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East Asian cinema
Actor Tan Xinpei in The Battle of Dingjunshan, 1905

The Chinese-language cinema has three distinct historical threads: Cinema of Hong Kong, Cinema of China, and Cinema of Taiwan. After 1949 and until recent times, the cinema of mainland China operated under restrictions imposed by the Communist Party of China. Some films with political overtones are still censored or banned in China itself. However, most of these films are allowed to be shown abroad in commercially distributed theaters or in film festivals.

The vast majority of the Mainland-produced movies are Mandarin-based, unlike those from contemporary Hong Kong, which are almost exclusively made in Cantonese. Mainland films are often dubbed when exported to Hong Kong for theatrical runs, though Taiwan, like the PRC is predominantly Mandarin-speaking, and offers ready alternative commercial outlets for export.


The Beginnings: Shanghai as the centre, 1896-1945

Motion pictures were introduced to China in 1896. The first recorded screening of a motion picture in China occurred in Shanghai on August 11, 1896, as an "act" on a variety bill. The first Chinese film, a recording of the Beijing Opera, The Battle of Dingjunshan, was made in November 1905.[1] For the next decade the production companies were mainly foreign-owned, and the domestic film industry did not start in earnest until 1916, centering around Shanghai, a thriving entrepot center and the largest city in the Far East. During the 1920s film technicians from the United States trained Chinese technicians in Shanghai, and American influence continued to be felt there for the next two decades. It was during this period that some of the more important production companies first came into being, notably Mingxing Film Company ("Bright Star" Pictures) and the Shaw Brothers' Tianyi Film Company ("Unique"). Mingxing, founded by Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan initially focused on comic shorts, including the oldest surviving Chinese film, Laborer's Love (1922).[2][3] This soon shifted, however, to feature length films and family dramas including Orphan Rescues Grandfather (1923).[2] Meanwhile, Tianyi shifted their model towards folklore dramas, and also pushed into foreign markets; their film White Snake (1926) proved a typical example of their success in the Chinese communities of Southeast Asia.[2]

The Leftist movement

However, the first truly important Chinese films were produced beginning in the 1930s, with the advent of the "progressive" or "left-wing" movement, like Cheng Bugao's Spring Silkworms (1933), Sun Yu's The Big Road (1935), and Wu Yonggang's The Goddess (1934). These progressive films were noted for their emphasis on class struggle and external threats (i.e. Japanese aggression), as well as on their focus on common people, such as a family of silk farmers in Spring Silkworms and a prostitute in The Goddess.[1] In part due to the success of these kinds of films, this post-1930 era is now often referred to as the first "golden period" of Chinese cinema.[1] The Leftist cinematic movement often revolved around the Western-influenced Shanghai, where filmmakers portrayed the struggling lower class of an overpopulated city.[4]

Three production companies dominated the market in the early to mid- 1930s: the newly formed Lianhua ("United China"),[5] the older and larger Mingxing and Tianyi.[6] Both Mingxing and Lianhua leaned left (Lianhua's management perhaps more so),[1] while Tianyi continued to make less socially conscious fare.

The period also produced the first big Chinese movie stars, namely Hu Die, Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan, Zhao Dan and Jin Yan. Other major films of the period include New Women (1934), Song of the Fishermen (1934), Crossroads (1937), and Street Angel (1937). Throughout the 1930s, the Nationalists and the Communists struggled for power and control over the major studios; their influence can be seen in the films the studios produced during this period.

