A brief history of Chinese film

Chinese language filmmaking from the 1930s to 1949
China wasn’t involved in the invention of cinema. Europe and America did that, then plied its trade around the word, sending flickering images of Lyon and New Jersey across the globe. By the 1930s, western filmmakers had turned China into a country of exoticism, stereotypes and fetish. Hollywood’s celebrated comedian-director Harold Lloyd routinely featured Chinese caricatures, so much so that the Chinese Government protested to America. Joseph Von Sternberg’s hothouse melodrama Shanghai Express (1932) parachuted Marlene Dietrich into the imagined erotic atmosphere of a Chinese train. And the whole career of Chinese-American star Anna May Wong was fuelled by a fascination with the Orient.

China was portrayed in western movies as a fantasy, a place to have sex or to daydream, but then Chinese people themselves began to make movies.  Bu Wanchang’s Romance of the West Chamber, made in 1927, probably the first great one, contained hints of what was to follow,


Still form the film, Romance of the West Chamber
Romance of the West Chamber

China’s first golden age, 1933-37
Looking back at the films of this period, what is striking is their realism and their focus on women.  Take Yuan Muzhi’s Street Angel (1937) and Bu Wanchang’s The Peach Girl (1931):  neither seemed interested in the gloss and escapism of much of commercial world cinema at this time.  Instead, the human poetics of each signalled a dissatisfaction with Imperial China and a compassion for ordinary people.  Long before Italian Neo-Realism, Yuan and Bu used understated and realistic filmmaking methods (everyday settings, naturalistic performances, relevant social themes) –– to distance themselves from what they thought of as the decadence of the country’s elite and to get closer to the truth of real lives.  China was rapidly urbanising at the time, peasants were dirt poor and women – especially in cities –symbolised those parts of the country that were repressed and falling behind. 

The tragic life of Ruan Lingyu, the star of The Peach Girl and Goddess (1934), was particularly resonant in this regard. Her performance in the film luminously captured the modernity of her character yet off camera, her life was hell. Shanghai was like LA at the time – a boom town, celebrity obsessed – and another of her films, New Women(1934) captures the tragedy of this.  About a woman who commits suicide because she is hounded by the tabloids, its awful irony today is that the same year Ruan did just that. At the age of 25, she took an overdose of barbiturates.  The New York Times carried the news of her funeral on page one.  Her funeral procession was three miles long. If anything signalled that traditional, feudal China was suffering in its attempts to modernise, this did.

Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. The filmmakers of the time, who tended to be leftists, opposed the invasion, but also Chang Kai Shek’s Nationalist reaction to it. When a bloody civil war broke out between the Communists who insisted that feudalism should be forced to an end, and their bitter Nationalist rivals, filmmakers tended to support the Communists, so the realism of their 30s films, their interest in the underclass, was again appropriate. A second Golden Age (1947-1949) was born, but as no one quite knew who would win, the world of cinema hedged.  Cai Chusheng’s political melodrama The Spring River Flows East was popular and acclaimed in 1947. Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town of 1948 is sometimes voted the best film ever made. Zheng Junli’s Crows and Sparrows (1949), made as the Communists came to power, was a Hawksian character comedy that lampooned the political chaos. All three married political uncertainty with world class storytelling.  Watching them now, it’s hard not to read into their engaged cinephilia an innocence about what was to come. Within a year, in 1949, the communists had won. The Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan, which Japan had lost in what the West called World War 2. Mainland China became a People’s Republic under Mao.

There were now three film industries and, inevitably, three film industries. Communists and Nationalists faced each other down in a left-right stand off, and Hong Kong, unaligned, started to look elsewhere.

So what happened to film in this triangular situation? The great filmmakers of the day either fled to Hong Kong or stayed with Mao, running his new, nationalised film industry.


