Early Years

China was not an industrialized nation when it first saw some celluloid. French and US entrepreneurs brought projectors, cameras and film over to both send home film and show as of yet un-industrialized China western technology. This happened as early as 1896. Amongst the first films were silents from the US and France. Film grew up quite fast in China after its initial introduction.

1908 marked the creation of the Asia Film Company in Hong-Kong, then under British colonial control. Benjamin Polaski and a few Chinese businessmen created the company. The Peking Opera was the first subject ever filmed. These films no longer exist. Unfortunately, Polaski found no market for his films in the US, and bailed. The Commercial Press, in Shanghai, formed the next film company, and dumped enough money into it to return some profit. In 1920, they did a film adaptation of a play by Mei Lan-fang. This was a silent film. The main problem at this point was distribution. Nobody could easily get their films to the few theaters in China at that time. Many small companies formed then subsequently failed after a film or two. Advertisements were prevalent during that time period, and most large international companies used filmed ads.

Growing Up

With the advent of sound in China around 1930, many companies rushed to be first off the reel, but ran into a major problem. There were enough varied dialects at that point that a film would have to be five dialects, depending on the location of the theater. This is where the small, struggling theaters spoken of above came into the spotlight. They were localized and flexible enough that they could produce cheap talkies in the local dialects. People could now enjoy sound with their visual stimulation. Shanghai was speaking in a Pei-hua or Mandarin dialect, whereas much of southern China was speaking Cantonese and its derivatives. The advent of audio marked a transition in Chinese film further impacted by the Japanese invasion.

In 1932, the Japanese bombed Shanghai. This marked a rise in nationalistic films. The stories were heroic and made to kindle the nationalistic feelings of the people. The Communist party, formed in 1922, infected the Chinese film industry, as in Hollywood. They sought to use film to direct the beliefs of the people and gain support. As the Japanese invasion grew more intense, so did the film industry. By 1937, the film industry was strongly leftist, and in some ways, aiding Mao Zedong in supplanting the crumbling government. The industry was comprised almost completely of those with leftist leanings.

That brings us to World War II. During the war, the Japanese used the studios to produce numerous films and show their own propaganda to the local populace. They also produced films for domestic consumption. Studio employees were coerced into working on Japanese projects if they had risked staying in captured territory instead of fleeing. Chinese filmmakers ended up all over Southeast Asia filming various Japanese propaganda pieces. The villains were always Caucasian. When the Japanese withdrew at the end of World War II, it was unclear who controlled the studios.


Though the American-supported Nationalists and Chiang Kai-Shek tried to control the studios, the leftists and Communists gained control of most of the remains of the post-war film infrastructure. They went on to form their own leftist production house, Kun Lun. It produced the most popular films, such as The Life of Wu Hsun thus solidifying the communist's position amongst the citizens of China. Mao, when he came to power, unfortunately did not see the value in film and ordered that independent studios be absorbed into his government controlled ones.

During The Hundred Flowers Campaign, Mao allowed some independent films to be released, such as Fifteen Strings of Cash and a politically risky satire piece Before the Director Arrives. That shortly ended with Mao purging some of the more vocal participators of the Hundred Flowers campaign. Film again returned to blandness. Films under the communist state were about subjects with little political charge. Sports, industrialization, and comedy were popular subjects.

1959 marked a turning point. The Communist party felt strong enough to recognize some of China's history. It was recognized in a communist, nationalistic way of course. Lin Tse-Hsu,, A film about the Opium war was produced, along with New Story of an Old Soldier and Young People of Our Village. The titles are pretty self-explanatory.

The Great Proletariat revolution marked the close of all but two studios. The Peking documentary studio and the Shanghai animation studios were left open. With Mao's 1976 death, culture was no longer a counter-revolutionary subject. The 1980s marked a reniassance in culture. many of the cultural revolution bans had been lifted, allowing several film schools, including the Beijing film academy. Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou are the two characteristic directors of the Fifth Generation Filmmakers. 1


The internet and advent of home video technologies caused yet another change. China is now a hotbed for pirated DVDs and all that good stuff. The citizens of China have access to many films other then Government sanctioned ones, and are demanding something different. Theater attendance is down, except when "suggested" by the state. The studios are slowly catching up with the rest of the world. I would expect to see some internationally distributed films out of Chinese studios sometime in the near future, as the government continues to become more moderate.

Note: This is meant to address the People's Republic (mainland China) only, not any of the other Chinas, such as Hong Kong or the ROC (Taiwan). However, DMan surprisingly left us the following interesting writeup: The 1980s Hong Kong film industry.

1: skeller has rightly informed me to look more closely at the 1980's and several cinematographers. In doing further research on this period, I re-interviewed Margaret Burnette and interviewed a fellow Stanford film school graduate. Skeller provided the names, and I realised he was correct on noting the two most influential 5th generation cinematographers, whose names you see above.


  • The International Encyclopedia of Film by Dr. Roger Manvell. Rainbird Referance Books ltd. Rugby, England, 1972. This is a 1972 tome that is a very complete encyclopedia of people, places and events. Pages 128-131 were used.
  • The World Encyclopedia of Film by Cawkwell and Smith. November books ltd. New York City, 1972. This is about people only. Numerous pages used.
  • Class notes from IB Topics of the 20th Century. Mr. Rushing: teacher. 2002-2003. This class covered in detail the Communist revolution in China.
  • Interview subject: National Geographic TV Senior Producer. Stanford film school graduate. April 2003.

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