Shanghai, the Solitary Island

The Japanese invasion of China, in particular their occupation of Shanghai, ended this golden run in Chinese cinema. All production companies except Xinhua Film Company ("New China") closed shop, and many of the filmmakers fled Shanghai, relocating to Hong Kong, the wartime Nationalist capital Chongqing, and elsewhere. The Shanghai film industry, though severely curtailed, did not stop however, thus leading to the so-called "Solitary Island" period (also known as the "Sole Island", "Isolated Island", or "Orphan Island"), with Shanghai's foreign concessions serving as an "island" of production in the "sea" of Japanese occupied territory. It was during this period that artists and directors (who remained in the city) had to walk a fine line between staying true to their leftist and nationalist beliefs and Japanese pressures. Director Bu Wancang's Mulan Joins the Army (1939), with its story of a young Chinese peasant fighting against a foreign invasion, was a particularly good example of Shanghai's continued film-production in the midst of war.[2][7] Following declared war with the Western allies in the aftermath of December 7, 1941, this period largely ended; the solitary island finally being engulfed by the rest of the Japanese occupation. With the Shanghai industry firmly in Japanese control, films like the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere-promoting Eternity (1943) were produced.[2] By the end of World War II one of the most controversial Japanese-authorized company, Manchukuo Film Association, would be separated and integrated into Chinese cinema.

The Second Golden Age, the late 1940s

The film industry continued to develop after 1945. Production in Shanghai once again resumed as a new crop of studios took the place that Lianhua and Mingxing had occupied in the previous decade. In 1946, Cai Chusheng returned to Shanghai to revive the Lianhua name as the "Lianhua Film Society."[8] This in turn became Kunlun Studios which would go on to become one of the most important studios of the era, putting out the classics, Myriad of Lights (1948), The Spring River Flows East (1947), and Crows and Sparrows (1949).[9] Many of these films showed the disillusionment with the oppressive rule of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party. The Spring River Flows East, a three-hour-long two-parter directed by Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli, was a particularly strong success. Its depiction of the struggles of ordinary Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war, replete with biting social and political commentary struck a chord with audiences of the time.

Meanwhile, companies like the Wenhua Film Company ("Culture Films"), moved away from the leftist tradition and explored the evolution and development of other dramatic genres. Wenhua's romantic drama Spring in a Small Town (1948), a film by director Fei Mu shortly prior to the revolution, is often regarded by Chinese film critics as one of the most important films in the history of Chinese cinema, with it being named by the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2004 as the greatest Chinese-language film ever made.[10] Ironically, it was precisely its artistic quality and apparent lack of "political grounding" that led to its labeling by the Communists as rightist or reactionary, and the film was quickly forgotten by those on the mainland following the Communist victory in China in 1949.[11] However, with the China Film Archive's re-opening after the Cultural Revolution, a new print was made from the original negative, allowing Spring of the Small Town to find a new and admiring audience and to influence an entire new generation of filmmakers. Indeed, an acclaimed remake was made in 2002 by Tian Zhuangzhuang.

The Communist era, 1950s-1960s

With the Communist takeover in 1949, the government saw motion pictures as an important mass production art form and tool for propaganda. Starting from 1951, pre-1949 Chinese films and Hollywood and Hong Kong productions were banned as the Communist Party of China sought to tighten control over mass media, producing instead movies centering around peasants, soldiers and workers such as Bridge (1949) and The White Haired Girl (1950). One of the production bases in the middle of all the transition was the Changchun Film Studio.

The number of movie-viewers increased sharply, from 47 million in 1949 to 415 million in 1959. Movie attendance reached an all-time high of 4.17 billion entries in that same year. In the 17 years between the founding of the People's Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution, 603 feature films and 8,342 reels of documentaries and newsreels were produced, sponsored mostly as Communist propaganda by the government.[12] Chinese filmmakers were sent to Moscow to study Soviet filmmaking. In 1956, the Beijing Film Academy was opened. The first wide-screen Chinese film was produced in 1960. Animated films using a variety of folk arts, such as papercuts, shadow plays, puppetry, and traditional paintings, also were very popular for entertaining and educating children. The most famous of these, the classic Havoc in Heaven (two parts, 1961, 4), was made by Wan Laiming of the Wan Brothers and won Best Film award at the London International Film Festival.

The thawing of censorship in 1956-7 and the early 1960s led to more indigenous Chinese films being made which were less reliant on their Soviet counterparts. The most prominent filmmaker of this era was Xie Jin, whose two films in particular, The Red Detachment of Women (1961) and Two Stage Sisters (1965), exemplify China's increased expertise at filmmaking during this time.

The Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, 1960s-1980s

During the Cultural Revolution, the film industry was severely restricted. Almost all previous films were banned, and only a few new ones were produced, the most notable being a ballet version of the revolutionary opera The Red Detachment of Women (1971). Feature film production came almost to a standstill in the early years from 1967 to 1972. Movie production revived after 1972 under the strict jurisdiction of the Gang of Four until 1976, when they were overthrown.

In the years immediately following the Cultural Revolution, the film industry again flourished as a medium of popular entertainment. Domestically produced films played to large audiences, and tickets for foreign film festivals sold quickly. The industry tried to revive crowds by making more innovative and "exploratory" films like their counterparts in the West.

In the 1980s the film industry fell on hard times, faced with the dual problems of competition from other forms of entertainment and concern on the part of the authorities that many of the popular thriller and martial arts films were socially unacceptable. In January 1986 the film industry was transferred from the Ministry of Culture to the newly formed Ministry of Radio, Cinema, and Television to bring it under "stricter control and management" and to "strengthen supervision over production."

The end of the Cultural Revolution brought the release of "scar dramas", which depicted the emotional traumas left by this period. Evening Rain (Wu Yonggang, Wu Yigong, 1980) and Legend of Tianyun Mountain (Xie Jin, 1980) both won the first Golden Rooster Award in 1981. The best-known of these is probably Xie Jin's Hibiscus Town (1986), although they could be seen as late as the 1990s with Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Blue Kite (1993).

The rise of the Fifth Generation, 1980s-1990s

Beginning in the mid-late 1980s, the rise of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers brought increased popularity of Chinese cinema abroad. Most of the filmmakers who constitute the Fifth Generation had graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and included Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige, Zhang Junzhao and others. These graduates constituted the first group of filmmakers to graduate since the Cultural Revolution and they soon jettisoned traditional methods of storytelling and opted for a more free and unorthodox approach.[13] Zhang Junzhao's One and Eight (1983) and Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth (1984) in particular were taken to mark the beginnings of the Fifth Generation.[14] The most famous of the Fifth Generation directors, Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, went on to produce celebrated works such as King of the Children (1987), Ju Dou (1989), Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), which were not only acclaimed by Chinese cinema-goers but by the Western arthouse audience. Tian Zhuangzhuang's films, though less well-known by Western viewers, were well noted by directors such as Martin Scorsese. It was during this period that Chinese cinema began reaping the rewards of international attention, including the 1988 Golden Bear for Red Sorghum, the 1992 Golden Lion for Zhang Yimou's The Story of Qiu Ju, the 1993 Palme d'Or for Farewell My Concubine, and three Best Foreign Language Film nominations from the Academy Awards.[15] All these award-winning films starred actress Gong Li, who became the Fifth Generation's first and most recognizable star.

Extremely diverse in style and subject, the Fifth Generation directors' films ranged from black comedy (Huang Jianxin's The Black Cannon Incident, 1985) to the esoteric (Chen Kaige's Life on a String, 1991), but they share a common rejection of the socialist-realist tradition worked by earlier Chinese filmmakers in the Communist era. Other notable Fifth Generation directors include Wu Ziniu, Hu Mei, and Zhou Xiaowen. Some of their bolder works with political overtones were banned by Chinese authorities.

The Fourth Generation also returned to prominence. Given their label after the rise of the Fifth Generation, these were directors whose careers were stalled by the Cultural Revolution and who were professionally trained prior to 1966. Wu Tianming, in particular, made outstanding contributions by helping to finance major Fifth Generation directors under the auspices of the Xi'an Film Studio, while continuing to make films like Old Well (1986) and The King of Masks (1996).

The Fifth Generation movement effectively ended in the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, although its major directors continued to produce notable works, such as The Emperor's Shadow (1996) by Zhou Xiaowen. Several of its filmmakers went into self-imposed exile: Wu Tianming moved to the United States (but has since returned), Huang Jianxin left for Australia, while many others went into television-related works.

