The Japanese have just invaded China in this scene from the famous film Lin Family Shop, based on a story by Mao Dun. The film was directed by Lin Jia Puda, the screenplay written by Shao Yen, and one of the leading roles was played by Shi Tian. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Study Questions and Vocabulary

Chinese cinema has evolved for nearly a hundred years—from the earliest silent films to the latest box office blockbusters—with a host of renowned directors, screenwriters, and film stars in genres as diverse as martial arts movies, romance, melodrama, and political propaganda. Chinese cinema can be categorized into six generations, each generation reflecting the technology and culture of its time, the politics of government, and the aesthetics and convictions of the filmmakers.

Cinema in China is visually, sociopolitically, and historically significant. Analyzing the key eras in Chinese film history by generation is not absolute, but doing so does provide a conceptual framework to position the changes and rhythms of the medium and its appeal to audiences worldwide.

First-Generation Cinema, 1896–1929

The first film was screened in China on 11 August 1896 by Spanish businessman Galen Bocca. The initial films screened in China were watched in venues such as tea-houses and outdoor tents until the transition to modern air-conditioned theatres in Shanghai by the end of the 1920s. The first film production company in China was called “Yaxiya” (Asia), and it was founded by another foreign businessman, Benjamin Brodsky. Ren Qingtai is known for starting film production in China, making his own films by 1905. The initial films he and others made during this early era were often shot with stationary cameras and frequently portrayed famous film opera stars, such as Tan Xinpei.

In 1918 Commercial Press in Shanghai created its motion picture department, and in 1921 it released Yan Ruisheng (director, Ren Pengnian), a film based on the real-life murder of a prostitute. Like cinema in general, it was extremity popular and was reviewed in the newspapers that by the 1920s were covering film. In 1922 Mingxing (Star) Studio was established by Zhang Shichuan and “the father of Chinese cinema,” Zheng Zhengqiu, who wrote the screenplay for the oldest extant film in China, Laborer’s Love (director, Zhang Shichuan, 1922). In 1923 Mingxing Film Company was purportedly saved from financial ruin by releasing an extremely successful melodramatic film entitled Orphan Rescues Grandfather (director, Zhang Shichuan). Other important genres in the 1920s included martial arts films and historical costume dramas, which Tianyi (First) Film Company, founded by the Shao (Shaw) brothers, was famous for producing.

Historical movements and political trends, such as the Republican rebellion of 1911 and the effects of foreign imperialism, influenced China’s film industry and were often depicted visually. For example, ideas that stemmed from the May Fourth Movement (1915–1923, but named for a demonstration in Tiananmen Square on 4 May 1919) led to the production of political films in contrast to escapist, romantic, and entertaining “Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School” films. And screenwriters and film critics who were members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), founded in Shanghai in 1921, introduced artistic debates that would be discussed in film circles for decades.

Second-Generation Cinema, 1930–1949

In 1927 179 Chinese-owned film companies operated in China, most of them in Shanghai, but after consolidation in the 1930s “fewer than a dozen” operated (Zhang 2004, 46). It was a time when large crowds went to art deco theaters with seating capacities of more than one thousand to see the most recent films from home and overseas, mostly from Hollywood. Lianhua (United) Film Company emerged as one of the big three domestic studios in the early 1930s alongside Mingxing and Tianyi. Lianhua produced films staring famous actresses such as Hu Die and Ruan Lingyu, and the studio’s memorable titles included Wild Flower (director, Sun Yu, 1930), Song of the Fisherman (director, Cai Chusheng, 1934), and Goddess (director, Wu Yonggang, 1934).

Silent to Sound

Technologically, Chinese film of the early 1930s was in the midst of the expensive transition from silent to sound film. The first sound film released in China was made in Shanghai in 1931. Politically, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang, GMD) was dealing with the Manchurian Incident of 18 September 1931 and the Shanghai Incident of 28 January 1932, while it also sought to control cinema in China by banning foreign films that portrayed China or the Chinese people in demeaning ways, martial arts and magic spirit pictures that had been popular in the 1920s, and leftwing films critical of the government. Key leftwing film personnel included Tian Han and Xia Yan. Aesthetically, formal debates included whether or not to produce “soft cinema” (entertainment film) or “hard cinema” (social/critical film).

