This free, self-paced online course offers an introduction to eleven of the best extant films made in mainland China up to the year 1949, when the Communists won the civil war and began the process of nationalizing the film industry. What did early Chinese films look like? What stories did Chinese filmmakers tell? What artistic decisions did they make, and why? Who were the stars and auteurs of early Chinese cinema? How does early Chinese cinema relate to Hollywood, European, or other world cinemas? What should I watch or read if I want to learn more about Chinese cinema history? If you’re curious about questions like these, this is the course for you.
Eleven modules each include:
- One Chinese film, with English subtitles
- Two video lectures analyzing the historical, cultural, and cinematic significance of the film
- Basic information about the film’s production, cast, and crew
- A curated selection of further viewings and readings (forthcoming)
- Self-study modules (forthcoming)
Start by watching these two brief introductory videos:
Introductory video 1: Welcome to the course
This course covers eleven of the best extant films produced in China during the first half of the twentieth century.
What were early Chinese contributions to the cinematic arts?
How did filmmaking in China relate to, or differ from, other parts of the world?
What can we learn from Republican-era films about Chinese culture and society before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949?
Introductory video 2: Five Tips
The five tips are:
- Watch the film first
- Read up on Chinese history, especially of the first half of the 20th century
- Familiarize yourself with basic film studies terminology
- Don’t stop here – learn more, and share what you know!
- Get in touch – write to me with comments and questions
Feel free to jump right into the modules below. Additional video clips and material related to the production, history, artistry, and legacies of these films will be added in coming months. Subscribe to the Modern Chinese Cultural Studies YouTube channel for updates.
All of the films are black and white. Five are silent or have dubbed sound-on-disk; six have sound-on-film. The copies of Goddess and Sports Queen have soundtracks that were added in recent years; feel free to mute these.
The first video lecture in each module includes a plot summary (with spoilers), so be sure to watch the film first!
This course complements the forthcoming textbook Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949 (Columbia, 2021).
The video lectures were filmed by Transliminal Media, edited by Dr Jordan Levine and Christopher Rea, and funded with a grant from the UBC Dean of Arts office. Special thanks to Professor Rumee Ahmed for supporting this project.
Module 1: Laborer’s Love (1922)
A short slapstick comedy, in which ingenuity and love triumph.
Module 2: Sports Queen (1934)
In this star vehicle for Li Lili, a talented sprinter at a women’s sports academy in Shanghai learns lessons about the true athletic spirit.
Module 3: Goddess (1934)
Ruan Lingyu stars as a single mother in Shanghai struggling to give her young son an education, in the face of exploitation and social prejudice.
Module 4: The Great Road (1934)
In this genre-bending romp, laid-off roadworkers head to the interior to build a great road for China’s military to fight off “the enemy.”
Module 5: New Women (1935)
A sensational social drama about “the woman question” in modern Chinese society. What are women’s lives really like in China today? And what should they be?