Cinema in China prior to WWI

A Case Study of West-Eastern Culture Transfer

by Meimei Xu (Author)
©2020 Thesis 290 Pages


This book looks at the earliest history of exhibiting firms in China at the turn of the
century. The spread of cinema in China as a continuation of the lantern tradition is
contextualized and conventionalized in the late Qing sociopolitical milieu, featuring
a strong foreign monopoly and regional imbalance. However, the key element for
cinema’s development in China is Chinese audience per se.
“The book has produced something truly remarkable and tremendous.”
—Frank Bren
“The work offers a lot of new insights into the history of the cinema in China. Though
the film business was brought from abroad to the mainland, the candidate was never
nationalistic in her approach to the phenomenon of foreign entertainment in China.”
—Wolfgang Kubin
“The author painstakingly combed through a large number of historical newspapers,
especially English-language newspapers published both in and outside China, and
pieced together a convincing picture of the earliest history of Chinese cinema.”
—Xuelei Huang

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Convention and Abbreviations
  • Abstract
  • Zusammenfassung
  • Summary
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Magic Lantern, 1843–1897
  • 1.1. Yingxi: A Semantics Retrospect
  • 1.2. Magic Lantern
  • 1.2.1. Lantern exhibitions: pre-screen stage
  • 1.2.2. Lantern exhibitions: booming stage
  • 1.2.3. Lantern’s three functional models
  • 1.2.4. Lantern’s localization strategies
  • 1.3. Lantern and Cinema
  • 1.3.1. Cinema as an advanced modification of lantern
  • 1.3.2. Cinema as a subject
  • Chapter 2. Itinerant Exhibitors, 1897–1899
  • 2.1. Film Exhibitions in 1897
  • 2.1.1. Spreading route and the “first” exhibition
  • 2.1.2. Teahouses vs. Western halls: exhibitions in Shanghai
  • 2.1.3. Exhibitions beyond Shanghai: Hong Kong and Tianjin
  • 2.1.4. Makeshift theaters
  • 2.2. Film Activities in 1898
  • 2.3. Exhibitions in 1899
  • Chapter 3. War Cameramen, 1900–1905
  • 3.1. Film Exhibitions→Shooting Practice: Bioscope and War Reportage
  • 3.2. Boxer Rebellion
  • 3.2.1. Cameramen to China in Boxer time
  • 3.2.2. Staged Boxer films
  • 3.3. Russo-Japanese War
  • 3.3.1. Cinema as propaganda tool and Siege of Port Arthur
  • 3.3.2. Fake war films
  • 3.4. Chinese Image and Yellow Peril
  • Chapter 4. Incipient Film Industry, 1906–1911
  • 4.1. Cinematograph Exhibitions
  • 4.2. Formative Film Industry
  • 4.2.1. Film pioneers
  • 4.2.2. Movie theaters in Shanghai
  • 4.2.3. Cinematograph companies
  • 4.3. Cinema in China After 1906
  • 4.3.1. Anecdotes, theaters and film market status quos
  • 4.3.2. Southeast cities and Arcade Film Company in North China
  • Chapter 5. Chinese Film Production, 1912–1914
  • 5.1. Exhibitions
  • 5.2. Chinese as Film Audiences: Li Hongzhang, Duan Fang, and Wu Tingfang
  • 5.3. Chinese as Film Amateurs: Ching Ling Foo and Mooser brothers
  • 5.4. The Beginning of Chinese Film Production
  • 5.4.1. Benjamin Brodsky: film mogul in the Orient
  • 5.4.2. Chinese film production: Asiatic Company and China Cinema Company
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix I: Tables
  • Appendix II: Filmography
  • Figures and Charts
  • Bibliography
  • List of Primary Source Materials

Convention and Abbreviations

1. Chinese characters are provided for all Chinese names, terms, and titles in the main text when they first appear. Afterwards, characters are given only when I deem necessary for ease of reference or other reasons.

2. In this thesis I use cinematograph to refer to the general movie machines, including projector and camera. In the early stage, short films are also called titles or views.