In 1937, during the first part of the War of Resistance against Japan, Mingxing studio was destroyed, Lianhua closed its doors, and Tianyi moved its operations to Hong Kong. Many directors in Shanghai went to Hong Kong, among them Cai Chusheng and Situ Huimin; others went to the GMD wartime capital of Chongqing to make patriotic films for Zhongdian (Central) Film Studio and Zhongzhi (China) Motion Pictures, while others went to Yan’an to make films for the CCP. Chinese filmmaking in Shanghai from 1937 to 1941 was produced in the International Settlements and French Concession surrounded by Japanese occupation, known as the “orphan island.” A renowned film in that era was Mulan Joins the Army (director, Bu Wancang, 1939) by Xinhua (New China) Studio, established in 1934 by Zhang Shankun. In 1941 the Japanese overtook the foreign concessions, and in 1942 the Japanese started Zhonglian (China United) Film Production Corporation in Shanghai, which produced films alongside its other studio, Studio Manei, in Manchuria.

Cinema Nationalized

After the Japanese forces were defeated in 1945, the GMD confiscated Japanese film production centers in China as enemy property, nationalizing cinema in China as never before. Displaced film personnel who returned to Shanghai either chose to work for the GMD studios or to establish new private studios, such as Wenhua (Culture) Film Company. During the civil war (1945–1949) notable films included Spring River Flows East (directors, Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli, 1947), the classic Spring in a Small Town (director, Fei Mu, 1948), and Crows and Sparrows (director, Zheng Junli, 1949), which was in production before and after the CCP victory in 1949.

Third-Generation Cinema, 1949–1965

The new government was keen to use the medium of film to further its social project as a didactic medium. Films deemed subversive to the CCP, such as The Life of Wu Xun (director, Sun Yu, 1950), were denounced. The government’s Central Film Bureau consolidated all studios into the state system by 1952 under three studio branches: Northeast Film Studio, Beijing Film Studio, and Shanghai Film Studio. Key veterans active in the 1950s film industry included Sun Yu, Lai Chensheng, Situ Huimin, Shen Fu, Zheng Junli, and Cai Chusheng. Hollywood cinema was prohibited, whereas films from the Soviet Union were welcomed to the screens.

This seventeen-year period was marked by moments of cultural openness and censure at the state’s discretion. For example, in China’s highly politicized culture, the Soviet-inspired “socialist realism” style was imposed on narrative films after 1949 because this film style teleologically (relating to design or purpose, especially in nature) and thematically anticipated the triumph of Communism with characterizations of heroic soldiers, workers, and peasants. Xie Jin was an excellent director of this generation of filmmakers because his work followed the political ebb and flow. During the Hundred Flowers movement of early 1957, when CCP leader Mao Zedong seemed to be asking intellectuals to voice criticism of the present state of affairs in order to shake up the bureaucracy, Xie started working on Woman Basketball Player Number Five, which depicts athletes rather than revolutionaries. After the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, the disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961, and ruptured diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, the government initiated plans to reinstate the intellectuals in a united front from 1961 to 1963, a time referred to as a “cultural thaw.” This was when Xie Jin directed The Red Detachment of Women (1961) about revolutionaries on Hainan Island. In 1962 Popular Cinema magazine initiated the reader-voted Hundred Flowers Film Awards. Red Detachment and its depiction of the pre-1949 era won the awards for best picture, best director, best actress, and best supporting actor. But in 1964 and 1965 the “cultural thaw” ended. Xie Jin’s classic film Two Stage Sisters was made in 1965 but was not exhibited upon completion because the Cultural Revolution was about to begin.

Fourth-Generation Cinema, 1966–1983

The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) brought the film industry in China to a standstill. Political pronouncements that served as harbingers for the upcoming devastation were prevalent as early as 1964. After the Cultural Revolution began, many directors and film personalities were punished, put to work in the countryside, or killed—some of them tragically among the number who were displaced throughout China and Hong Kong during the civil war and then returned to make films under the CCP in 1949. During the Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing was the figurehead of the film industry. Her strategy was to produce model stage operas, such as an adaptation of The Red Detachment of Women (1971), which would present simplistic, clear-cut delineations between good (CCP) and evil (bourgeois).

