China Cinematography – Origins and Early Developments

According to, with the exception of some excerpts from a show of the Peking Opera (Dingjun shan, Mount Dingjun, play interpreted by the famous actor Tan Xinpei), filmed in 1905 by the photographic studio Fengtai, the cinema of the origins in China – a country that in a certain sense he had ‘foreseen’ the new expressive form with shadow theater – it was long entrusted to foreign initiatives, as was to be expected in a nation that had suffered a serious defeat by the Japanese army in 1894, and which was forced, before and after the Boxer revolt (1900), to a series of treaties and concessions to Russia and other European powers, while the ferment of renewal, such as those animated by Sun Zhongshan (SunYat-sen), remained in clandestinity.

In Chinese aesthetics, cinema belongs to the literary ‘genre’ and the Chinese language itself uses the term dianying (“electric shadows”), or the expression dianguang yingxi (“electric shadow show”) to designate it, as if to establish a link with the historical-theatrical tradition, which with the new language takes the form of a series of images shot and projected, that is ‘electrical’. And as a further revelation of a link between cinema and popular traditions, in the years in which the first affirmation of internal production took place, between 1922 and 1926, it was the adaptations from the novels published in the newspapers that inspired the most famous films. However, for a long time Chinese film production was basically modeled on Western examples,

Nonetheless, the cinema was present from its origins, as in 1896 a French operator screened in a tea house in Shanghai and, in the same year, operators of the Lumière brothers filmed in various areas of the country and screened in the Xu gardens in Shanghai. The following year the American James Recalton presented Thomas Alva Edison’s films in Shanghai and in 1902 the first screenings took place in Beijing; the Spaniard Antonio Ramos had already opened some rooms in China in 1903. In 1907 the first hall was opened in Beijing, the first newsreels were produced in Shanghai, and in that period the Neapolitan Enrico Lauro made some documentaries. That documentary was a recurring and successful form, through which national history was also told, from the Boxer revolt to the war in Wuhan and Shanghai and to the start of the republican presidency of Sun Zhongshan (1912). After the collapse of the Empire (1911), republican attempts, internal struggles, terrible famines, strikes and violent repressions followed. However, until the time of the coup of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), which took place between 1927 and 1928 and supported first by Stalin’s Russia and then, after his break with the Communists, by Western powers, it will not be possible to speak of a real national film production, if not for some exceptions.

Meanwhile, in 1909 the Russian-American Benjamin Brodsky had founded the Asia Film & Theater Company in Shanghai and in 1913 Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan shot the first feature film, Nan fu nan qi (An Unfortunate Couple), while the first production of animated films. In 1921 – the year the Communist Party was founded by Chen Duxiu and some intellectuals, including Mao Zedong – the first feature film was made, Yan Ruisheng, directed by Ren Pengnian. The number of film companies rose to 175 between 1922 and 1926, including 141 in Shanghai. In particular, 1922 was a key year for the development of cinema in China, as the Minxin Film Company of Li Minwei was born, active first in Hong Kong then in Shanghai, and the oldest preserved Chinese film was made. Laogong zhi aiqing (The novel of a street vendor) by Zhang Shichuan, founder, with Zheng Zhengqiu, of Mingxing, which with Lianhua and Tianyi became one of the main Chinese production companies. It is a comic film, shortly after Huaji dawang you Hua ji (1922, The king of comedians visits China), whose protagonist was the character of Charlot played by an English actor. In 1923 Mingxing achieved great success with Zheng Zhengqiu’s Guer jiu zu ji (The orphan saves his grandfather), one of the leading directors of the first phase, former theater critic of the Peking Opera, considered with Zhang Shichuan the father of the Chinese cinema. After all, theater, which historically was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in China, had a decisive impact on the development of cinematographic language.

China Cinematography - Origins and Early Developments