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date: 05 March 2021

Introduction: Chinese Cinemas and the Art of Extrapolation

Abstract and Keywords

The magic of cinema stems from the imagined space that opens up between images, rather than from any of the individual constituent images. This is evident in the art of extrapolation, wherein the appearance of movement is produced from an array of still images. To create a semblance of movement, a constellation of static elements ranging from discrete images to individual pixels are used. This book explores the art of extrapolation in Chinese cinema and uses the notion of family resemblances to validate popular assumptions about what is considered to be a Chinese film. To this end, it examines a wide range of canonical films, focusing on their history, form, and structure: Ren Qingtai’s (1905), Zhang Shichuan’s (1931), Fei Mu’s (1948), and Ang Lee’s (2000).

Keywords: extrapolation, Chinese cinema, films, Ren Qingtai, Dingjun Mountain, Zhang Shichuan, The Songstress Red Peony, Fei Mu, Eternal Regret, Ang Lee

Cinema is the art of extrapolation—the production of the appearance of movement from an array of still images. While this process is most obvious with the technology of film itself, in which this illusory movement is the product of a series of transparencies presented at a rate such that the brain perceives them to be in continuous motion, even nonfilmic technologies of the moving image—ranging from precinematic devices such as the zoetrope, phenakistoscope, and parxinoscope, to what we might call postcinematic media such as video and DV—similarly use a constellation of static elements ranging from discrete images to individual pixels in order to create a semblance of movement. The magic of cinema, therefore, lies not in any of its individual constituent images, but rather in the imagined space that opens up between them.

A comparable process of conceptual extrapolation, meanwhile, undergirds our understanding of the field of cinema itself. Any body of cinematic production—from a single director’s oeuvre to an entire genre—comprises a set of works, people, and institutions that are perceived as being linked to one another in a salient manner. Like the illusory movement that stitches together a succession of individual film frames into a moving picture, however, the networks of connections viewed as holding a field together are not intrinsic to the field itself, but rather are essentially projected onto it by outside observers. The field of Chinese cinema, accordingly, is grounded not on the individual works themselves, but rather on the extrapolated networks within which those works are positioned.

To be clear, though, the point is not that there are no connections linking the works within a putative field to one another, but rather precisely the opposite—there are simply too many vectors along which we might perceive these relationships. In classifying works into meaningful taxonomies, we could, for instance, use criteria such as the works’ subject, language, length, audience, ideology, historical period, funding sources, political orientation, or medium of production. These various criteria overlap with and diverge (p. 2) from another in complicated ways and rarely, if ever, map straightforwardly onto the intuitive understanding that we may have of a cultural field.

Some of the theoretical stakes inherent in this question of the constitution of a conceptual or cultural field are illustrated in a famous thought experiment proposed by the late philosopher W. V. O. Quine—in which he suggests that we imagine an extraterrestrial anthropologist observing an earthling saying the word gavagai while pointing at a rabbit loping across a field. While a terrestrial anthropologist would probably assume that gavagai simply means “rabbit,” Quine’s extraterrestrial might very have a very different conceptual mapping of the world, which might lead it to assume that the new term could mean something as seemingly esoteric as “an isolated temporal slice of rabbit” or “undifferentiated rabbit parts.” Quine concludes that the meaning of a term is not deducible from any isolated utterance, but rather is necessarily grounded in a complicated set of assumptions about the epistemological field within which the utterance is made. The meaning of a term, in other words, is determined by its ontological and epistemological ground, together with the matrix of linkages between the term and its lexical environment.

A similar argument could be made about Chinese cinema. If Quine’s hypothetical extraterrestrial were to see an earthling point at a film and call it Chinese cinema, the alien’s inferences about what the term means would necessarily hinge on its intuitions about a variety of underlying issues. To begin with, there is the question of what precisely a cinematic work is in the first place. Does a work retain its identity across all possible media (e.g., if viewed as a film, a video, a laser disc, and so forth)? What if it has been released in different versions (e.g., for different markets)? Under what circumstances are subtitles, dubbed voices, and other paratextual elements considered to be part of the work, as opposed to mere parasitic supplements? Would the work retain its identity if the original script were to be reperformed and rerecorded by others? How about if the work were to be creatively reinterpreted? Would a film retain its identity if the original print were to be carefully restored? How about if it were to be intentionally altered or defaced? These questions about the status of the film as a discrete work are ones about which there is bound to be considerable disagreement even among people who think they understand what the term cinema means, much less a hypothetical alien not familiar with these discursive conventions.

Some of these sorts of questions are explored in Olivier Assayas’s 1996 film Irma Vep, in which a fictional French film director recruits the Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung 張曼玉 (playing herself) to remake the classic French silent film serial Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, dir., 1915–1916). The fictional project quickly spirals out of control, however, and Assayas’s film concludes with his fictional director screening not the remake of Les Vampires that he had originally proposed to produce, but rather a deliberately defaced print of the original silent film. Irma Vep, therefore, presents three distinct repetitions of portions of Feuillade’s film: it rescreens select scenes from the French classic, it introduces contemporary reenactments of the earlier work, and it concludes with a screening of a vandalized print of the original film. Many viewers would probably regard the “straight” rescreenings as an unproblematic extension of the historical film, (p. 3) and the contemporary restagings as fundamentally new creations. The final screening of the defaced print appears to be positioned on the knife-edge between these extremes—resembling both an act of extreme fidelity to the original work and a violent rupture from the historical continuity associated with that work.

Part of the reason why the fictional director’s attempted remake of Les Vampires is challenged within Assayas’s film is because his crew object, on apparently nationalistic grounds, to the director’s determination to cast the ethnically Chinese Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung—whom he adores for her work in a series of popular Hong Kong action films—in the lead role of the French classic. While this implicit reflection on the protectionist, perhaps even xenophobic, tendencies of the French film industry may be read as a critical commentary on France’s role in having spearheaded the European Union’s 1989 “Television without Frontiers” directive—which stipulated that a majority of a European nation’s television entertainment broadcast time should be reserved for works of European origin—Assayas’s film could also be seen as a reflection on similar anxieties about the status of Hong Kong cinema on the eve of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control in 1997. Maggie Cheung’s prominent position in the French work serves as a reminder that France’s concerns about the autonomy and identity of French cinema in the shadow of global Hollywood mirrors contemporary Hong Kong’s concerns about the future of Hong Kong cinema (and culture) in the shadow of Mainland China.