3. The following abbreviations are used in the text and notes:


This book delineates cinema in China prior to WWI into five periods and interprets this section of history under references of up-to-date early film theories. The spreading of cinema is treated as a continuation of the lantern tradition, and is contextualized and conventionalized in the late Qing sociopolitical milieu. It synchronizes with the colonial process and Manchu government’s progressive reforms. The central argument here is that early cinema in China shows a developmental pattern, which bears a high similarity to Jean Piaget’s knowledge development, and is characteristic of intermediality and internationality. From a mechanic novelty to a mass medium, to a profitable commodity, although cinema in China begins as an attachment to other existing entertainments, after about two decades’ development its subjectivity has already been secured and an incipient film industry is formed in pre-war era, featuring a strong foreign monopoly and regional imbalance.


Hinsichtlich des Kinos in China vor Erstem Weltkrieg müssen vielen Themen neu überdacht werden. Nach Filmausstellungstätigkeiten werden fünf geschichtliche Perioden zusammengefasst, um ein überblickendes Bild von diesem Teil der Geschichte zu präsentieren: 1. „laterna magica“ (1843–1897), 2. Die Wanderschauspieler (1897–1899), 3. Kameraleute (1900–1905), 4. Die beginnende Filmindustrie (1906–1911), 5. Die chinesische Filmproduktion (1912–1914). Folglich konstruiert jede Periode ein Kapitel von dieser Arbeit.


In regards cinema in China prior to WWI, many issues need to be rethought. According to film exhibition activities, with a view of delineating this section of history I map out five major periods: magic lantern (1843–1897), itinerant exhibitors (1897–1899), cameramen (1900–1905), incipient film industry (1906–1911) and Chinese film production (1912–1914). Consequently, each period constructs a chapter of this study.


Cinema in China prior to WWI has long been ignored. Most Chinese film historians treat this period as cinema in its infancy and merely a starting point for the coming Chinese film industry. This evolutionary view heavily impedes the justification of pre-WWI cinema as a self-sufficient subject. A systematic account of early cinema on its own right is therefore missing. The history of two decades’ late Qing cinema is abbreviated into three “firsts,” i.e. “When was cinema first introduced to Chinese?” “What was the first Chinese film?” “How did Chinese film production begin?”1 Accordingly, three standard answers were given in Zhongguo dianying fazhanshi 中國電影發展史 (ZDFZS, 1963), by far still the most authoritative and influential work in regard of Chinese film history.2

Along with the re-discovery of early cinema after the legendary 1978 Brighton Conference, this kind of abbreviation and concentration on “firsts” has become problematic. Cinema in its earliest years features an evident “attraction” and forms a sharp contrast to the later classical Hollywood cinema, which dominates the traditional film study for a considerable long period and as a rule has shaped the general film views, with an emphasis on “narration.” From the viewpoint of film industry, it is film exhibition that ultimately defines the overall picture of early cinema. In this sense, early cinema forms a unique system of film institutions that requires special perspectives, methodologies and theories.

In regarding cinema in China, the situation is more complicated. Given the colonial and imperial circumstances, China is mainly a recipient of the nascent ←19 | 20→cinema. The history of cinema in China is therefore strongly contextualized by the late Qing sociopolitical milieu. Designed initially as a form of entertainment exclusively for foreign residents in this part of world, the spreading of cinema in China synchronizes with the expansion of international settlements. In the eyes of Chinese, cinema is associated with “foreign devil” from the very beginning. Early film exhibition takes the form of itinerant shows, featuring mobility and intermediality. It enables cinema’s appearances on various occasions (e.g. illustrated lectures, magic shows, private banquets, etc.). As the Boxer Rebellion and the following Russo-Japanese war disrupt film exhibitions, the focus of film activities in China turns to shooting practices. Dozens of foreign cameramen are dispatched to China for recording war scenes. Through the wars, allied forces increased their powers in China rapidly and a large number of concessions are ceded, which in turn creates a huge demand on popular entertainments. Consequently, film entrepreneurs from a wide variety of nationalities rush in, monopolize picture businesses and build an incipient film industry within a short period. At the beginning of the Republic of China 中華民國 (1911–1928), the government makes an obvious effort to nationalize film market, but the coming WWI soon put an end to it.