Ruan Lingyu at her funeral in 1935

Spring in a Small Town Poster
Poster for Spring in a Small Town

Film in the People’s Republic of China,
1949 to the Cultural Revolution in 1966
Yuan Mazhi was, for a while, Mao’s movie lieutenant, overseeing the industry’s nationalisation between 1949 and 1952, a period of technological advance and a massive increase in the number of cinemas. A Comedy Research Unit was set up in 1955. The famous Beijing Film Academy was established in 1956. The country’s first feature animation – the brilliant Uproar in Heaven – was made in 1964. Right up until 1966’s Cultural Revolution, socialist realism was the norm in mainland Chinese cinema. Much of the films were formulaic but directors such as Xie Jin emerged. His Stage Sisters (1965) was a masterpiece of its kind – a gripping melodrama about choice and redemption, deeply flawed by an over-ideological second half.


Two Stage Sisters
Two Stage Sisters

The emergence of Hong Kong and Taiwan, 1949 – 1966
The filmmakers who fled to Hong Kong discovered that the city had been making opera movies for years. Rejecting both the PRC and Taiwan they evolved, throughout the 1950s, escapist and un-ideological genres. The great Zhu Shilin specialised in realist comedies. Li Sun-Fung excelled at melodramas, and Li Han Hsiang’s The Love Eterne, a sumptuous musical about gender confusion, caused a sensation.

Its production company, the soon to be world famous Shaw Brothers, was established in the city in 1957. Most of the Hong Kong film genres of the 1950s centred on women but by the mid 1960s, things began to change, fast. Hong Kong cinema became far more male, a sign of things to come…

Like Hong Kong, the Taiwanese cinema that emerged in the light of the Communist victory on the mainland turned its back on what was happening in Shanghai. This emergence took longer than that in Hong Kong, but by the mid 1960s former actor King Hu, had become one of the world’s greatest directors, combining action cinema with gravity defying choreography and Zen philosophy. Just as Hong Kong cinema was becoming more masculine, Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966) signalled a graceful and feminine approach to the emerging action genre – kung fu. His A Touch of Zen (1969) was considered by many to be as good as the best of Akira Kurosawa.


The Love Eterne
The Love Eterne

Still from the film, Come Drink with Me
Come Drink With Me

Three cinemas: political and cinematic stand-off
between 1966 and the new waves of 1979
1966 could not have seen the three cinemas more triangulated. The PRC’s polished ideological melodramas, Hong Kong’s Shaw bothers, masculine kinetics and the philosophical approach of King Hu each represented very different approaches to cinema. The mainland’s Cultural Revolution once again had profound implications for cinema. One of its masterminds was Mao’s third wife, Jiang Qing. A movie actress during the first golden age, in the mid 1930s, she appeared in four films under the name of Lan Ping. Her private life was condemned in public as immoral, but she declared that she was not Ruan Lingyu, so would not commit suicide. Perhaps as a result of her experience, the Cultural Revolution came down particularly heavily on cinema. Production ground to almost nothing. An astonishing 3000 films – features, documentaries and foreign films – were sealed and stored in massive warehouses.

Hong Kong and Taiwan could only benefit. Hong Kong more brashly. The Shaw Brothers’ magnificent One Armed Swordsman (1968), a smash hit, furthered the new masculinity of Hong Kong cinema, and introduced themes of castration anxiety, loneliness, male egoism and narcissism. Some saw this, and the films it spawned, as symbols of how Hong Kong saw itself. Three years later the film’s central character had morphed into the supercharged Bruce Lee in The Big Boss (Low Wei, 1971), which was, of course, a worldwide hit. Lee’s death two years later made him the James Dean of his era.

By contrast, Taiwan – which was still under the Nationalists’ martial law – continued in its King Hu mode – banning Chinese films, importing some Hong Kong ones, and making some graceful ones of its own.


One-Armed Swordsman
One-Armed Swordsman

Still from the film, The Big Boss
The Big Boss

1979 - Three new waves
Such triangulation might have continued indefinitely if it had not been for political and cultural change. Firstly, the PRC’s brutal Cultural Revolution came to an end. Two years later, a new era began under Deng Xiaoping. Secondly, Taiwan’s thoughtful veteran directors began to search for their roots – perhaps they sensed the weakening of Martial Law, which would finally end in 1987. Thirdly, the advance of global capitalism at the start of the 1980s turned HK towards bigger, more voracious markets in the West and, at the same time, made its film industry vulnerable to the multiplex blockbusters that those markets had just started to make.


