The Bioscope Guide to … China


Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess (Shen nu) (1934)

Wine, music and cinema are the three greatest creations of humanity. Of these the cinema is the youngest and most powerful. It can stimulate minds into day-dreaming. Dream is the free movement of the heart and it mirrors the sadness of the oppressive world…

At last we return to our occasional series of national histories of silent film, providing an overview of film production, personalities, publications and resources for the silent film era in the chosen country. We began the series with Italy; now we turn our attention to China, whose history of filmmaking in the silent era is as rich as any, not least because it continued well into the 1930s. The opening quotation comes from the charter of the South China Film Drama Society, from around 1926, as reproduced in Jay Leyda’s peerless Dianying (Electric Shadows), a history of film and the film audience in China.

Motion pictures came to China on 11 August 1896, when a show was presented by an unnamed Spaniard at the Hsu Gardens, Shanghai. American James Ricalton presented a programme of Edison films at the Tien Hua Tea Garden, Shanghai, in July 1897, and took several films of local scenes in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Canton. For several years the only films seen in China were imported and the only films on China were taken by foreigners, such as Joseph Rosenthal, Burton Holmes and British MP Ernest Hatch, all around the time of the Boxer rebellion in 1900.

The first Chinese film was made in 1905, Ding Jun Shan (Conquering Jun Mountain), an scene from the Peking Opera, filmed by Beijing photographer Ren Qingtai. Other such excerpts from operas continued to be made on an infrequent basis to 1909, when a next stage of development came with the Asia Film and Theater Company, founded by the Russian-American Benjamin Brodsky in Shanghai. Asia Film made shorts such as Buxing Er (Unfortunate Child) (1909) and Tou Shao Ya (Stealing a Roast Duck) (1909), the first film made in Hong Kong [this film is now thought to date from 1914 – see comments]. Brodksy returned to America during the turbulent period that led to the formation of the Republic of China in 1912, returning in 1913 for Nanfu, Nanqi (A Couple in Difficulty), the first Chinese feature film.

Chinese film production at this time was small-scale and localised, often restricted to a single theatre for use as theatrical interludes. Knockabout comedies was the predominant style. Film theatres were starting to spread, at least in the cities, but showed almost exclusively foreign films. Production had effectively ceased during much of the Frist World War period because film stock (which had to be imported) became unavailable. Change began in the early 1920s with new film companies: Commercial Press, Shanghai Film Company, Mingxing, Changcheng, Baihe and Da Zhonghua among them. By the middle of the decade Chinese production was highly active if volatile (many companies came and went quickly) and feature films were the norm. Notable titles include Guer Jiu Zu Ji (Orphan Rescues Grandfather) (1923), Kong Gu Lan (Lonely Orchid) (1926) and Xi Xiang Ji (Romance of the West Chamber) (1927), the latter an early example of an historical costume drama. Kung fu and swordplay films were also popular at this time.


The golden age of Chinese filmmaking came in the 1930s. Just at the point where Western countries were abandoning silent film, the Chinese cinema (partly owing to problmes in obtaining adequate sound equipment) glorified in its opportunities, and although a few sound films were made from 1931 onwards, essentially the period 1930-37 was a silent cinema period, dominated by film production from Shanghai. The leading studios were Mingxing, Tianyi and Lianhua. Production was often dominated by Leftist concerns (particularly those from Lianhua), concentrating on the struggles of ordinary people and contemporary, patriotic concerns. Examples include Xiao Wanyi (Little Toys) (1933) directed by Sun Yu (above) and Bugao Cheng’s Chun Can (Spring Silkworms) (1933). Nevertheless the films were chiefly consumed by a middle-class which valued glossy production values that showed the strong influence of American cinema. Classic melodramas, often with suffering central female figure, include The Goddess (Shen nu) (1934) and Tianming (Daybreak) (1933). These differences in production reflected the political tension of the period, with the growing differences between Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang and the Communists. Anti-Japanese rhetoric also characterised a number of the films.

The Shanghai studios had their film stars. Renowned names include Hu Die, Li Lili, Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan, Zhao Dan and Jin Yan. Li Lili is the spirited central figure of Sun Yu’s upbeat tales of workers’ strength and nationalist struggle, though she could also play tragic roles, as in Tianming (Daybreak). Perhaps most notable actress, however, was Ruan Lingyu, whose suffering on-screen persona was reflected in her private life, commited suicide in 1935, aged just 24, after having played a film actress hounded by right-wing critics in Cai Chusheng’s Xin Nu Xing (New Woman) (1934).

The golden period ended with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. Most production companies closed down, and in any case the era of Chinese silent cinema was over. The survival rate for Chinese silents is not great – of the estimated 1,100 titles produced between 1905 and 1937 only 5% are known to exist. Happily the best of these have become more available in recent years, with a couple of ground-breaking programmes at the Pordenone silent film festival in 1995 and 1997 being followed by DVD releases and a growth in critical literature and web resources.

Notable filmmakers
Zhang Shichuan, Ren Pengnian, Sun Yu, Bu Wancang, Cai Chusheng, Wu Yonggang, Cheng Bugao, Fei Mu, Shi Dongshan

Notable performers
Fan Xuepeng, Xu Qinfang, Ruan Lingyu, Li Lili, Hu Die, Zhou Xuan, Zhao Dan, Jin Yan, Lan Ping (aka Jiang Qing, the future Madame Mao)

These are the DVDs I can find from English-language sources – I’ll add more as I come across them.

A number of Chinese silents are available in the USA on the Cinema Epoch label. The quality of the transfers (and the originals) is unfortunately poor:

Other DVDs also available:

Some Chinese silents are available to view on the Internet Archive:

Center Stage (1992) is a bio-pic based on the life of Ruan Lingyu, starring Maggie Cheung


Archives and museums


3 responses

  1. Hi, there are some misspellings.

    The name of the person who shot “Ding Jun Shan” is Ren Qingtai (his another courtesy name is Ren Jingfeng), not Ren Fengtai (the book Encyclopedia of Chinese film is misspelling, maybe confused with his photographic studio’s name, Fengtai).

    And the famous actress’s name Li Lili is not spelt as Li Lilli.

    Also, Bugao Cheng’s title “Chu Can” (Spring Silkworms) (1933) should be spelt as “Chun Can”.

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