As a multilingual and multiethnic territory that had long been functionally autonomous from Mainland China, meanwhile, Hong Kong is associated with a distinctive cinematic tradition that defies easy categorization as to whether it is “Chinese” or not—and by extension a focus on Hong Kong also implicitly dramatizes some of the taxonomical tensions inherent in the concept of Chinese cinema itself. In particular, the adjective Chinese in the (English-language) phrase Chinese cinema is semantically ambiguous and may be understood in either linguistic, ethnic, cultural, political, or territorial terms. Although these various understandings frequently overlap with one another, there are also many situations in which they diverge. A work may, for instance, originate from China but be in a language other than Chinese, just as it may be from outside China yet still feature Chinese dialogue. It may feature ethnically Chinese actors in a diasporic setting, or it may present ethnic minorities or foreigners in a Chinese setting. It may receive funding from China (or Hong Kong or Taiwan) but be set in the West, just as it may be set in China but receive all of its financing from abroad. While it is certainly possible to posit certain criteria for determining whether a work is “Chinese” (such as whether a majority of its dialogue is in a dialect of Chinese), the result is unlikely to precisely match our intuitions about the term and its corresponding cultural field.

In this volume, accordingly, we do not attempt to specify any necessary and sufficient criterion (or criteria) for determining what constitutes Chinese cinema, and instead treat the field as shaped by a fluid constellation of partially overlapping attributes—or what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls “family resemblances.” We use this notion of family resemblances to reaffirm popular intuitions regarding what is considered to be a Chinese film, while at the same time interrogating our assumptions about the meaning of the concept (p. 4) itself. Part of the appeal of Wittgenstein’s notion is that it suggests that a category like Chinese cinema may be seen not as a static and singular entity, but rather as a dynamic field that is continually transforming and reconstituting itself. Rather than delimiting our field of inquiry to a narrow focus on either cinematic works from Mainland China, works that feature primarily Chinese-language dialogue, works by ethnically Chinese directors, or on works with substantial funding from China or Greater China, we instead treat Chinese cinema as a category with fuzzy boundaries that are continually evolving and being renegotiated.

To this end, in the following chapters we examine a wide range of works, including many that are frequently regarded as paradigmatic examples of the field—such as Ren Qingtai’s 任慶泰 Dingjun Mountain (定軍山, 1905), regarded as the first Chinese film; Zhang Shichuan’s 張石川 The Songstress Red Peony (歌女紅牡丹, 1931), the first Chinese sound film; Fei Mu’s 費穆 Eternal Regret (生死恨, 1948), Chinese cinema’s first color film; and Ang Lee’s 李安 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍, 2000), the highest-grossing foreign-language film in U.S. box-office history. Even as these canonical films provide models against which other works may be compared, however, many of them are also positioned at crucial junctures in the development of Chinese cinema—marking, for instance, the development of color cinema, the introduction of sound, and even the birth of Chinese cinema itself. These iconic works, therefore, serve as an important reminder of the field’s inherent dynamism and continual capacity for reinvention.

We also, however, discuss many works that occupy a more marginal position within the field as currently conceived, including films such as the 1943 Manchurian musical My Nightingale, which featured a mostly Russian cast and was filmed mostly in Russian; Yengtha Her’s 2005 film Overseas Romances, which was produced collaboratively by a Hmong-American man and a Miao woman from China and which circulated primarily in the Chinese diaspora; Harald Swat’s 2010 version of The Karate Kid, which was filmed in China but featured an international cast and received mostly foreign funding; together with the Shanghai-based blogger and amateur filmmaker Btr’s digital short Night is the Tender, which was disseminated over the Internet and was designed to be viewed on computers, cell phones, and other handheld devices. These latter sorts of works help defamiliarize conventional assumptions about the field of Chinese cinema, while pointing to alternate directions that the field might have taken, or might yet take.

Our attempts to interrogate the category of Chinese cinema are also reflected in the structure of this study itself. The volume is divided into three parts, each of which adopts a very different approach to the field. Part I looks at historical periodizations, Part II examines categories that share formal characteristics, and Part III looks at various structural elements involved in the production, distribution, and reception of the works themselves. While there will inevitably be a certain degree of overlap between these disparate approaches (it is, for instance, difficult to discuss formal considerations without also considering the underlying structural elements that grant the works their recognizable form in the first place), the idea is that each grouping foregrounds a distinct set of entry points into the field.

(p. 5) We make no claim here to comprehensiveness. Neither the volume as a whole, its three main parts, nor any of its individual chapters pretends to present an encyclopedic overview of its corresponding topic. Instead, our objective is to present a set of innovative analyses—the equivalent of an array of still images from which the reader may extrapolate new ways of viewing the fields and subfields into which they coalesce. We seek not to present a unified vision of the field of Chinese cinema, but rather to explore the interpretive spaces that open up between different conceptions of what form the field might take. It is here, we contend, that we may find the key to a richer understanding not only of a singular “Chinese cinema,” but more importantly of an eclectic body of mutually overlapping Chinese cinemas.


At the origin of Chinese cinema we find not a film, but rather a still image—a 1905 photograph of opera star Tan Xinpei 譚鑫培 in full costume performing scenes from the Beijing opera Dingjun Mountain (see fig. 1.1). The photograph was taken at the Fengtai Photography Studio in Beijing, as Tan was being filmed by studio owner Ren Qingtai (also known by his style name, Ren Jingfeng 任景豐) and his assistant Liu Zhonglun 劉仲倫. The resulting three-reel, half-hour work (of which the only print was destroyed in a fire in the 1940s) is regarded as the first Chinese film.

