AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 510

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Session 510: Chinese Silent-Era Filmmaking: Interdisciplinary Approaches

Organizer: Nicolai Volland, Pennsylvania State University, USA

Chair: Jeremy Brown, Simon Fraser University, Canada

Discussants: Jeremy Brown, Simon Fraser University, Canada; Xuelei Huang, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Cinema has long been recognized as an essential element of the vibrant urban culture of Republican China, bridging the high-brow and the low-brow, the vernacular and the avant-garde, the commercial and the ideological. Yet despite their obvious significance, films and film culture of the early 1920s to mid-1930s have received relatively little scholarly attention. This panel attempts to address the issue by bringing together scholars from North America and Asia and a variety of disciplines to discuss new approaches to the study of Chinese silent-era cinema, stressing in particular the need for interdisciplinary and cooperative research. In doing so, it builds on a workshop convened in Singapore in summer 2010. The papers approach Chinese silent-era cinema from the perspectives of print culture, sociology, gender studies, and East Asian regionalism, addressing such topics as the advent of “modern” marital relations, tensions in youth culture, the interaction between print and screen culture, and the transnational flows of cinema in East Asia. Taken together, the papers show that Chinese silent-era films and film culture constitute an extraordinarily rich, sophisticated and heterogeneous field of social/cultural inquiry. This material allows us a golden opportunity to question and refine assumptions about cultural production, creative artistic experimentation, and the construction of social knowledge in Republican China and beyond. The panel will point to future directions for research on silent-era Chinese film, but also provide new input for the study of Chinese cinema in general and contribute to our understanding of culture and society in Republican China.

A Midwife for the Movies: Print Culture and the Formation of Early Chinese Cinema
Nicolai Volland, Pennsylvania State University, USA

This paper revisits the formation and popularization of Chinese cinematic discourse in the 1920s from the perspective of print culture. Early Chinese movie magazines have generally been regarded as an essential element of a vibrant film culture that developed in Shanghai and other Chinese urban centers in the early and mid-1920s. The explosion of cinemas and production companies around 1925 was accompanied by a quickly growing readership interested in film reviews, insider accounts from the studios, and gossip. This view of early Chinese film journals, however, vastly understates the importance of print culture in the making of Chinese film culture. I argue that in fact the vibrant and sophisticated print culture of the Republican era played a crucial role as the midwife of Chinese cinema, establishing and propagating the discursive rules and the critical language necessary to speak and write about film Based on a survey of Yingxi shijie, Yingxi chunqiu, Dianying zhoubao, and other Chinese film magazines from the 1920s, this paper shows how these journals explored the world of film, proposed strategies of analysis and assessment, and debated criteria of appraisal. In particular, I will address three aspects: (1) the invention of a Chinese critical vocabulary; (2) the participation of film practitioners, critics, and audiences in this interactive process; and (3) the importance of both domestic and foreign sources. The paper thus shows the crucial function of the print media in the making of the new medium of film in China.

Framing the “Modern Marriage” in Shanghai Silent-era Films of the 1920s
Paul G. Pickowicz, University of California, San Diego, USA

Many couples wanted to enter into “modern marriages” in large metropolitan centers like Shanghai after the 1911 Revolution. But almost no one knew exactly how to define the modern marriage. What were its boundaries? What sorts of social dynamics shaped relations between modern wives and husbands? Were the marital problems faced by modern Chinese married couples particular to urban China or were they the sorts of problems witnessed in metropolitan centers around the world in the immediate post-Victorian era? This paper offers a close reading and comparative analysis of three rare silent-era movies produced in Shanghai: Yi chuan zhen zhu (A Strong of Pearls, 1925), Qing hai zhong wen (Oceans of Passion, Heavy Kissing, 1928), and Xue zhong gu chu (Orphan in the Snow, 1929). Each of these fascinating films weighs in on the “modern marriage” issue, but they do so in different ways. Curiously, two of the three films have been virtually ignored in Chinese and foreign-language scholarship, even though they anticipate many of the directions taken in the more celebrated films of the 1930s. The paper argues that popular films of the 1920s deal frankly with such modern marriage phenomena as temptation, transgression, negotiation, redemption, and submission, and in doing so tackle problems familiar to modern married couples in early post-Victorian London, Paris, and New York.

Shanghai Among Equals: Comparative Chronologies of Early East Asian Cinema
Matthew D. Johnson, Grinnell College, USA

This paper examines the history of early cinema in East Asia by tracing patterns of exhibition across treaty ports and urban centers. From the last decade of the 19th century onward, traveling filmmaker/projectionists criss-crossed the region by following trade and travel routes which linked cities around the world. Their scattered movements, however, present a picture which is almost completely at odds with the historiography of early cinema itself. In particular, careful attention to the sequence of early cinematic exhibition demonstrates that the emergence of early cinema in East Asia was linked less to the robust cultural traditions of cosmopolitan entrepôts, such as Shanghai, and more to patterns of colonialism and cross-border human movement. This alternative historical perspective suggests that rather than containing the seeds of nascent national traditions, early cinema in East Asia was but one manifestation of a larger colonial and trade-based system created by industrial powers, and which threatened to overwhelm preexisting cultural economies and forms. The second part of this paper thus describes the process by which cinema was nationalized--appropriated and reconfigured by East Asian entrepreneurs, political movements, and parties seeking sovereignty within a competitive international system. By highlighting comparisons between chronologies of early East Asian cinema, and between East Asia and the world, a more empirically grounded account concerning early cinema's origins and dissemination becomes possible, as does highlighting the roles occupied by lesser-known exhibitors, filmmakers, and cities within this larger narrative.

New Ideas, Old Structures: A Sociological Interpretation of Marriage Prospect Dilemmas Faced by Chinese Youth in the 1920s-1930s
Lijun Yang, National University of Singapore, Singapore

China experienced social transformations in the 1920s-1930s that were every bit as complex as the upheavals associated with the current post-Mao era. These transformations generated various conflicts, all of which significantly affected the daily lives of ordinary people, especially youth. On the one hand, the New Culture and May Fourth movements had brought unprecedented ideological emancipation. New values proliferated. On the other hand, the old social structures still existed and seriously constrained the application of new ideas and values. In studies of early twentieth-century intellectuals, scholars tend to focus on familiar fields of inquiry, including tensions between new ideas and old ones and between “traditional” and “Western” cultures. However, these works often fail to look in depth at how social and cultural tensions (for example, the gap between new values and the entrenched social structures of old) actually affected people in their daily lives. Such everyday conflicts matter because changes in values tend to unfold much faster than changes in concrete social structures. This paper deploys a sociological perspective to analyze a rare and understudied Chinese silent-era film: Cai Chusheng’s Spring in the South (Nanguo zhi chun, 1932). It raises the following questions: What social functions did marriage-partner selection dynamics perform in customary Chinese society in the early twentieth century? What were the conflicts between modern and customary marriage-partner selection patterns in the performance of such social functions? What partner choice conflicts caused the most emotional turmoil in the lives of young people in the 1920s-1930s?