The aim of this study is twofold. The first is to fill the blank and present a systematic narration of early cinema in China prior to WWI. To better illustrate as well as to gain a profound understanding on this section of history, the time span of this study is purposely extended to include the pre-cinema stage, in which magic lantern, with half a century’s exhibition practices, paves the way for the arrival of cinema. The second aim is to interpret this part of history from the perspective of Jean Piaget’s knowledge development. Early cinema in China embodies an evident developmental pattern, showing how the nascent cinema progressively unfolds its potentials as a technological invention, a mass medium as well as a commodity, and successfully roots in the Chinese soil. Despite the conspicuous foreign monopoly and the unilateral spreading pattern, the key element for cinema’s development in China is Chinese audience per se.

When Was Film First Introduced to Chinese?

On 11 August 1896, at “Youyicun 又一村” teahouse in Shanghai-based Xu Garden 徐園, “Western Shadow play 西洋影戲” was exhibited. It is the first cinematograph exhibition in China.3

While Lumière Brothers’ first public exhibition of cinema on Dec. 28, 1895 at Grand Café in Paris marks the official beginning of cinema, a “starting point” ←20 | 21→of Chinese cinema is also given in ZDFZS. According to it, the first cinematograph exhibition in China was given on Aug. 11, 1896 at Xu Garden in Shanghai. Although similar assertions can be found in earlier film monographs, none of them achieves the wide recognition as ZDFZS does.4 ZDFZS’ success is mainly contributed by two facts. Firstly, as an official project, ZDFZS acquires an unprecedented amount of source materials. Secondly, in 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the writing group of ZDFZS energetically engages in a series of oversea cultural-exchange activities, which in turn increases its influences.5 Through the process, the assertion of Xu Garden becomes standardized. Nevertheless, the authority of ZDFZS has been challenged because of its “political correctness.” The Xu garden assertion is likely a reply to the political need, i.e. for the “face” of the nation. The date is therefore the earlier the better and the location is supposed to be a Chinese venue. Meanwhile, the Xu garden assertion is formed through a gradual process rather than a firm conclusion based on hard evidences.6

In the field of Chinese film study, there is a trend of rewriting film history since 1980s. Along with this trend, a number of film works are published and it enables a rethinking on this issue.7 Hong Kong film historian Yu Muyun 余慕雲explores the spreading route of early cinema and holds the opinion that cinema is introduced to Chinese, via Hong Kong to Shanghai. According to his research, the ←21 | 22→first film screening in Hong Kong was given in Jan. 1896.8 This fact puts the Xu garden assertion in question. Later, in an article titled Dianying chudao Shanghai kao 電影初到上海考 (A study of film’s introduction to Shanghai), the writer Huang Dequan 黃德泉 argues that the Xu garden screening is de facto a lantern exhibition. The exhibition is mistaken as a film screening because at that time cinematograph and magic lantern share the same Chinese name “yingxi 影戲” (Shadow play).9 According to Huang, the first film screening in China was given at Astor House Hotel, Shanghai in May 1897.10 More recently, a complete investigation on this issue is conducted by Frank Bren in Hong Kong Cinema: A Cross-cultural View, in which he constructs two models to illustrate the initial introduction of cinema in China, viz. “Hong Kong vs. Shanghai” and “Cinematograph vs. Animatoscope.” In regard of film introduction into China, the year 1897 is significant. In Apr. of this year, Maurice Charvet exhibited his Cinematograph at City Hall in Hong Kong, a British colony then. In May, Welby Cook exhibited his Animatoscope at Astor Hall in Shanghai. Under the coordination of Johnson Lewis, the manager of Astor Hotel, Charvet and Cook formed a trio-group in Jun. and marched northwards to Tianjin and Beijing. According to Frank Bren, this initial round of film exhibitions marks the real beginning of Chinese film history.11

From the culture study perspective, film introduction in 1897 is no accident. Shortly before cinema appeared in China, the Treaty of Shimonoseki 馬關條約was signed, marking the end of Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). Although Manchu government has suffered a series of military defeats since the first Opium war (1842), it is the recent Sino-Japanese War that essentially shakes the Sino-centric view.12 For the first time did Chinese awaken to the cruel reality that even Japan could trample China easily. The war exerted an enormous influence on the late Qing Chinese society. The conservative party (Qingliu 清流) began to loosen up the restriction of political reforms and many progressive Chinese devoted in westernizing and modernizing China. It hence created a friendly atmosphere for introducing foreign technological novelties, including cinema.