The Sixth Generation and beyond, 1990s - present

The recent era has seen the "return of the amateur filmmaker" as state censorship policies have produced an edgy underground film movement loosely referred to as the Sixth Generation. These films are shot quickly and cheaply, which produces a documentary feel, with long takes, hand-held cameras, ambient sound; more akin to Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité than the often lush productions of the Fifth Generation.[15] Many films are joint ventures and projects with international investment. Some important Sixth Generation directors to have emerged are Wang Xiaoshuai (The Days, Beijing Bicycle), Zhang Yuan (Beijing Bastards, East Palace West Palace), Jia Zhangke (Xiao Wu, Unknown Pleasures, Platform, The World) and Lou Ye (Suzhou River, Summer Palace).

Unlike the Fifth Generation, the Sixth Generation brings a more individualistic, anti-romantic life-view and pays more attention to contemporary urban life, especially those affected by disorientation. Many of their films have highlighted the negative attributes of China's entry into the modern capitalist market. Li Yang's Blind Shaft for example, is a chilling account of two murderous con-men in the unregulated and notoriously dangerous mining industry of northern China.[16] While Jia Zhangke's The World emphasizes the emptiness of globalization in the backdrop of an internationally-themed amusement park.[17][18]

There is a growing number of independent post-Sixth Generation filmmakers making films for extremely low budgets and using digital equipment. They are the so-called dGeneration (for digital). These films, like those from Sixth Generation filmmakers, are mostly made outside of the Chinese film system and are played mostly on the international film festival circuit. Ying Liang and Jian Yi are two of these dGeneration filmmakers.

New Documentary Movement

Two decades of reform and commercialization have brought dramatic social changes in mainland China, reflected not only in fiction film but in a growing documentary movement. Wu Wenguang's Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990) is now seen as one of the first work of this "New Documentary Movement" (NDM) in China of China's New Documentary.[19] Another internationally acclaimed documentary is Wang Bing's epic nine hour tale of deindustrialization Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003). Li Hong, the first women in the NDM, in Out of Phoenix Bridge (1997) relates the story of four young women, who moving from rural areas to the big cities like millions of other men and women, have come to Beijing to make a living.

New Chinese international cinema

Chinese films have enjoyed box office success abroad. Films such as Farewell My Concubine, 2046, Hero, Suzhou River, The Road Home and House of Flying Daggers have been critically acclaimed around the world. The Hengdian World Studios can be seen as the "Chinese Hollywood", with a total area of up to 330 ha. and 13 shooting bases, including a 1:1 copy of the Forbidden City.

In 2000, the multi-national production Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon achieved massive success at the Western box office despite being dismissed by some Chinese cinema-goers for pandering to Western tastes. Nevertheless, it provided an introduction to Chinese cinema (and especially the Wuxia genre) for many and increased the popularity of many Chinese films which may have otherwise been relatively unknown to Westerners.

In 2002, Hero was made as a second attempt to produce a Chinese film with the international appeal of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The cast featured many of the most famous Chinese actors who were also known to some extent in the West, including Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. It was directed by Zhang Yimou. The film was a phenomenal success in most of Asia and topped the U.S. box office for two weeks, making enough in the U.S. alone to cover the production costs.

The successes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero blur what may be called the boundary between Mainland Chinese cinema and a more international-based "Chinese-language cinema". Crouching Tiger, for example, was directed by a Taiwanese director (Ang Lee), but its leads include Mainland Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwan actors and actresses while the film was co-produced by an array of Chinese, American, Hong Kong, Taiwanese film companies. This merging of people, resources, and expertise from three regions (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) seemed to imply big-budgeted Chinese-language cinema is moving toward a more international-based arena looking to compete with the best Hollywood films. Further examples of films in this mould would include House of Flying Daggers (2004), The Promise (2005) and The Banquet (2006). Tighter-financed Chinese-language cinema are still relatively localized in content, as seen in those from Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan, especially in the latter two regions where many films are still unable to find international distributors abroad.


  • Film History: An Introduction. Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell. Second edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
  • The Oxford History of World Cinema. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed). Oxford University Press, 1999.

