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Mainland China on Screen

Film production in China has undergone alternating periods of boom and collapse, with varying degrees of state control and censure. These same conditions have also made it so that, rather than a singular centre of cinema production, there have developed several distinct national cinemas, primarily those of Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

This new short essay and linked free-to-view content explores the history of cinema and television in Mainland China.

Shanghai’s Golden Period of the 1930s

Ruan Lingyu (April 26, 1910 – March 8, 1935).Image Credit: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

Early film production in Mainland China was concentrated in Shanghai, which was the largest socio-economic hub of the time and afforded relative freedom to filmmakers. As outlined by Laikwan Pang in this chapter from The Chinese Cinema Book, film production during this period came to be roughly categorised into two groups; ‘Hard films (yingxing dianying); those invested with progressive political ideologies, and soft films (ruanxing dianying) focusing on Shanghai’s cosmopolitan sensation and consumerist impulse’. However, several key films, such as Zhengqiu Zheng’s 1934 film Zimei hua (Twin Sisters), rebel against such categorisations, dealing with complex themes that could easily be attributed to either group.

The 1930s also saw the rise of film stardom as a concept, as was exemplified in the short-lived career of actress Ruan Lingyu, who starred in The Goddess (1934) and New Women (1935) before tragically committing suicide in 1935. In this chapter from Chinese Revolutionary Cinema, Jessica Ka Yee Chan examines the nature of Ruan's celebrity, arguing that her acting career and on-and off-screen persona constructed her as a consistent character, ‘the new woman and an iconic figure of modernity, established as a result of the complex interplay between acting, cinematography, characterisation and larger social issues in modernising Shanghai’.

Wartime Cinema

Shanghai’s golden period was brought to an end by the Second Sino-Japanese war (1937-45), with many film workers fleeing to Hong Kong, and the Shanghai film industry eventually falling under complete Japanese control.

However, despite eight tumultuous years of war, with tens of millions displaced, film production soon resumed in Shanghai, with filmmakers channelling their traumas into films such as The Spring River Flows East (1947) and Spring in a Small Town (1948). Between 1946 and 1949 more than 150 feature films were produced in mainland China.

Spring in a Small Town, (1948) Image courtesy Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans.

Surprisingly, filmmakers contended with the war head-on, as Paul G. Pickowicz writes in this chapter from The Chinese Cinema Book ‘One of the most important and effective strategies was to make sensational epic films that explored the big picture and told explicit, gut-wrenching stories about the entirety of China’s war experience.’

With the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, cinema quickly became a mass production art form and tool for propaganda. Starting from 1951, pre-1949 Chinese films, Hollywood and Hong Kong productions were banned as the Chinese Communist Party tightened its control over mass media. Films produced during the Seventeen Years (1949-1966) were limited by a narrow range of state-sanctioned subject matter and style, and production understandably declined owing to these creative restrictions. In this chapter from The Chinese Cinema Book, Julian Ward describes the anger and frustration of filmmakers during this period, ‘while the prime concern of most film-makers during the Seventeen Years was to avoid egregious political error, others sought to avoid the restrictions imposed by the authorities, looking for opportunities for freedom of expression and minor deviations from an approved line that could change at a moment’s notice’.

The Cultural Revolution and its Aftermath

With the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 came a boom in film production, bolstered by the Fourth Generation of Chinese filmmakers making shānghén jù (scar dramas) such as Evening Rain (1980), which depicted the traumas of the revolution.

The 1980s saw the rise of The New Documentary Movement in China, drastically changing the role of documentary cinema within Chinese society. Yingchi Chu writes in this chapter from Chinese Documentaries , ‘The ‘New Documentary Movement’ has been characterised as paying attention to the poor, the marginal, and ordinary people and their often trivial lives.’ With it, there occurred a shift towards independent and semi-independent films, with the emergence of individual styles, and a realistic, bottom-up rather than top–down description of Chinese society.

The decade after the Cultural Revolution saw a rapid expansion of television stations, coverage, and ownership of TV sets, all resulting in an increased demand for programming. In response to this, China Central Television (CCTV), the only national-level broadcaster, began to produce its own television dramas. As Yik Chan Chin writes in this chapter in Television Regulation and Media Policy in China, ‘Television soon became the most popular leisure activity for Chinese people, who spent 2.2 hours per day watching TV. By 1996, China had about 300 million TV sets, 943 free-to-air territorial television stations with 1,005 channels and 1,285 state approved cable TV stations with 200 million subscribers or 50 million households. Television coverage reached 86.2 percent of the total population.’

Gong Li in Farewell My Concubine (1993).
Image Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo.

The late 1980s also saw Chinese cinema rise to the forefront of the international art-house circuit. As Keith Wagner, Tianqi Yu and Luke Vulpiani note in this chapter in China’s iGeneration, ‘Fifth Generation ‘renegades’ like Zhang Yimou took Chinese cinema to international markets on the strength of iconoclastic styles and exotic subject matter’. Chinese cinema began reaping the rewards of international attention, winning the 1988 Golden Bear for Red Sorghum (1987), the 1992 Golden Lion for The Story of Qiu Ju (1991) the 1993 Palme d'Or for Farewell My Concubine (1993) and three Best Foreign Language Film nominations from the Academy Awards. All these award-winning films starred actress Gong Li, who became the Fifth Generation's most recognizable star, especially to international audiences.

The Sixth Generation filmmakers of the 1990s were a stark contrast to their predecessors. Their films lacked government support or funding, and were characterised by inexpensive production, use of handheld cameras, non-professional actors and quick shooting schedules, with the primary aim of authentically capturing contemporary urban life. Concepts such as individuality, subjectivity, and autonomy became key concerns for Chinese independent filmmakers and scholars.

In this chapter from The Global Auteur, Victor Fan discusses the rise of the geren dianying (personal film) during the 1990s, writing that these personal films engage the viewers in a cinematographic experience in which the self and the other, the subjective and the objective, are renegotiated. Amongst the key filmmakers during this period was Wu Wenguang, who directed Bumming Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990), and when asked he described his creative process as huidao zizhen (returning to one’s reality).

Transnational Chinese Cinema

Chinese-language cinema does not have a singular start date, nor any one place of origin. In the introduction to Contemporary Chinese Cinema and Visual Culture, Sheldon Lu writes that film culture exists at the local and subnational level in a large nation like China. There are resilient dialectal films, of which Cantonese-dialectal cinema from Hong Kong and Taiwan cinema (or Taiwanese-dialectal cinema) are the most well-known examples. Periodically, on and off, depending on the winds of national cultural policies and their enforcement in the PRC, local dialectal films and TV dramas thrive in the provinces and cities of China.

Today, Chinese-language cinema resists a chronological history, with many of these generations of filmmakers and cinematic aesthetics overlapping. Previous works from a variety of different periods and perspectives continue to inspire directors, writers, and producers, and both a fifth and sixth generation film could be released in the same year. Since the late 2000s, the cinemas of mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have become increasingly intertwined, giving us increasingly eclectic mix of genre and styles inspired from the past.