China since 1979
Mainland China’s new wave was the most noticeable. The Beijing Film Academy was closed throughout the Cultural Revolution, but its first graduates after it – the so called 5th generation – included Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, the filmmakers we now associate with China’s cinematic revival. Chen’s Yellow of Earth of 1982 shows the ambiguity with which these new directors were to deal with their country’s troubled recent past. The film depicts peasant life under communism but in an abstract, tentative way. The young girl in the story longs to escape the hardship of her life and Communism offers her hope, but Chen and his cinematographer – Zhang Yimou – draw on Buddhist and Taoist ideas about empty space, about the good existing in bad and vice versa, to undermine Maoist certainties about how society should be. Yellow Earth – and Zhang Yunzhao’s One and Eight, also of 1982 – emphasised human and spatial qualities over political and social ones. The result was startling to Western eyes and Yellow Earth was acclaimed around the world.

Other films followed suit, 4th Generation directors like the acclaimed Xie Fei charted social change in the 1990s with real subtlety, a Chinese New Wave was born, and Zhang Yimou would become its standard bearer. Indecision, repose, scroll-like composition and emptiness replaced the kinetic, utopian movies of socialist realism. China was debating where it was and where it was going.

Particularly so after the events in Tian'anmen Square in 1989. Some of the Beijing Film Academy’s next graduates – the 6th generation – began their careers underground, often working without official sanction, smuggling their films abroad. The title of one of their films – Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards (1993) – suggests their degree of opposition. Where Chen and his colleagues responded to their country with Taoist and Buddhist meditations, the Sixth Generation expressed their frustrations more directly.

As the 90s progressed, some of the heat went out of the stand-off between Zhang Yuan’s generation and their mainland government. Their predecessors, Chen and Zhang Yimou, became more ethnographic and pictorial. Zhang Yimou, in particular, became a director of visual brilliance. After the success of Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (1999) – a refined homage to the femininity of King Hu’s films – and the Asia-influenced The Matrix (1999) – Zhang found the international marketplace open to his extraordinary visual, traditional tales. Even so, no-one could quite have predicted that his film Hero (2002) would, with the help of Miramax, go to number one at that international box office which is most resistant to foreign films – America’s. A landmark had been set. Other filmmakers like Jia Zhang Ke, with work such as Unknown Pleasures (2002) reflected the drifting, uncertain nature of Chinese young people left high and dry by social change, but it was Zhang who wowed the west.


Yellow Earth
Yellow Earth

Still from the film, Beijing Bastards
Beijing Bastards


Unkown Pleasures Unknown Pleasures

Hong Kong since 1979
The other two Chinas wowed the West too, and they, too, underwent New Waves in the 1980s. In Hong Kong, filmmakers emerged who seemed tired of the Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan kinetic style or who at least wanted to play with it stylistically and in terms of gender. Tsui Hark’s Butterfly Murders and Ann Hui’s The Secret, both 1979, heralded the changes. Within a few years John Woo would be mixing genres, making gangster pictures with tough but vulnerable heroes in a balletic style. In 1992, Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage cast Maggie Cheung as Ruan Lingyu, telling the story of the movie star’s suicide in Shanghai in a lushly romantic mode.

Clara Low’s Autumn Moon (1992) continued the emergence of art and formal cinema in Hong Kong, and the career of Wong Kar-wai, especially films like Chungking Express (1994), pushed the new visual ideas as far as they would go, marrying them to characters who drifted, who seemed lost in time, who had no way out. It was interesting to compare their dilemmas and their sense of time with the characters in Chen’s Yellow Earth.

When we look at Taiwan’s cinema of the 80s and 90s we will see that its most innovative directors also picture their protagonists in worlds where the clock seemed to have stopped. Why? Part of this was perhaps millennial, part was in reaction to the speedy cutting of HK cinema and of Hollywood and part, surely, was to do with the uncertainties that they felt in their own countries.

By the end of the 1990s, things had changed again in Hong Kong. Britain had left, the city was fully part of the PRC – the famous “one country, 2 systems” – and its film world had become trans-pacific. John Woo was in America, directing films like Face/Off (1997), actress Michelle Yeoh was in a bond movie and Infernal Affairs (2002) (by Lau and Mak) had become an international hit.


