the Sino-Japanese War and Chinese films began their rocky climb to renaissance under difficult living conditions and in a tough filmmaking environment.

The nationally-owned Chinese Film Studio and Central Film Studio took over the filmmaking organizations in Shanghai that had stayed during the Japanese occupation period on behalf of the state. This greatly expanded the financial capacity and material resources for the nationally-owned film production companies during this period. Meanwhile, privately-owned filmmaking organizations resumed production or were established one after another. Examples of influential privately-owned film production companies included the Kunlun Film Company established by some colleagues from the Lianhua Company, the Wenhua Film Company, and the Guotai Film Company.

Socially, the post Sino-Japanese war period was very difficult for the general population. As the war had only just ended, every industry in the nation was awaiting a resumption of business; while prices were rapidly rising and the nation lingered under the shadow of civil war between the Nationalists. The living and working conditions for filmmakers were very poor. Their psyches were confused and their hearts were heavy. The joy of victory was brief and was soon replaced by deep concerns about the civil war and the future of the whole nation.

However, even under such hardships, Chinese filmmakers miraculously experienced a renaissance in their art. In a short period of just three years, they produced a great number of Chinese film classics such as ‘The Spring River Flows East’, ‘Eight Thousand Miles of Clouds and Moon’, ‘Spring in a Small Town’, ‘Myriads of Lights’, ‘Love without End’, ‘Long Live the Wife’, and ‘Sad and Happy Middle-age’.

Shanghai was liberated in May 1949 and new China was founded in October 1949. This signaled the end of early Chinese film history. Chinese films stepped into a new era since after.

Chen Biqiang is Senior Research Fellow at the China Film Archive. He has recently undertaken a research project with the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos on Chinese-American filmmakers in China and is also a specialist on the history of martial arts cinema.

© Chen Biqiang and the Australian Cinémathèque. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author and the Australian Cinémathèque.