While questions have been raised regarding this received account of Ren Qingtai’s 1905 filming of Dingjun Mountain,1 even if we were to stipulate to the general reliability of the narrative itself, it would remain an open question what exactly it means to describe Dingjun Mountain as the marking the birth of Chinese cinema. To begin with, if we follow current practice and understand cinema as including not merely film but also a broader range of technologies of the moving image, the history of “cinema” in China would likely antedate Dingjun Mountain by several centuries. The fourth century CE historical text Record of the Western Capital (西京雜記), for instance, contains a description of how the Western Han craftsman Ding Huan 丁緩 (active in the first century BCE)2 developed an optical device consisting of a circular band with images of birds and animals positioned around a lamp such that the heat from the lamp would create convection currents causing the band to rotate, thereby making the bird and animal images appear to “move quite naturally” (though it is unclear whether this is a reference to illusory motion of the individual images, or to the actual movement of the images through space). Historian of science Joseph Needham has proposed that this device (together with later “trotting horse lamps” [走馬燈]) may have been an early zoetrope—a technology that, when it was (re)invented in Europe in the 1830s, became an important predecessor for the development of film in the 1890s.3

IntroductionChinese Cinemas and the Art of Extrapolation

Figure 1.1 Photograph of Tan Xinpei performing the Beijing opera Dingjun Mountain, reportedly taken during Ren Qingtai’s 1905 filming of the work by the same title

Even if we were to understand the term cinema more narrowly, as referring only to actual filmic technologies, it would still be unclear in what precise sense Ren Qingtai’s 1905 work might be considered to be the “first Chinese film.” Dingjun Mountain, for instance, (p. 6) was certainly not the first film to be screened in China. As early as August 11, 1896, several Lumière shorts were shown in Shanghai just a year after they first debuted in Paris, and these sorts of events became so popular that in 1904 a British envoy was invited to contribute some film footage for the empress dowager Cixi’s seventieth-birthday celebration in the Forbidden City (the projector notoriously caught on fire during the performance, leading to a short-lived ban on screenings in the imperial palace). Dingjun Mountain was also not the first film to include Chinese content. In the winter of 1900–1901, for instance, James Williamson filmed a documentary entitled Attack on a Chinese Mission, which features re-creations of scenes from China’s ongoing Boxer Rebellion. Produced in Britain, with British actors playing the parts of both the Chinese and the Europeans involved in the conflict, this work was followed by a series of similar reenactments. Dingjun Mountain wasn’t even the first film produced in China, either. As early as 1901, the British filmmaker Joseph Rosenthal traveled to China, where he recorded at least one short film of a Shanghai street scene. Nor was Dingjun Mountain the first cinematic work produced in China by a Chinese, given that we can reasonably assume that Ren Qingtai and Liu Zhonglun must have made other recordings in preparation for their historic half-hour session with Tan Xinpei, one of the leading Beijing opera performers of the time.

(p. 7) We might, therefore, describe Dingjun Mountain as the first complete film produced in China by Chinese filmmakers and featuring Chinese content. Even this more precise formulation, however, leaves ambiguous what exactly is meant by the terms China and Chinese, not to mention what constitutes a “complete” work to begin with. In 1905, what is now Mainland China was still ruled by the (ethnically Manchu) Qing dynasty, Hong Kong was a British colony, and Taiwan had recently come under Japanese control. Even today, the Chinese nation is officially composed of not only Mainland China but also Hong Kong (currently a quasi-autonomous “special administrative region” within the People’s Republic of China) and Taiwan (a functionally autonomous nation-like entity that still claims sovereignty over the entirety of Mainland China, and vice versa), and each of these three regions is regarded as having its own distinctive cinema. In light of this contemporary tripartite division of “China” and its respective cinematic traditions, it is fitting that Romance of Three Kingdoms (三國演藝)—the classic Ming dynasty novel of which the Beijing opera version of Dingjun Mountain was itself an adaptation—was set in a similar period of political disunity following the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 CE, whereupon “China” fractured into three competing kingdoms.

Rather than seeing Dingjun Mountain as marking an unambiguous point of origin for Chinese cinema as a singular and unitary tradition, we might instead regard the popular fascination with this 1905 work as a symptom of a collective desire for identifiable historical origins. Indeed, of the myriad rubrics available for categorizing Chinese cinematic works, historical taxonomies are perhaps the most common. We intuitively group Chinese cinema into different “generations” or roughly decadelong periods, on the assumption that contemporary sociopolitical factors and patterns of mutual influence play a critical role in shaping the cinematic output of any particular period. Each of the chapters in Part I takes as its starting point a different historical period, from the early twentieth century to the contemporary moment—though this emphasis on historicity is inevitably inseparable from political and geographic considerations, and consequently we don’t trace a singular historical movement but rather several overlapping ones. In general, our objective in this section is not simply to reaffirm existing historical categories, but rather to present a new perspective on familiar periodizations while at the same time suggesting new ones.

The first three chapters focus on the first decades of the twentieth century, or what is often regarded as the “golden age” of Chinese cinema. First, Jianhua Chen examines the origins of China’s film industry in the 1920s, and particularly the influence of iconic American director D. W. Griffith and his favorite leading actress, Lillian Gish. Chen points to the irony that China’s nascent film industry emerged out of a dialogue with American works that themselves arose against the backdrop of a political and cultural context quite distant from that of early twentieth-century China. Kristine Harris then turns to the 1930s, and specifically Bu Wancang’s 卜萬蒼1931 silent film Love and Duty (戀愛與義務). Taking as her entry point the film’s uncanny use of legendary actress Ruan Lingyu 阮玲玉 to play a double role of both a mother and the adult version of the daughter whom she was forced to abandon when she was still a young girl, Harris examines the film’s complicated relationship to its own figurative “mother”—a novel by (p. 8) the Polish-born author S. Horose, known in Chinese as Madame Hua Luo Chen 華羅琛夫人. Harris places particular emphasis on a key moment of (mis)recognition late in the film, when the now-elderly mother, working as a seamstress, is hired to make a dress for her now-adult daughter (who believes her mother to be dead). The scene culminates in a poignant close-up of the mother’s face as she leans close to her daughter, who remains blithely unaware of her identity. In the third chapter, David Der-wei Wang develops an analysis of two 1948 films by legendary director Fei Mu—the widely acclaimed Spring in a Small Town (小城之春) and the opera film Eternal Regret. Wang argues that these two works—of which the first is widely regarded as one of the best Chinese films ever made and the second, the first color picture in Chinese cinema, is often viewed as an intriguing failure—illustrate Fei Mu’s attempts to draw on a combination of new technologies and traditional representational practices to explore what Wang describes as “the fate of modern Chinese visual subjectivity.” A concern that runs through all three of these chapters, therefore, involves the ways in which early Chinese cinema was shaped by a productive tension with other national traditions and representational practices.