Still from the film, Chungking Express
Chungking Express

Taiwan since 1979
Like China and Hong Kong, Taiwan’s cinema of the 80s set an artistic high water mark. Not since the 1960s had its indigenous filmmaking been so innovative. Its foremost auteurs were Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Yang’s Taipei Story of 1985 was typical of the island’s filmmakers’ themes: Alienation, the rapid growth of cities, anomie, the loneliness and directionlessness of urbanites.

In the 70s, the island’s directors had started to look at the roots of their state; the end of Martial Law in 1987 encouraged them in this regard. Hou’s A City of Sadness (1989) was part of a trilogy of films that looked at the layers and repetitions of Taiwanese history. Like Wong in Hong Kong and Chen in the PRC his gaze was long, slow and static. He was influenced in this by his admiration for the Japanese director Ozu.

In the mid 1990s, a new generation followed in the footsteps of Hou and Yang, just as the 6th generation followed the 5th in the PRC. Of these, Tsai Ming-liang was the master. Tsai took Hou’s ideas to their logical conclusion, extending his shots in time, paring down action and dialogue, capturing the numb confusion of characters like those in The Hole (1998).


Still from the film Taipei Story
Taipei Story

Still from the film, The Hole
The Hole

The Future
Even a summary history of Chinese cinema shows how much talent it contains, how many stylistic transformations there have been and how those transformations have been caused by social change, urbanisation and political upheaval. What is fascinating is that gender, genre and action have been the means through which Chinese filmmakers have expressed their reactions to history. That there have, for some of that history, been three states within the one nation, means that the story has been particularly complex. But the three states have also revealed how split the personality has been of Chinese cinema, almost since its inception.

What of the future? The breakthrough of film like Hero and the asianisation of Hollywood means that, just as in the world of economics, so in the world of cinema, China seems to be “winning” or at least coming up from the rear and ready to overtake.  Its filmmakers understand action better than western directors and relate it, unlike Hollywood, to repose. This is a powerful and perceptive approach.

But their art cinemas continue to register acutely the psychic paralysis of the vast populations of people who watched the biggest buildings in the world grow up around them and wondered what this accelerated pace of life, this rapid post-modernity means, and how they square it with their more traditional selves. These are big troubling social questions but the fact is this: Cinema always flourishes when it has to deal with meaty themes. The themes in China in the 21st C could hardly be more so.


Further Reading:

'Chinese National Cinema' by Zhang Yingjin (Routledge, 2004) is an excellent chronological account of the formation of the film industries of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and is particularly good on movie going, film studios, production details and genres.

'Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes', edited by Chris Berry (BFI, 2003) features chapter length essays on twenty-five landmark chinese language movies, including a number of these showing in Cinema China.

'China on Screen' by Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar (Columbia University Press, 2006) is a thought provoking series of essays on the relationship between cinema and nation in China.

'Cinematic Landscapes: Observation on the Visual Arts of China and Japan', edited by Linda Ehrlich and David Desser (University of Texas Press, 1994), is very good on the influence of Chinese painting on Zhang Yimou and the 5th Generation filmmakers.

'China into Film: Frames of Reference in Contemporary Chinese Cinema' by Jerome Silbergeld (Reaktion Books, 1999) is an interesting examination of the ways in which Chinese cinema has been historically shaped by Chinese visual and cultural traditions.

'Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment' by David Bordwell (Harvard University Press, 2000) traces the raise of the emergence of Hong Kong into one of the most exciting places in the world for popular cinema.

'New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics' by Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, Esther Yau (eds) (Cambridge University Press, 1996) is an exploration of in the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong since the end of the Cultural Revolution.

'Women Through the Lens: Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema' by Shuqin Cui (University of Hawaii Press, 2003) is about the role female stardom played in the creation of the nation-state in twentieth-century China.

'An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema' 1896-1937 by Zhang Zhen (University of Chicago Press, 2006) is a fascinating story of the most cinematic of all Chinese cities, Shanghai.

'Confronting Modernity in the Cinema of Taiwan and Mainland China' by Tonglin Lu is a comprehensive examination of the context in which the Chinese and Taiwanese New Waves emerged and the impact their appearance had.