After the Cultural Revolution directors who had been trained in cinema but who did not have the opportunity to make films emerged. These directors are known as the “fourth-generation directors” and included Xie Fei, Zhang Nuanxin, and Zheng Dongtian (Zhang 2004, 231). Xie Jin also made melodramatic films alongside this generation. His films denounced both the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Cultural Revolution. Fifth-generation film challenged the “Xie Jin model” of filmmaking, but before this mainland development is considered, filmmaking in Hong Kong and Taiwan should be examined.

Hong Kong Cinema

Hong Kong cinema began with early screenings of films when the island was a British colony. Among key players in the Hong Kong industry by the 1920s was Li Minwei, a founding member of Minxin (New People) Motion Picture Company in 1922, which eventually merged with other companies to create Lianhua film studio in Shanghai. In 1933 Tianyi produced the first sound film in Cantonese, The Platinum Dragon (director, Tang Xiaodan). An important studio at the time was Grandview, which was initially established in San Francisco.

Mandarin Films

Mandarin-language films became prevalent in Hong Kong during the 1930s. In 1937 Tianyi was renamed “Nanyang” (South Sea) and moved to Hong Kong, as did the famous actress Hu Die and film moguls such as Zhang Shankun, who co-founded Yonghua (Forever China) and Changcheng (Great Wall). When Japan occupied Hong Kong from 1941 to 1945, no films were produced in Hong Kong. After 1945 came an exodus of Mandarin film directors, but some remained in Hong Kong during the civil war, when Da Zhonghua (Great China) studio made thirty-four Mandarin-language films. After 1949 came an influx of right-wing directors who moved to Hong Kong as part of a mass migration, and left-wing directors returned to the mainland. The Shaw brothers remained in Hong Kong, and reclaimed their Nanyang Studio, which in 1957 began using the name “Shaw Brothers.”

In the 1950s film in Hong Kong was immensely popular, marked by the stand-out, pop music-filled Mambo Girl (director, Yi Wen, 1957). In the 1960s the two megastudios of Hong Kong, Shaw Brothers and Cathay’s MP&GI (which closed in 1972), participated in a cut-throat race to be the first to produce captivating, blockbuster-style titles. Director Li Hanxiang’s late 1950s and early 1960s Cantonese opera movies were big screen draws, to be followed in the mid-1960s by martial arts films such as those by King Hu. Although cinema declined in the late 1960s, and left-wing studios such as Changcheng were poorly received because of the Cultural Revolution, stars Josephine Siao and Chan Po-chu still brought ardent fans to the theaters.

Cantonese Films

King Hu’s Touch of Zen (1970), Bruce Lee’s worldwide hits with Jiahe (Golden Harvest) Film Company, and The House of Seventy-Two Tenants (director, Chu Yuan, 1973) mark the beginning of 1970s cinema in Hong Kong. In 1971 only one film was made in Cantonese, but Cantonese films came back into popularity by the end of the decade. In 1977 the Hong Kong International Film Festival was established. And in 1978 a new wave of films and directors (such as Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Yim Ho, and Allen Fong) who wanted to shift the focus of narratives away from simplistic fantastical plots to relevant social issues emerged. In the 1980s key developments included the films of John Woo, such as A Better Tomorrow (1986), and, because the market of mainland China was opened to Hong Kong, a wider audience base and studio co-productions. The second-wave directors of Hong Kong in the 1990s included Wong Kar Wai, Stanley Kwan, Fruit Chan, and Clara Law. Director John Woo, actors Chow Yun-Fat and Jackie Chan, and actress Michelle Yeoh moved to Hollywood in the 1990s. Director Stephen Chow’s films in the early 2000s marked the latest global success of Hong Kong Cinema.

Taiwan Cinema

Taiwan cinema began within the Japanese colonial system, which imported films from Japan, China, and Hollywood. Films were also produced in Taiwan by the Japanese and by Taiwanese investors. In addition to the filmic image, film exhibition included a benshi, a person who stood in front of the audience next to the screen and both narrated the film and provided an audience response. The Japanese film centers in Taipei and around the island, including production and distribution networks, were taken over by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) in 1945 when Taiwan was returned to China. The KMT first set up Taiwan Studio in Taipei, and then the government apparatus brought with it Zhongdian (Central) Film Studio, Zhongzhi (China) Motion Pictures, and Nongjiao (Agricultural Education) Film Company when the government fled to Taiwan in 1949.

