Directory of Early Chinese Films

Chinese filmmakers made significant contributions to the cinematic arts during the first decades of film history. This website presents a selection of some of the best early Chinese films we can still see (and hear) today, with English subtitles, along with a selection of materials that helps us to understand each film’s historical, cultural, linguistic, social, and cinematic context.

Thousands of films were made in China, and by Chinese filmmakers around the world, between the 1890s and the 1940s. Many were destroyed by war, or have yet to be restored and released to the public. This website features a small selection from the hundreds of films still extant, with a focus on those made in Shanghai. The selection presented here emphasizes films that are in the public domain or subject to fair-use provisions, are accessible to project participants, and whose accessible copies meet minimum audio-visual quality standards.

The page for each film includes:

  • the subtitled film
  • basic information about production and personnel
  • a link to the relevant module of the online course, if any
  • a selection of further readings and viewings, which is updated on a periodic basis

Looking for a film that you do not see here? Write to the project leader to inquire, or post a comment on the Modern Chinese Cultural Studies YouTube channel.

Available Films:

Laborer's Love (1922)

Laborer’s Love 勞工之愛情 (1922)

October 5, 1922

Laborer’s Love (Laogong zhi aiqing, 1922) is the earliest known extant complete film made by Chinese filmmakers.

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The Peach Girl (1931)

The Peach Girl 桃花泣血記 (1931)

April 9, 1931

The Peach Girl co-stars Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan as lovers in rural China tragically separated by social class.

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Daybreak 1933

Daybreak 天明 (1933)

February 2, 1933

A young woman from the countryside, forced into prostitution, does espionage to aid the Northern Expedition.

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Spring Silkworms 1933

Spring Silkworms 春蠶 (1933)

March 8, 1933

Silkworm farmers in southern China find themselves in desperate economic straits, despite a bumper harvest.

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Playthings 1933

Playthings 小玩意 (1933)

October 10, 1933

Artisan toymakers struggling to survive amidst war and competition from big business.

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Sports Queen 1934 production still track

Sports Queen 體育皇后 (1934)

April 14, 1934

A country girl joins a women’s sports academy in Shanghai and becomes a national track star. Will she learn the true athletic spirit?

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Song of the Fishermen (1934)

Song of the Fishermen 漁光曲 (1934)

June 14, 1934

Sister and brother struggle to survive as fishermen in northern China, in this musical melodrama. A box office smash.

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Goddess 1934

Goddess 神女 (1934)

December 7, 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.

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The Great Road 1934 still

The Great Road 大路 (1934)

January 1, 1935

In this genre-bending romp, a band of road workers, aided by two women, build a great road to help China fight off invaders.

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City Scenes 1935

City Scenes 都市風光 (1935)

January 13, 1935

Yuan Muzhi’s experimental directorial debut shows a country family’s farcical attempts to make it big in Shanghai.

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New Women 1935

New Women 新女性 (1935)

February 3, 1935

A contemporary social drama about “the woman question.” What are women’s lives like in China today? And what should they be?

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Song of China 1935

Song of China 天倫 (1935)

February 13, 1935

Fei Mu’s traditionalist parable dramatizes the triumph of filial piety. Set to a lavish orchestral score and produced for a bilingual market.

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Song at Midnight 1937

Song at Midnight 夜半歌聲 (1937)

February 20, 1937

Phantom of the Opera and Nosferatu meet underground revolutionary history in China’s first horror-musical.

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Street Angels 1937 still

Street Angels 馬路天使 (1937)

July 21, 1937

Zhou Xuan sings two hit songs in this social drama by experimental filmmaker Yuan Muzhi, costarring heartthrob Zhao Dan.

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Hua Mu Lan 1939

Hua Mu Lan 木蘭從軍 (1939)

February 16, 1939

A young woman takes her father’s place in the army and protects the Tang empire from invaders in this wartime adaptation of the Mulan legend.

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Princess Iron Fan 1941

Princess Iron Fan 鐵扇公主 (1941)

April 13, 1941

Monkey and companions try to outwit a demon’s wife in this animated feature film, which adapts an episode from Journey to the West.

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Love Everlasting 1947

Love Everlasting 不了情 (1947)

February 13, 1947

A young professional woman is hired to care of the young daughter of a married man, only to find herself in an impossible position.

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Spring River Flows East 1947

Spring River Flows East 一江春水向東流 (1947)

October 9, 1947

An epic melodrama in two parts. A dutiful wife struggles to keep her family together through eight years of war, only to suffer betrayal.

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Long Live the Missus 1947 production still

Long Live the Missus! 太太萬歲 (1947)

December 13, 1947

A fibbing housewife runs into problems with her unreliable husband and his con woman mistress in this wartime screwball comedy.

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Spring in a Small Town 1948 still

Spring in a Small Town 小城之春 (1948)

September 25, 1948

Director Fei Mu’s lyrical masterpiece shows people coping with loss and longing in the aftermath of the Anti-Japanese War.

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Wanderings of Three-Hairs the Orphan 1949

Wanderings of Three Hairs the Orphan 三毛流浪記 (1949)

October 30, 1949

Follows the misadventures of Sanmao as he tries to fill his belly on the streets of Shanghai. Adapted from the comic strip by Zhang Leping.

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Crows and Sparrows 1949 still

Crows and Sparrows 烏鴉與麻雀 (1949)

January 13, 1950

An epochal film, produced and set at the end of civil war, centering on a fight over housing. Who will stay and who will go?

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