The following three chapters turn to the midcentury period, looking specifically at bodies of films that complicate conventional assumptions about what it means for a work to be considered “Chinese” in the first place. Jie Li examines a set of 1930s and 1940s films from the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria, arguing that these works reflect the complicated nationalistic strategies of the period. Noting that Beijing has declined to make most of these Manchurian films available for viewing or study, Li speculates that this decision may be precisely because the films illustrate all too clearly the sorts of imbrications of cinema and nationalism on which the political imaginary of the PRC itself is grounded. In the following chapter, Yomi Braester turns to the early years of the People’s Republic, arguing that film criticism during this period was grounded on a form of cinephilia emphasizing the creation of interpretative communities to discuss and appreciate cinematic works. Despite the popular perception of Maoist era cultural production as being highly insular and ideologically driven, Braester illustrates how, at least during the mid-1950s Hundred Flowers campaign, several state-sponsored cinema journals were openly looking abroad in their discussions of film, to the point that even a prominent state-affiliated journal with a title like Chinese Cinema was publishing numerous articles on French cinema and theories of cinephilia. Finally, Poshek Fu considers how Hong Kong’s film industry attempted to negotiate its relationship with Mainland China’s cultural, political, and economic influence during the midcentury period. Drawing on a rich body of newly discovered archives and other materials, Fu demonstrates how shifting market conditions and configurations of human capital during this period helped drive the direction of Hong Kong cinema. All three of these chapters, therefore, examine how contestations of national identity—both in Mainland China and along its periphery—are refracted through the cinematic field.

The next two chapters consider some of the directions that Chinese cinema has taken in contemporary Hong Kong and Taiwan. First, Tsung-yi Michelle Huang looks at how several recent Hong Kong films use female characters to comment allegorically on Hong Kong’s relationship with Mainland China during the post-Handover period. Huang (p. 9) argues that precisely at a moment when the number of Hong Kong–mainland coproductions were growing rapidly, many of these same films began using a focus on Mainland Chinese women (ranging from wealthy professionals to undocumented immigrants) to critically comment on the implications for Hong Kong’s mainland-orientated practices and tendencies. Next, Song Hwee Lim considers the dramatic disjunction between the relatively small size of Taiwan’s film industry and the remarkable international acclaim that Taiwan New Cinema has received. Through a detailed analysis of the conditions of the production, distribution, and reception of contemporary Taiwan cinema, Lim argues that Taiwan New Cinema—and cinematic new waves in general—presents us with not only “another kind of cinema,” but also “another way of looking at cinema” and its relationship to the nation.

The final two chapters in this part turn to the broader question of the relationship between Chinese and global cinema. First, Michael Berry examines the increasingly complicated interpenetration of China’s film industry with that of global Hollywood. He argues that this convergence of China and Hollywood assumes many forms—ranging from Chinese remakes of Hollywood films to foreign financial investment in Chinese productions—with the result being a wide-ranging, and ongoing, reassessment of conventional assumptions regarding what constitutes “Chinese cinema.” Finally, Pheng Cheah considers an inverse set of questions about the relationship between Chinese and “global cinema,” arguing that Jia Zhangke’s 賈樟柯 2006 film about the Three Gorges Dam relocations, Still Life (三峡好人), may be seen as an example of global cinema insofar as it attempts to present the world with an image of China (e.g., displaced migrant workers) that the government has attempted to keep from view. Drawing on Martin Heidegger’s concept of the “world picture”—which posits that the act of conceiving the world as a virtual picture implies a gesture of epistemological mastery over that which it contains—Cheah argues that Jia’s film underscores a paradox wherein global cinema’s attempts to represent and “give voice” to marginalized peoples may, by reducing the world to the status of a figurative “picture,” be unwittingly reinforcing the very conditions of global inequality that have contributed to that marginalization in the first place. Contending that Still Life manages to sidestep the reductive consequences inherent in Heidegger’s logic of the “world picture,” Cheah proposes that the film instead presents a vision of the world as shaped by forces of contingency, in which “radical chance is that which lets a new world come amid the ruined one made by globalization.”

We may apply a similar logic to the historical origins of Chinese cinema itself. The iconic 1905 photograph of Tan Xinpei performing scenes from Dingjun Mountain, for instance, functions as a potent emblem of the various historical contingencies—such as the fire that later destroyed the only existing print of the film, from which the photograph is derived—that have helped shape our contemporary understanding and perception of the field as a whole. A comparable point may be made about several of the specific historical narratives discussed here. Bu Wancang’s Love and Duty, for instance, was long feared lost and was not rediscovered until 1994, while most of the Manchurian films produced in the 1930s and 1940s are now effectively inaccessible in China. Given the inherent fragility of the filmic medium, combined with the political and social turmoil that engulfed China (p. 10) throughout much of the twentieth century, our view of Chinese film history is necessarily shaped by a myriad of historical contingencies. The Tan Xinpei photograph, accordingly, stands as a powerful reminder that a different configuration of these constituencies would likely have generated an alternative view of Chinese cinema’s past, while also having consequential ramifications for the directions it might yet take in the future.