State production of film in Mandarin in the 1950s stalled initially, but after a decade of trial and error government film got off the ground. After Gong Hong became manager of the Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC) in 1963, he produced a series of “healthy realist” films such as Oyster Girl (directors, Li Xing and Li Jia, 1964) and Beautiful Duckling (director, Li Xing, 1965) that competed financially in the open market with popular films from Hollywood and Hong Kong. The films also served to extend the international market of Taiwan films to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. Meanwhile, Taiwanese-language film was an important part of the Taiwan film market. Film declined in the 1970s but reemerged with New Taiwan Cinema in the early 1980s with a new cultural impetus and government sponsorship. Famous directors included Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Wu Nian-zhen. Although not successful at the box office, these directors’ films entered international art-house circuits. New strategies and styles by such directors as Tsai Ming-liang were developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the transplanted Taiwanese director Ang Lee (Li An) found success both at home and abroad with The Wedding Banquet (1993) and his hit film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Both films won Taiwan’s Golden Horse Best Film Awards. Today’s Taiwan film productions are intertwined with those on the mainland.

Fifth-Generation Cinema, 1984–1993

While fourth-generation directors in the 1980s continued to make reflective films, such as Sacrificed Youth (director, Zhang Nuanxin, 1985), the first graduates from Beijing Film Academy, including Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Junzhao, burst onto the scene in 1984 with Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth, featuring cinematography by Zhang Yimou. The term fifth-generation cinema primarily refers to the early films of these graduates, and this cinema was referred to as “new Chinese cinema” in the 1980s to distinguish it from cinema of the socialist period.

The imagery in Yellow Earth is predominated by aesthetically innovative landscape shots of the sky and rolling hills in the Shanbei region, which contrasts with representations of revolutionaries typically found in films made in accordance with the Xie Jin model. This film, along with other fifth-generation movies, highlights the landscape, people, culture, and history of China over political concerns and the supremacy of the CCP. In this way the films indirectly challenge the stereotypes of socialist realism and the ideology of the Communist revolution. Horse Thief, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s film from 1986, depicts the Tibetan landscape, which is geographically as far removed from political centers as possible. Red Sorghum (director, Zhang Yimou, 1987), starring Gong Li and Jiang Wen, the latter a sixth-generation director, was popular overseas, winning a Golden Berlin Bear Award. After this film fifth-generation films won over global art-house audiences with a distinct mixture of Chinese folk culture, repressed sexuality, and dynamic landscapes. Zhang Yimou rode a wave of artistic and commercial success overseas while losing his fan base at home. The legacy of fifth-generation cinema stretches to 1993, when Chen, Zhang, and Tian all made watershed films that portrayed the Cultural Revolution.

Sixth-Generation Cinema, 1994 to Present

The so-called sixth generation, also referred to as China’s “urban,” “independent,” or “underground” film, initially emerged as members of a new group of filmmakers in China found themselves unable to acquire funding for their film projects after the government permitted rampant privatization alongside the influx of multinational corporations. These new directors found alternative ways to produce films, either by funding movies themselves or receiving investment from overseas. Their films, often touted as “banned in China” by film festivals outside of China because the films were released before receiving government authorization, are often low in production quality. But this feature is worn by the directors as a badge of honor in their attempts to depict what they perceive as their reality, namely, the false values of their socialist heritage, the demolition of old parts of town to make way for new skyscrapers and factories, government corruption, waves of immigration, and the marginalization of prostitutes, migrant workers, and drug addicts. These raw depictions are in opposition to the heightened characterizations of the fifth-generation films.

Rock music is a central theme in many of these films, such as Beijing Bastards (director, Zhang Yuan, 1993), Dirt (director, Guan Hu, 1994), and The Making of Steel (director, Lu Xuechang, 1996). In the Heat of the Sun (director, Jiang Wen, 1994), an adaptation of a satiric Wang Shuo novel, questions the validity of accepted versions of history under Communism in China. In films such as Zhang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace (1996), the first famous film from China depicting homosexuality, the power of the government authority is challenged. These films are made by directors who see themselves as on the margins of culture themselves, and these directors often cast little-known actors and actresses and present their stories in a docudrama style. Depictions of the underprivileged in the face of globalization can be found in Beijing Bicycle (director, Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001), and a documentary style permeates Suzhou River (director, Lou Ye, 2003). Director Feng Xiaogang’s New Years pictures such as Big Shot’s Funeral (2001) take into account the commodification of Chinese culture in a humorous way, while contemporary films by Jia Zhangke expose financial poverty and ruin in difficult, beautiful films such as The World (2004) and Still Life (2006). These films enter a market in China that is dealing with copyright issues, rampant piracy, and a state funding system that tends to serve only a handful of directors, including Zhang Yimou.