See also

Related cinema



  1. ^ a b c d Martin Geiselmann (2006). "Chinese Film History - A Short Introduction" (PDF). The University of Vienna- Sinologie Program. Retrieved 2007-07-25. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Zhang Yingjin (2003-10-10). "A Centennial Review of Chinese Cinema". University of California-San Diego. Retrieved 2007-04-26. 
  3. ^ "A Brief History of Chinese Film". Ohio State University. Retrieved 2007-04-24. 
  4. ^ Laikwan Pang, Building a New China in Cinema(Rowman and Littlefield Productions, Oxford, 2002)
  5. ^ Lianhua is also sometimes referred to in scholarly literature as the "United Photoplay Service".
  6. ^ Kraicer, Shelly (2005-12-06). "Timeline". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2006-05-08. 
  7. ^ Ministry of Culture Staff (2003). "Sole Island Movies". Retrieved 2006-08-18. 
  8. ^ Zhang Yingjin (2007-01-2004). "Chinese Cinema - Cai Chusheng". University of California-San Diego. Retrieved 2007-04-25. 
  9. ^ "Kunlun Film Company". British Film Institute. 2004. Retrieved 2007-04-25. 
  10. ^ "Welcome to the Hong Kong Film Awards". 2004. Retrieved 2007-04-04. 
  11. ^ Zhang Yingjin, "Introduction" in Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922–1943, ed. Yingjin Zhang (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 8.
  12. ^ Li Xiao (2004-01-17). "Film Industry in China". Retrieved 2007-02-27. 
  13. ^ Yvonne Ng (2002-11-19). "The Irresistible Rise of Asian Cinema-Tian Zhuangzhuang: A Director of the 21st Century". Kinema. Retrieved 2007-04-23. 
  14. ^ Notably Zhang Yimou served as cinematographer for both films.
  15. ^ a b Rose, S. "The great fall of China", The Guardian, 2002-08-01. Retrieved on 2007-04-28.
  16. ^ Kahn, Joseph (2003-05-07). "Filming the Dark Side Of Capitalism in China". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-10. 
  17. ^ Rapfogel, Jared (2004-12). "Minimalism and Maximalism: The 42nd New York Film Festival". Senses of Cinema. Retrieved 2007-04-28. 
  18. ^ Kraicer, Shelly. "Lost in Time, Lost in Space: Beijing Film Culture in 2004". Cinema Scope No. 21. Retrieved 2007-04-28. 
  19. ^ Reynaud, Berenice (September 2003). "Dancing with Myself,Drifting with My Camera: The Emotional Vagabonds". Senses of Cinema. Retrieved 2007-12-10. 

Further reading

  • Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema, Columbia University Pres 1995.
  • Shuqin Cui, Women Through the Lens: Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema, University of Hawaii Press 2003.
  • Dai Jinhua, Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua, eds. Jing Wang and Tani E. Barlow. London: Verso 2002.
  • Laikwan Pang, Building a New China in Cinema: The Chinese Left-Wing Cinema Movement, 1932-1937, Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc 2002.
  • Jay Leyda, Dianying, MIT Press, 1972.
  • Harry H. Kuoshu, Celluloid China: Cinematic Encounters with Culture and Society, Southern Illinois University Press 2002 - introduction, discusses 15 films at length.
  • Gary G. Xu, Sinascape: Contemporary Chinese Cinema, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  • Yingjin Zhang, Chinese National Cinema (National Cinemas Series.), Routledge 2004 - general introduction.
  • Yingjin Zhang (Author), Zhiwei Xiao (Author, Editor), Encyclopedia of Chinese Film, Routledge, 1998.
  • Cheng, Jim, Annotated Bibliography For Chinese Film Studies, Hong Kong University Press 2004.
  • Semsel, George, ed. "Chinese Film: The State of the Art in the People's Republic", Praeger, 1987.
  • Semsel, George, Xia Hong, and Hou Jianping, eds. Chinese Film Theory: A Guide to the New Era", Praeger, 1990.
  • Semsel, George, Chen Xihe, and Xia Hong, eds. Film in Contemporary China: Critical Debates, 1979-1989", Praeger, 1993.

External links

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