In addition to the Tan Xinpei photograph discussed above, there is also another sense in which a vision of Ren Qingtai’s 1905 film remains available today. In 2000, the New York–based filmmaker Ann Hu 胡安 made her directorial debut with the feature film Shadow Magic (西洋鏡), which presents a fictionalized restaging of the circumstances surrounding the production of Ren’s film, together with re-creations of clips from the original work. The result is a contemporary production that uses a combination of Chinese and foreign funding to re-create a seminal moment from the very beginning of Chinese film history.

Ann Hu’s film presents Liu Zhonglun4—whose biological father in the film wears glasses with thick lenses (see fig. 1.2)—torn between three surrogate father figures: Ren Qingtai, who owns the photography studio where Liu works; an amateur British filmmaker named Raymond, who is in Beijing screening his films and for whom Liu begins to moonlight; and Tan Xinpei, with whose daughter Liu becomes romantically involved over the course of the film. Liu’s attempts to calibrate his relationship with these different father figures allegorically rehearses his concurrent efforts to negotiate his relationship with the visual paradigms they each represent (i.e., photography, cinema, and Beijing opera), suggesting that Liu is struggling to negotiate his position not only between different representational forms and practices, but also between distinct modes of seeing the world and his position in it.

IntroductionChinese Cinemas and the Art of Extrapolation

Figure 1.2 The father of Liu Zhonglun’s character in Ann Hu’s Shadow Magic (2000)

(p. 11) While Part I is structured around historical periodizations, Part II focuses on cinematic taxonomies based on formal affinities. The latter include not only conventional cinematic genres like opera film and martial-arts film, but also categories of works whose formal characteristics are directly influenced by their specific medium of production. Works conceived and produced for television, cell phone screens, or the independent film festival circuit, for instance, tend to have recognizable features that distinguish them from each other as well as from 35 mm feature films produced primarily for theatrical release. While some of these formal categories flourished at specific historical moments, others have persisted throughout much or all of the history of Chinese cinema, and consequently this part’s focus on formal affinities offers a different perspective on the historicity of Chinese cinema than that generated by the sorts of period-based analyses found in Part I.

The opening pair of chapters in this second part examine categories of works that are the product of a synergistic interrelationship between cinema and other representational media. Stephen Teo begins by noting that Chinese opera film, despite having hitherto received comparatively little attention in the West, has actually been of critical importance within the history of Chinese cinema. He argues that Chinese opera film has consistently provided a testing ground for many key technological advances within Chinese cinema—including the introduction of color and synchronized sound, not to mention the development of cinema itself—and furthermore the genre literally stages some of the central tensions between foreign and indigenous cultural practice located at the heart of conventional visions of Chinese cinema itself. Teo contends that, unlike other genres—which frequently needed to be granted Chinese characteristics, or be “sinified,” in order to thrive in China—opera film was instead already too sinified, and it was precisely this intensely sinitic quality that helps to explain both the popularity of the opera film, in its heyday, and its subsequent marginalization. Next, Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh considers a category of work known in Chinese as wenyi pian (文藝片), or “wenyi pictures.” Derived from a term that literally means “arts and letters,” the phrase wenyi pian originally referred to films that had been adapted from literary works (particularly ones of Western origin), and carried connotations of progressive worldliness. Yeh not only presents a “short history” of this distinctively Chinese genre, she also surveys some of the historical treatments of the genre, including attempts to subsume the wenyi picture under the familiar Western category of melodrama. Both opera film and wenyi film, therefore, are paradigmatically Chinese categories whose fate is inextricably linked with that of the Western genres with which they are in dialogue.

The next two chapters examine cinematic categories that foreground overtly political considerations. First, Ban Wang looks at the genre of the revolutionary war film, focusing on a pair of Chinese works dealing with the Korean War. In contrast to Shanggan Ridge (上甘岭, 1956), which he suggests is a more conventional revolutionary war film that stresses physical combat and national pride, Wang argues that Heroic Sons and Daughters (英雄兒女)—released in 1964, several years after the war had already concluded—obeys a rather different logic, using an emphasis on personal narrative and transnational kinship ties to promote a vision of third-world internationalism. Gary Xu (p. 12) then turns to a subcategory of what we might call “Maoist film,” and specifically cinema from the latter half of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). While films from this period are frequently discounted on account of their overtly propagandistic nature, Xu instead proposes a more nuanced understanding of this political logic, arguing that some works encourage a noncoercive emotional identification with their protagonists by deploying a quality of what he calls “affective edification.” In his analysis of the 1974 film Bright Sunny Sky (艶陽天), for instance, Xu notes how the work uses a thematics of kinship love as a stand-in for romantic love, which in turn is itself a stand-in for the emotional bonds underlying “the imagined big revolutionary family of collectivism.” Like Ban Wang, therefore, Xu demonstrates how some examples of highly politicized genres like those of the revolutionary war film and the Cultural Revolution film use a thematics of kinship attachments as a screen against which to explore some of the national and transnational implications of the genres themselves.

The following two chapters turn to a pair of cinematic categories that revolve around an interest in issues of corporeality and desire. Michael Eng examines the genre of the kung fu action film, which came to prominence in Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution period. Taking as his starting point the genre’s repetitive and formulaic treatment of vengeance against the backdrop of the male body, Eng argues that this repetitiveness may be seen as a symptom of Hong Kong’s unresolved legacy of colonial modernity and its attendant sense of racial melancholia. Next, Sean Metzger considers the category of queer cinema, or films characterized by a focus on homoerotic topics and themes, though Metzger’s interest here lies not so much in the actual contents of the works in question as in the transnational networks through which the works are distributed. He argues that this category of queer cinema has destabilizing implications for the presumptive national frameworks within which the works in question are assumed to be positioned. While Ban Wang and Gary Xu look at how a thematics of kinship underlies the ostensibly political focus of some war and Cultural Revolution films, therefore, Eng and Metzger instead examine the political and ideological implications of categories of works defined by their attention to corporeal and sexual issues.

