Organizer: Yingjin Zhang, Indiana University, Bloomington
Chair and Discussant: Leo Ou fan Lee, Harvard University
The immediate goal of this back to back panel is to redress an imbalance created by the recent international success of the so called China's "Fifth Generation" by way of directing our scholarly attention to early Chinese cinema, an underdeveloped field of study which has been incorrectly categorized as predominantly "leftist" in its orientation. Drawing on the expertise of its contributors from such disciplines as history, literature, film studies, and ethnomusicology, this panel will study several hitherto untouched issues and situate the question of cinema and urban culture in its specific context in Republican China.
The first part of the panel deals with the cultural and historical conditions in which Chinese cinema came to prominence in the 1930s. Zhiwei Xiao's paper is an investigation, based on first hand archival research, of the function of the KMT film censorship in constructing a new national culture. The "national" in this case is investigated in relation to the "regional" (e.g., Cantonese dialect), the "international" (e.g., Hollywood sex scenes), as well as the "traditional" (e.g., superstition). Turning from government to film industry, Randolph Trumbull suggests that "the altar of images" (yingtan) functioned as a kind of "imagined community" which empowered the Chinese filmmakers to identify themselves with the distinctively Chinese tradition, as embodied in various notions of wentan (such as moral sanctity, ritual sacrifice, and ancestral worship). Once established, the altar of images became a discursive site where intellectual responsibility had to be constantly negotiated with regard to a wide range of political ideologies and popular cultural demands. Poshek Fu's paper brings us to a long neglected chapter in the history of Chinese film by arguing that entertainment cinema in wartime Shanghai (1937-1945) deserves special attention because it not only produced the "shared desires" of the time but also points to a set of typical strategies the filmmakers had to adopt in order to survive.
Although the second part of the panel is more focused on specific subjects and genres in film studies, it actually seeks to place cinema and urban culture in new perspectives. A pioneering study of the function of music in Chinese films of the 1930s, Sue Tuohy's paper uses the notion "cosmopolitan sound" to challenge an established view of the homogeneous "leftist" film and locates in film music of the time a wide range of conflicting ideals and models (e.g., Chinese folk songs, Hollywood musical). Returning to visual images, Yingjin Zhang contends that prostitution used to be a focal point in urban imagination, as demonstrated in Chinese film and literature of the early 20th century, and that the public presentation of the otherwise "unpresentable" (i.e., ill reputed and ill fated prostitutes)-as in Wu Yonggan's The Goddess (1934)-furnished Chinese filmmakers with a highly contested space where, for instance, the ethico moral legitimacy claimed by the elite intellectuals had to confront the Epicurean or voyeuristic tendency in mass audiences. Finally, through an analysis of two melodramatic films of nearly "epic" proportion, Paul Pickowicz seeks to answer the question why the postwar films of the late 1940s could be spectacular box office hits while dwelling so heavily on the emotionally distressing graphic details of wartime traumas and tragedies.
As a whole, this back to back panel will demonstrate that "watching electric shadows" (kan dianying) may turn out to be an intellectually challenging exercise for scholars of modern China. Since early Chinese cinema is a field left relatively unexplored in the West for historical as well as practical reasons, this panel will contribute greatly to the advancement of our knowledge of the cultural and intellectual history of modern China in general, and the history of Chinese cinema in particular.
R. Trumbull, Wellesley College
The term wentan, or "literary altar," seems to have been coined early on in the Tang dynasty. Ever since those days the high cultural community in China has referred to itself, and in some senses defined itself, by this suggestive phrase. What precisely does wentan mean? No simple answer is possible, partly because from its inception the term seems oddly to mix the military with the religious (Yutang yishi: "Emperor Minghuang said, 'Zhang Jiuling is the supreme commander of the literary altar'"; Lu Guimeng: "High priests of the literary altar resemble generals/Who are allowed to carry axes of jade."), and partly because over the centuries the word wentan has been used by so many people in so many different contexts. Nevertheless, one can quickly glimpse a few relevant fields of connotation when one remembers that in traditional China altars have been places where (i) one sanctifies one's bonds to a community, (ii) one prays, often in vain, that one's wishes might come true, (iii) one feeds the ancestral spirits, and (iv) one discovers the need to make painful sacrifices.
Historians have demonstrated the enduring appeal of a wentan in May Fourth China. The literary community formed by authors as unlike as Qu Qiubai, Lin Yutang, Lu Xun, Yu Dafu, Hu Shi, and Wen Yiduo interestingly seems to have been united by the old belief that responsible writers are obliged to serve China much as good monks are bound to dust off and maintain their venues of worship. Those writers in May Fourth China who were denounced by the wentan usually met with public disgrace on grounds entirely familiar within traditional contexts-for being insincere, for indulging their readership in gross, godless entertainment. That the guardians of the wentan protected this sacred intellectual territory in the name of Marxism, democracy, or scientific advancement instead of Confucianism is rightly portrayed in our histories as insignificant.
All of this relates to the development of cinema and the movie making industry in Republican China, as can be intuited from the fact that, early in the 1920s in Shanghai, the parallel term yingtan or "altar of images" came into use in reference to the local community of actors, screenwriters, directors, producers, and film critics. Who coined the term and when hardly matters. What matters to us as we study Shanghainese films from pre war days is the issue of how these artists created themselves as a community. In this paper I explore the gradual formation of the Shanghainese yingtan prior to the War of Resistance. Source materials will be gleaned from contemporary newspapers and magazines; from memoirs of actors, writers, directors; and of course from the films themselves. The questions at the core of my study will be: how did Chinese film-making challenge or capitulate to received notions of intellectual responsibility? to what extent did "China's Hollywood" represent a new and surreptitious form of hegemony, whereby the popular culture of frivolous America slipped past cultural watchdogs and into China? what role in the development of early cinema was played by the Shanghainese left wing, and why were they so slow in realizing this new genre's grip over middlebrow markets? and, how have early ideas about the yingtan influenced later film-making in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China?
Poshek Fu, Colgate University
Recently historians have begun to use film to explore the culture and society of Republican China. As a creative fusion of imagined and "real" conditions of collective existence, cinema is indeed a significant vehicle for approaching popular mentalities that enable a society to function. But the research has so far been focused largely on the periods before and after the War of Resistance (1937-1945). This lack of attention is due partly to the inaccessibility of films produced during the war and partly to an ideological bias against these films. Despite the military occupation by Japan, Shanghai remained the center of film-making throughout the war. It had produced over 200 feature films-including not a few technically and stylistically outstanding ones-during the occupation, and many of them had been exhibited not only in occupied regions in central and South China as well as in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, but also in unoccupied areas like Yenan and Chongqing. Moral confusion and political ambiguity characteristic of wartime occupation entered the process of film production there. Yet just because of this, the wartime Shanghai cinema has been denigrated collaborators and excluded from any official history of Chinese film. My paper attempts to redress this dismissal by reconstructing the cultural politics of the Shanghai film industry in the first phase of Japanese occupation.
Shanghai fell to Japan in November 1937. Until the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941, the city was subjected to only partial occupation. Its foreign areas-International Settlement and French Concession-remained administratively independent. Though free from direct Japanese control, the foreign areas were infested with political terrorism. Any overt act of political commitment was in danger of assassination. It was in this city of partial occupation that the Shanghai cinema quickly emerged from the war destruction and regained its prewar creative vigor. What were the political and business strategies the film industry employed to survive in a complicated, hostile environment? To what extent did it "cooperate" with the Japanese? What kind of "shared desires" did films made during this period represent? My paper will address these questions.
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