Chinese cinema has a long history, as well as the fandom around movies within China. Much like its Western and Japanese counterparts, the Chinese created magazines around film, stretching back to the 1920s. The book Chinese Movie Magazines: From Charlie Chaplin to Chairman Mao by Paul Fonoroff catalogs this unique and unexplored subculture.
Gorgeously illustrated and bound, it’s not only a good coffee table book but invaluable as reference material as well. A majority of images are from Chinese movie magazines, of which there are many, some lasting no more than a few issues. It’s interesting to see Chinese celebrities on these covers, but also the faces of Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, and Harold Lloyd. The book is split into four main sections, each detailing a different era of Chinese cinema history.
The first spans the years 1896-1932. While Shanghai would become the epicenter of Chinese moviemaking, the first actual Chinese movie was filmed in Beijing. In 1905, cameras recorded a Beijing Opera play, often credited as China’s first movie production. However, much like Western cinema, what counts as the first “feature film” didn’t come until later. In 1921, Haishi (Sea Vow) premiered, which is usually considered the first Chinese feature film.
The years up until 1932 were Chinese cinema’s formative years, with movie theaters appearing in the major cities of Shanghai, Beijing, and Harbin. But these theaters mostly showed Hollywood imports. However, one area where Chinese cinema prevailed was with the wuxia – or martial arts – genre. 1928’s The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple kicked off a wave of wuxia films, steeped in magic and sword fighting. Eventually, the new Kuomintang government banned wuxia films in 1931, thinking they promoted superstitions, unbefitting a modern republic. A trend that continues to this day in China.
The next era is 1932-1937, which is marked by more grounded films. Many left-wing filmmakers rose to prominence in this period, many of them secret Communists, and produced what is often called the Golden Age of Chinese cinema like Street Angel. Major stars rose to fame during this time, particularly Ruan Lingyu and Butterfly Wu. Most of these celebrities were female, but some male actors enjoyed the public’s adulation as well.
The Japanese invasion of 1937 ended this period and gave way to the third era, from 1937-1945. Between 1937-1941, Shanghai entered its “lonely island” period, where the foreign concessions were surrounded by the Japanese military. Many Chinese studios fled, some to Chongqing but many others to Hong Kong, which soon became known as the Hollywood of the East. Historic films, starting with 1938’s Sable Cicada, became thinly veiled anti-Japanese propaganda, but Hong Kong studios were far more blatant in their message.
When the Japanese invaded Shanghai’s foreign concessions and Hong Kong in 1941, this era ended, but Chinese cinema continued in Chongqing. Collaborationist studios churned out pro-Japanese propaganda in Shanghai, Beijing, and specifically Changchun, which has been largely built by Japanese investments. 1943’s The Opium War, was an example of this collaboration.
When the war ended, Chinese filmmaking resumed, but it was burned by the Civil War and hyperinflation. When the Communists took over, movies continued to be produced, but this changed in 1951 with The Life of Wu Xun. Initially hailed by critics, an editorial by none other than Mao Zedong in May 1951 marked a turning point in Chinese cinemas. Mao criticized the movie for its message, which he viewed as incapable with his vision of the “New China.” Art for art’s sake was considered bourgeois and filmmaking was now geared to serve the interests of the Communist Party. Everything had to have a political message. Ironically, this era of Chinese filmmaking (1951-1966) would be considered bourgeois, when the Cultural Revolution began and virtually all Chinese cinema ceased production.
Chinese Movie Magazine: From Charlie Chaplin to Chairman Mao is a bit pricey, around $50 USD, but it pays for itself in the sheer volume of information, otherwise lost to time.