Cinema Inside and Outside China

The images that cinema in China has produced have captivated audiences worldwide for nearly one hundred years, and the films that China has imported have been received with critical acclaim. From current mainland Chinese directors Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong directors John Woo and Wang Kar Wai, and Taiwanese directors Ang Lee and Hou Hsiao-hsien, transnational flows of capital and images remain constant, just as they were when the first film was screened in China in 1896. Chinese cinema has always been truly transnational.

Further Reading

Abbas, A. (1997). Hong Kong: Culture and the politics of disappearance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Berry, C., & Farquhar, M. (2006). China on screen: Cinema and nation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Berry, M. (Ed.). (2005). Speaking in images: Interviews with contemporary Chinese filmmakers. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brown, N., Pickowicz, P. G., Sobshack, V., & Yau, Esther. (Eds.). (1996). New Chinese cinemas: Forms, identities, politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cheng Jihua, Li Shaobai, & Xing Zuwen. (Eds.). (1998). Zhongguo dianying fazhan shi [History of the development of Chinese cinema] (2 vols.). Beijing: Zhongguo Dianying Chubanshe.

Chow Rey. (2007). Sentimental fabulations, contemporary Chinese films: Attachment in the age of global visibility. New York: Columbia University Press.

Davis, D. W., & Ru-Shou Robert Chen. (Eds.). (2007). Cinema Taiwan: Politics, popularity and state of arts. Oxford, U.K.: Routledge.

Fu Poshek & Desser, D. (2000). The cinema of Hong Kong: History, arts, identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lu Feiyi. (1998). Taiwan Dianying: Zhengzhi, Jingji, Meixue, 19491994, 1949–1994 [Taiwan film: Politics, economics, and aesthetics]. Taipei, Taiwan: Yuan liu chuban gongsi shiye gufenyouxiangongsi.

Lu, Sheldon. (Ed.). (1997). Transnational Chinese cinemas: Identity, nationhood, gender. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Pickowicz, P. G., & Yingjin Zhang. (2006). From underground to independent: Alternative film culture in contemporary China. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Spence, J. D. (1999). The search for modern China. New York: W. W. Norton.

Xu, Gary G. (2007). Sinascape: Contemporary Chinese cinema. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Yau, Esther C. M. (Ed.). (2001). At full speed: Hong Kong cinema in a borderless world. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Yeh, Emilie Yueh-Yu, & Davis, D. W. (2005). Taiwan film directors: A treasure island. New York: Columbia University Press.

Yip, June. (2004). Envisioning Taiwan: Fiction, cinema, and the nation in the cultural imaginary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Zhang Yingjin. (2002). Screening China: Critical interventions, cinematic reconfigurations, and the transnational imaginary in contemporary Chinese cinema. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan.

Zhang Yingjin. (2004). Chinese national cinema. New York: Routledge.

Zhang Zhen. (2005). An amorous history of the silver screen: Shanghai cinema, 18961937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zhang Zhen. (2007). The urban generation: Chinese cinema and society at the turn of the twenty-first century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Source: Wicks, James. (2009). Cinema. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 396–404. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Four famous directors of the second and third generations of Chinese filmmaking, at the Beijing Film Academy. Categorizing the Chinese film industry by generation allows students of the cinema (and movie buffs as well) to consider how changing technology, popular culture, and political climate affected the cinema arts. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

A movie set at a film studio in Beijing. By 1952 the Chinese government’s Central Film Bureau consolidated all studios into a state system under three studio branches: Northeast Film Studio, Beijing Film Studio, and Shanghai Film Studio. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Scene from the Xi’an Studio’s film Red Sorghum, the first big hit of fifth-generation director Zhang Yimou. The film was popular overseas, winning a Golden Berlin Bear Award. Fifth-generation films captured the attention of art-house audiences worldwide with a distinct mixture of Chinese folk culture, repressed sexuality, and dynamic landscapes. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Beijing Opera actor Tan Xinpei in the first Chinese movie Dingjunshan (1905).

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