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Cinema in China prior to WWI

A Case Study of West-Eastern Culture Transfer

Meimei Xu

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 

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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...

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