Chinese Film Classics Course

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

2:18 minutes

Contents:

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

3:49 minutes

Contents:

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

Get started

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.

Modules


Module 1: Laborer’s Love (1922)

A short slapstick comedy, in which ingenuity and love triumph.

Laborer's Love (1922) still image


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.

Sports Queen 1934 production still track


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.

Ruan Lingyu in Goddess 1934


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.”

The Great Road 1934 still


 


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?

New Women 1935 still


 



Module 7: Street Angels (1937)

Zhou Xuan sings two hit songs in this social drama by experimental filmmaker Yuan Muzhi.

Street Angels 1937 still


Module 8: Long Live the Missus! (1947)

A battle of the sexes involving an overeager-to-please wife, an unreliable husband, and a seductive con woman.

Long Live the Missus 1947 production still


Module 9: Spring River Flows East (1947)

A two-part, three-hankie family melodrama set during the Anti-Japanese War and its aftermath.

Spring River Flows East 1947 still


Module 10: Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Director Fei Mu’s lyrical representation of people coping with loss and longing in the aftermath of war.

Spring in a Small Town 1948 still


Module 11: Crows and Sparrows (1949)

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?

Crows and Sparrows 1949 still


Module 12: Course Wrap-Up

These eleven films are just the beginning. A few ideas for further explorations of early Chinese cinema.

Hua Mu Lan 1939