The next pair of chapters consider two other politically inflected categories of works that, like Metzger’s queer cinema, are shaped by their networks of distribution. Yingjin Zhang examines the politics of contemporary independent documentaries. Drawing on Edward Soja’s concept of Thirdspace to identify a region between what Manuel Castells calls a “space of flows” and a “space of places,” Zhang considers the translocal dimension of post-1980s Chinese documentaries, suggesting that this translocality provides a bridge between the specificity of places and broader networks of distribution and consumption. Ying Zhu then surveys recent trends in Mainland Chinese historical tele-dramas, arguing that these multiepisode, made-for-television movies offer a sensitive barometer of shifting political attitudes within contemporary China. Zhu focuses on the emergence of what she dubs “officialdom dramas”—which cynically present a vision of official corruption as pervasive and inevitable. Though mutually opposed in ideological terms, therefore, Chinese tele-dramas and independent documentaries both closely track the interface between official and popular attitudes on sociopolitical topics.

(p. 13) The final two chapters in this part look at categories of works informed by their use of specific representational media. Audrey Yue examines the comparatively new phenomenon of large-screen productions in China. While the most widely viewed of these productions is almost certainly Zhang Yimou’s 張藝謀 opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympics—which featured thousands of live actors performing on and around the world’s largest (147m by 22m) scrolling LED display and was viewed by a global audience estimated at around two billion—Yue focuses primarily on Zhang’s Impression Series (2004–2010), which consisted of five government-commissioned outdoor performances that all incorporate large-screen projections. Noting that these latter works have earned more than five times as much as the total U.S. box-office gross of Zhang’s six most-successful feature films combined, Yue explains how these large-screen productions have “produced new modes of spectatorships, structures of media convergence, and practices of social inclusion.” Paola Voci then turns to the inverse phenomenon of small-screen cinema, or short works that circulate over the Internet and are typically viewed on a computer or mobile device, arguing that this nascent phenomenon encourages a more active and engaged form of cinematic spectatorship whereby viewers are encouraged to actively manipulate and redistribute the works they watch. Voci argues, however, that this sort of interactivity is not unique to small-screen cinema; instead it illustrates some of the unrealized possibilities implicit in mainstream cinema. Although the large- and small-screen technologies that Yue and Voci discuss here are both relatively new, the distinctive qualities of large-screen and small-screen cinemas that they explore in their respective chapters are not unique to these specific media but rather offer a glimpse of alternate potentialities that were always already present within Chinese cinema as a whole.

IntroductionChinese Cinemas and the Art of Extrapolation

Figure 1.3 Liu Zhonglun’s character, with the new camera lens obtained from his father

Some of these alternate visions of cinematic spectatorship are hinted at near the end of Ann Hu’s Shadow Magic, when Liu Zhonglun’s father learns that his son needs a new lens for his film projector and resolves to help him acquire one by exchanging one of the lenses from his own eyeglasses (see fig. 1.3). With the newly fixed projector, Liu then proceeds to screen a short film for his community. Significantly, this final sequence of (p. 14) Ann Hu’s movie features a screening not of Tan Xinpei performing Dingjun Mountain (the work that is the ostensible focus of the movie as a whole), but rather of footage Liu had shot of his own Beijing neighbors. The spectators in this final sequence therefore see themselves on screen, suggesting that the new projector lens helps resolve not only Liu’s relationship to his various father figures, but also his neighbors’ perception of themselves. Read allegorically, this scene implies that Liu Zhonglun’s struggle to choose between different father figures has ramifications for his position within competing representational practices, as well as for the ways in which his future audiences will come to perceive their own position within the world.


In 2006, six years after the release of Ann Hu’s Shadow Magic, China-based director An Zhanjun 安戰軍 released his own cinematic re-creation of the events leading up to the production of Ren Qingtai’s 1905 film. Entitled Dingjun Mountain and produced as part of the centenary celebration of the birth of Chinese cinema, An Zhanjun’s film rehearses the same basic narrative depicted in Shadow Magic, though from a different perspective.

IntroductionChinese Cinemas and the Art of Extrapolation

Figure 1.4 Ren Qingtai filming himself in An Zhanjun’s Dingjun Mountain (2006)

In An Zhanjun’s film, for instance, Ren Qingtai’s character plays a more prominent role than he does in Ann Hu’s version, actively canvassing Tan Xinpei to convince him to perform for the camera. At one point, Ren even films himself dressed up in Tan’s Dingjun Mountain performance costume (see fig. 1.4)—and this portrayal of a filmmaker acting in his own film while his desired actor observes as a spectator speaks not so much to the historical status of the original recording of Dingjun Mountain as to the processes (p. 15) of production, distribution, and reception within which the original film was positioned. Not only do we see Tan Xinpei and others watching a short film that Ren Qingtai produced in preparation for filming Dingjun Mountain, we also find here an implicit commentary on the institutional processes by which a work is deemed to be “complete” in the first place (insofar as the former recording is presented as a mere rehearsal subsequently forgotten by history, while the latter is presented as an iconic film whose legend would outlive even the physical print itself). This scene, in other words, underscores not only the historicity of the original Dingjun Mountain production and its status as an opera film, but also the array of structural elements involved in the work’s production, distribution, and reception.

Cinema consists not merely of individual films, but also of the broader cinematic apparatus within which they are positioned—including the technical and institutional elements underlying the works themselves, together with the matrix of beliefs and assumptions that help shape how works are both produced and received. While Parts I and II of this volume are structured around historical and formal taxonomies, Part III takes as its starting point various structural elements involved in cinema’s production, distribution, and reception. In particular, in this part we examine some of the technical, conventional, and institutional factors that inform how works are produced, circulated, and consumed.