←22 | 23→

Rewrite Chinese Film History and Re-discover Early Cinema

Political regulations in mainland China are loosened up since 1980s along with the policy of Reform and Opening up 改革開放政策. Given the circumstance, a large number of film works are translated into Chinese. Accordingly, a trend of “rewriting history” emerges in the field of Chinese film study. As the most authoritative but ideologically controversial film work, ZDFZS is challenged in the first place. The focus is nevertheless on Chinese films from 1930s and 1940s.13 As a rule, cinema in China prior to WWI remains untouched, with an exception of the aforementioned three “firsts.” Standard answers to these “firsts” are increasingly questioned and issues like public space and urbanization begin to attract broader attention.14 Native researchers make an evident effort to “rewrite” early Chinese cinema. One hot spot is the study of foreign films in Chinese market, especially the formation of American monopoly in China. With the onset of WWI, continental countries are in succession drawn in the war. It ends the heretofore European domination and the era of classical Hollywood cinema begins. One prominent example is Xiao Zhiwei and Yin Hong’s collaborative project “Hollywood in China: 1897–1950.” Meanwhile, Wang Chaoguang publishes several articles about film censorship in the Republic of China. Although these studies bear no direct connection to the pre-war cinema in China, they provide some useful references and paradigms.

Retrospectively, the “rewriting” trend in China is an extension of the “re-discovery” of early cinema in English and French speaking countries, which emerged at the end of 1970s. While the “rewriting” Chinese film history only manages to push the study into 1920s and 1930s, the “re-discovery” focuses from the very beginning on the earliest years of cinema, i.e. the era of Thomas Edison, Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès, W. R. Paul, Pathé and so on. In the field of film study, silent cinema has remained “silent” for a considerable long period. For many traditional film historians, cinema in its infancy is merely a preparatory ←23 | 24→stage for the coming classical Hollywood cinema. The academic interest in early cinema is mainly initiated after the legendary Brighton Conference in 1978.15 In the conference, nearly six hundred pre-1907 films are screened, of which many are newly re-discovered and made available in new viewing prints.16 The conference ignites researchers’ passion for cinema before 1906 with a new appreciation of the variety and fascination of early films. According to Thomas Elsaesser, the event itself is no accident but “opened up by the revitalization of film theory during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and its subsequent (post-Saussurean, post-Lacanian, Post-modern) crises in the 1980s.”17

Before Brighton Conference, early cinema is usually simplified as the starting point for the account of a classic film history.18 The study of early cinema is therefore characteristic of archival works.19 As a rule, relevant interpretations and methodologies are missing. After the Conference, silent cinema becomes one of the liveliest research areas of film history. André Gaudreault identifies three productive areas, which revitalize early cinema study immediately: the genesis of cinematic language, problems of narratology and the evolution of editing.20 Film researchers also challenge and modify some general views regarding early cinema. They reach the consensus that early cinema should be treated as a “unique and distinct system from the ‘classical Hollywood’ cinema and other later cinemas.”21 In retrospect, Brighton Conference has nurtured the “re-discovery” ←24 | 25→of early cinema, which devotes full efforts to archivize, interpret and theorize cinema prior to WWI.

