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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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In the field of early cinema study, it is widely accepted that early cinema should be contextualized and conventionalized in its sociopolitical, economic, military and cultural milieu. The spreading of cinema in China prior to WWI is heavily influenced by the late Qing colonial context. Initially, film exhibitions are usually given by foreign travelling showmen in a sporadic and mobile way. This kind of instability and fluidity make them particularly vulnerable to late Qing social milieu. Major political and military events have considerable influences on exhibition activities. Boxer Rebellion and Russo-Japanese War, for instance, severely disrupt cinematograph exhibitions and large-scale film screenings are missing for about five years. The wars disrupt the initial film spreading. It is not until the end of Russo-Japanese War that film exhibitions resume and a quasi-film industry emerges in China.

In retrospect, the introduction and the development of cinema in China prior to WWI is closely connected to the colonial process, especially the expansion of concessions. Notable is that both rounds of expansions are accompanied by a new round of progressive reforms, which creates a friendly social environment for Western learning and modern inventions, with an inclusion of cinema. In late Qing China, there are two rounds of large-scale concession expansions. The first appears after the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. It clears the way for the arrival of cinema. In aid of Manchu court’s Hundred Days’ Reform, cinematograph exhibitions develop rapidly thereafter. The other round appears after the Treaty of...

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