The opening three chapters in this part focus on key elements of cinematic production: acting, directing, and the sound track. First, Jason McGrath compares the acting techniques associated with early cinema with those found in traditional Chinese opera. McGrath argues that the dramatic contrast between stage and film acting conventions reflects a tension between the emphasis on abstract semiosis within Chinese opera and cinema’s comparatively greater reliance on direct mimesis. He notes that while this emphasis on mimetic performance is partially grounded in film-specific techniques such as that of the close-up, it must also be viewed within the context of a broader early twentieth-century interest in realism across a wide range of media, including stage performance. Next, James Tweedie returns to the question, discussed from a different perspective by Song Hwee Lim, of the distinctiveness and consequences of Taiwan’s New Cinema movement, focusing on the movement’s notorious emphasis on the figure of the directorial auteur. Building on a close reading of Edward Yang’s 楊德昌 1985 film Taipei Story (青梅竹馬), Tweedie returns to the early auteur theory of François Truffaut to argue that an auteur’s cinematic vision is, somewhat counterintuitively, most clearly visible in a film’s mise-en-scène—and in Edward Yang’s works this mise-en-scène specifically reflects the director’s architectural vision of a modern, and increasingly cosmopolitan, Taiwan. Finally, Darrell William Davis considers the role of music in film. Noting that cinema consists not only of images but also of sound (even before synched sound technology was popularized in the 1930s, film screenings were often accompanied by live musical accompaniment), Davis argues that the relationship between sound and image in cinema may be described as a “marriage of convenience,” wherein some films aspire to an integration of music and narrative, while others contain songs that may function independently of the visual narrative.

(p. 16) The following two chapters turn to some of the institutional settings within which Chinese films have been released and distributed. First, Zhiwei Xiao examines practices of regulation and censorship as they pertain to the early decades of Chinese cinema—focusing on how rules designed for theatrical and operatic performances were adopted and modified for cinematic screenings. While discussions of Maoist-era and post-Mao PRC cinema frequently stress issues of political censorship, Xiao demonstrates how regulatory regimes during the early twentieth century were driven more by practical and institutional considerations than by explicitly political ones. Laikwan Pang then turns to Chinese film policy during the first three years of the People’s Republic—between 1949 and 1952, when China’s film industry was fully nationalized. Like Yomi Braester in Part I and Gary Xu in Part II, Pang challenges a simplistic vision of Maoist-era cinema as being narrowly ideological and instead argues that in the early 1950s films representing a wide variety of orientations and perspectives were not only permitted but even encouraged. In particular, China’s film industry during this transitional period reflected the tensions between Beijing’s attempts to actively shape cultural production and the continued influence of the nation’s still largely autonomous film production companies.

The next three chapters consider ways in which films depict different kinds of social collectives. Rey Chow examines the position of “woman” in a wide range of Chinese-language films from the early twentieth century to the present, Louisa Schein considers the role of ethnographic elements in a variety of contemporary works from feature films to documentaries to privately produced videos, and Andy Rodekohr looks at how the figure of the “crowd” has been mobilized in works from the early twentieth century to the present. Even as each of these chapters grapples with the question of how films attempt to represent an amorphous social collective (i.e., “woman,” “ethnic minorities,” and “the crowd”), they simultaneously underscore the role of cinema in helping to shape and redefine popular understandings of these categories themselves. One of the concerns that all three chapters share involves the relationship between a politics of representation, on one hand, and an ethics of self-presentation and self-perception, on the other.

The next pair of chapters examines cinema’s position at the interstices between different national traditions and representational media. First, Kwai-Cheung Lo returns to the issue of transnational coproductions that Poshek Fu touches on in his chapter in Part I. Lo examines midcentury cinematic production within the context of the competing discourses of “Asia(nism),” arguing that the evanescent ideal of Asia provides a figurative screen against which a complex network of regional and political antagonisms and alliances is played out. Next, Eugene Wang considers the relationship between cinema and other representational media, including painting and photography, during the post–Cultural Revolution period. While many discussions of 1980s Chinese films tend to emphasize the increasingly cinematic quality of these works (which was made possible by shifts in cinematic training and funding following the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution), Wang argues that many of the formal innovations associated with this period were actually developed at the interstices of cinema and other media such as painting and the graphic novel. Both Lo and Wang, therefore, approach “Chinese (p. 17) cinema” by focusing, somewhat counterintuitively, on works that diverge from conventional assumptions of what is “Chinese” or “cinematic” in the first place.

The following two chapters explore different forms of cinematic repetition. Ying Qian examines different approaches to documentary filmmaking, and particularly the relationship between documentaries that incorporate actual historical footage and others that instead feature reenactments of historical events. Focusing on the 1950 Sino-Soviet coproduction Victory of the Chinese People (中國人民的勝利) (which is regarded as the Chinese Communist Party’s first color documentary) and the 1949 documentary film Million Heroes Crossing the Yangtze (百萬雄獅下江南), Qian compares how both works present the same historical event (the Battle of Liaoshen, from China’s recently concluded civil war)—with the former relying entirely on reenactments and the latter using documentary footage of the actual battle. Qian then reflects more generally on the assumptions about realism and reality embedded within the genre of the documentary, together with how Victory helped lay the groundwork for the cinematic practice, in the early decades of the PRC, of what was referred to as “documenting the future.” Next, Yiman Wang turns to a parallel phenomenon wherein films restage not historical events but rather other films. In particular, Wang considers the increasingly popular practice of remaking Hollywood films as Chinese-language productions, which she views in the context of a Chinese pursuit of the Hollywood-inspired dapian (大片), or blockbuster. Wang argues that the resulting emergence of a cinema with “Chinese elements” further underscores the free-floating nature of the qualifier Chinese, as it functions here not in a linguistic or geopolitical sense but rather as a product of the global circulation of culture and capital.