Around 1990, with the publication of a rich number of film works, there is a boom of early cinema study. These publications can be roughly categorized into two groups. The first group embodies the effort to rewrite, or rather, re-interpret early cinema. Two prominent examples are Charles Musser’s The Emergence of Cinema: the American Screen to 1907 and Eilleen Bowser’s The Transformation of Cinema 19071915.22 Based upon solid material sources, both works attempt to rethink early film history. The second group takes the form of essay collections.23 Among them, the most significant are Early Cinema, Space and Narrative and Film History: Theory and Practice.24 Both present a wide variety of perspectives and emphasize on the intermediality and internationality of early cinema. From 1990 onward, early cinema study expands into the fields of sociology and cultural studies. Douglas Gomery and Robert Allen, for instance, focus on early cinema’s mechanic dynamisms and social interactions. The association with culture study provides some “anti-mainstream” angles, such as feminist and minority studies. They focus on the spectatorship and the sociopolitical and cultural backgrounds.25 In this respect, an exemplary work is The Silent Cinema Reader (2004).26 In 2005, Richard Abel (ed.) published Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. This comprehensive work marks, to some extent, the maturity of early cinema study.

←25 | 26→

From the viewpoint of methodology, there are two most important models relevant to early cinema, i.e. Tom Gunning’s “attractive vs. narrative” and Charles Musser’s “screen practice.” Because of their referential importance to the study of early cinema in China, in the following section I will give a short account on these two models.

According to Tom Gunning, cinema before 1906 is by nature a “cinema of attraction.” Based on an analysis on early cinema’ narrative skills, Gunning argues that it is problematic to treat Lumière and Méliès’ films respectively as non-narrative and narrative since both have made efforts to show films in an “attractive” way. Early cinema is hence a cinema that bases itself on the quality/ability to show something. It differs essentially from the later montage-based Hollywood cinema that relies heavily on the voyeuristic aspect of narrative cinema.27 Tom Gunning defines early cinema as “cinema of an attraction” which “directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle—a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself.”28 He also argues that a transitional period exists between “cinema as an attraction” and “cinema as a narration.” The transition, according to him, is completed in most countries around 1907. In regard of early cinema in China, this transition can also be observed. Along with the improvement of narrative techniques, in large cities and trade ports, makeshift teahouses and variety theaters are gradually abandoned and permanent cinemas appear. Film genres also diversify. Feature length dramas and multiple-reel newsreels replace single-shot actualités. Trick films, short comedies and chase films become popular.

In contrast, Charles Musser intends to treat early cinema as a part of a broader “screen history.” According to him, “the practical use of screen technology was more important than the technology itself” and he redefines the subject of pre-cinema as a “screen practice.”29 According to him, screen practice begins “when the observer of projected\reflected images became the historically constituted subject we now call spectator.”30 The core of “screen practice” is “magic lantern tradition,” in which “showmen displayed images on a screen, accompanying them with voice, music, and sound effects.”31 Through the investigation on visual entertainments in the pre-cinema era, especially magic lantern, Musser argues ←26 | 27→that the invention of cinema is no accident but a result of several centuries’ screen practices. With the emphasis on the historical continuity of screen practices, the transformation from magic lantern to cinema is therefore a “dialectical process” and cinema is treated as “the creation of a new form of expression.”32

Musser’s “screen history” proves crucial for gaining a profound understanding on the beginning of film history. According to him, “Starting points always present problems for the historian.”33 Film experts like Jean-Louis Comolli suggest that questions like “when cinema was invented?” should be “annihilated.” Charles Musser disagrees with the total “annihilation” but agrees that there should be more than one standard answer. In China, starting points also intrigue Chinese film researchers. While ZDFZS’ exploration on three “firsts” is unsatisfactory, Musser’s perspective is particularly inspiring in this regard. It enables an investigation on the lantern tradition in China. In Chinese society, magic lantern is de facto the forerunner of cinema and half-century’s lantern practices (ca. 1843–1897) have laid a solid foundation for the coming cinema.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (July)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 290 p., 4 fig. col., 2 fig. b/w, 5 tables.

Biographical notes

Meimei Xu (Author)

Meimei Xu is a sinologist who currently works as an assistant professor at the school of Journalist and Communication in Nanjing University, China. She got her philosophical doctoral title from Bonn University, Germany.Her main research field is film study, pre-modern Chinese history and German media study. She published a number of peer-reviewed papers in academic journals and attended a wide range of international conferences. She recently published a translation work entitled Li Hongzhang in Western Press, and her ongoing project is about early Western variety troupes touring far East in the late 19th century.


Title: Cinema in China prior to WWI
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292 pages