The parallel phenomena Qian and Wang describe in their respective essays come together in An Zhanjun’s 2006 Dingjun Mountain, which is both an unwitting remake of Ann Hu’s 2000 film Shadow Magic5 and a reenactment of the historical circumstances surrounding Ren Qingtai’s 1905 filming of Dingjun Mountain. These twin processes of repetition and reenactment are foregrounded particularly clearly in the sequence in which Tan Xinpei watches a short recording of Ren Qingtai playing Tan’s own title role from the opera Dingjun Mountain—in which we see Ren Qingtai performing opera scenes for which Tan Xinpei is himself famous, in hopes of convincing Tan to act out the same scenes for the camera. The operatic work derives its identity from a process of constant repetition—with each individual performance building off of the work’s prior performative history. In this scene from An Zhanjun’s film, meanwhile, we find the Ren Qingtai character restaging a scene from the famous Beijing opera, precisely in order to convince Tan Xinpei to translate his own title role into a different medium, which he ultimately does in one of the final sequences of the film (see fig. 1.5). Each act of citation and repetition, therefore, reaffirms the authority of the earlier work or tradition while at the same time creating a space for potential change and innovation—just as each intervention within the field of Chinese cinema similarly reaffirms the field’s perceived status and authority while simultaneously setting the stage for its inevitable transformation.

IntroductionChinese Cinemas and the Art of Extrapolation

Figure 1.5 A screening of a film screening in An Zhanjun’s Dingjun Mountain

One of the ironic twists in An Zhanjun’s film, meanwhile, is that the actor who plays Tan Xinpei is actually the historical Tan Xinpei’s own grandson, Tan Yuanshou 譚元壽. (p. 18) A member of a multigenerational line of opera performers, Tan Yuanshou is presented here as “representing” his grandfather in two discrete senses of the term—simultaneously playing the part of his grandfather (and of the Beijing opera characters on which his grandfather’s reputation was grounded) while also literally standing in for his famous ancestor. The 2006 film’s depiction of Tan Xinpei agreeing to perform (for Ren Qingtai’s camera) the Dingjun Mountain role for which he is now famous, therefore, directly mirrors his grandson Tan Yuanshou’s subsequent decision to perform (for An Zhanjun’s camera) the role of the grandfather on whom his family’s fame is partially grounded. Like the poignant scene of acute (mis)recognition in Love and Duty, in which Ruan Lingyu plays a double role of both a mother reencountering long-lost daughter and the daughter who fails to recognize her own mother, this scene in Dingjun Mountain presents a startling moment of intergenerational desire and identification. The result is a decidedly queer moment in which the (diegetic) opera performer’s desire to performatively enact the figure he sees on screen comes full circle with the (real life) actor’s decision to performatively enact the role of his own grandfather (see fig. 1.6).

IntroductionChinese Cinemas and the Art of Extrapolation

Figure 1.6 Tan Yuanshou performing the role of his grandfather Tan Xinpei in An Zhanjun’s Dingjun Mountain

There is a similar scene of interfamilial desire and projective identification near the end of Tsai Ming-liang’s 蔡明亮 1997 film The River (河流), in which a father and son unwittingly have sex with one another in a dark bathhouse—each initially believing the other to be a stranger. In the final chapter of this volume, I use a detailed reading of this notorious scene to reexamine some of the implications of the concept of suture—or the process by which a viewer figuratively sutures him- or herself into a cinematic text by identifying with an embedded gaze within the work itself. I argue that the scene stages a crisis of recognition that simultaneously underscores and undermines one of the dominant spectatorial logics of cinema itself. That is to say, the scene illustrates not only the urge for human connection that underlies cinematic spectators’ attempts to figuratively (p. 19) insert themselves into the diegetic space of a film, but also the necessary possibility that this process of projective identification may fail. I conclude, however, that the film presents this perspectival failure as something productive and enabling, insofar as it opens up new and more complicated spaces of identification and self-understanding.

If cinema is understood as the art of extrapolation, we may by extension regard suture as a model for the process of bridging the gap not only between spectator and a specific work, but also between individual observers and a broader cinematic field. It is precisely because we feel a desire to relate in some way to a perceived body of work that we ultimately affirm, or reaffirm, the extrapolative logic that undergirds the field’s status as a coherent cultural body. In the case of Chinese cinema, the extrapolative logic that knits the cinematic field together is a product of an array of fluid and contingent processes that are cloaked in a sheen of necessity. By interrogating these various processes, we not only derive a better understanding of the constitution of the field as currently conceived, we may also catch a glimpse of some of the alternate directions that it might once have taken or may yet take. Or, to put this another way, by underscoring some of the uncanny and even incestuous dynamics generated when the field’s incommensurate vectors of desire and identification come into tension with one another, we may productively reassess and reimagine some of the “family resemblances” on which our current vision of the field of Chinese cinemas is tacitly grounded.

Works Cited

Gao Qiao 高橋 and An Zhanjun 安戰軍. “Dingjun Shan: 100 nian laihui” 《定軍山》 100 年來回 [Dingjun Mountain: Back and forth over a century]. Dazhong dianying 大眾電影 [Popular cinema] 24 (2005)

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China. Vol. 4, Physics and Physical Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.Find this resource:


(1.) For more on the doubts about the reliability of the claim that Dingjun Mountain was China’s first film, see the discussion in Voci’s chapter in this volume.

(2.) According to Xijing zaji (西京雜記) [Record of the Western capital], Ding Huan lived at the end of the Western Han. Many contemporary English-language sources, however, follow Joseph Needham, who incorrectly states that Ding Huan was active around 180 CE (which is more than a century and a half after the fall of the Western Han). See Needham Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, vol. 4, Physics and Physical Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 123–124.

(4.) All of the characters in the film appear under names that are slightly different from those of the historical figures on whom they are based. For the sake of convenience, here and below I use the names of the historical figures in discussing the fictionalized characters whom they inspired.

(5.) An Zhanjun was aware of the existence of Ann Hu’s film although, somewhat oddly, he appears not to have watched the work itself (in an interview, for instance, he incorrectly claims that Hu’s film focuses not on the making of Dingjun Mountain but on the initial introduction of film into China in 1901). See Gao Qiao 高橋 and An Zhanjun 安戰軍, “Dingjun Shan: 100 nian laihui” 《定軍山》 100 年來回 [Dingjun Mountain: Back and forth over a century], Dazhong dianying 大眾電影 [Popular cinema] 24 (2005).