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Camera Obscura 16.3 (2001) 229-263

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An Amorous History of the Silver Screen:
The Actress As Vernacular Embodiment in Early Chinese Film Culture

Zhang Zhen


What does it mean to talk about "early cinema" in a Chinese context? How "early"--or how "late"--was early Chinese cinema? Where can we locate it in a broad cultural landscape of modernity, particularly with regard to women's place in it? In the following essay I will discuss questions of periodization and historiography in relation to women's roles in Chinese film and modern cultural history. I begin with a historical textual analysis of the silent film quoted in the title, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen (dir. Zhang Shichuan, 1931). This self-referential docudrama, which chronicles the rise, fall, and triumphant comeback of a prostitute-turned-film actress in Shanghai, is an exemplary text about the makeup and transformation of early Chinese cinema and its reception. A gender-specific examination of the relationship between body and film technology as evidenced in female screen presence and fan culture allows us to conceive early Chinese [End Page 229] cinema as a mass-mediated yet culturally inflected modern experience. Moreover, by inserting and foregrounding woman's place, especially that of the first generation of female stars, in the emerging public sphere represented by the cinema, I reconsider the relationship between cinema and the vernacular movement as well as the interaction of verbal and visual culture within the broader scenario of the democratization of writing and iconography. I argue that the figure of the actress in particular embodies the vernacular experience of modernity in early twentieth- century China.

"Amorous" Historiography and Early Film Culture

History, for Walter Benjamin, does not unfold in a "homogeneous, empty time." Likewise, historical thinking that attempts to seize in an illuminating flash the image of nonlinear time and heterogeneous experience, involves "not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. . . . Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad." 1 The year of 1931 in early Chinese film history is for me one of those monadic moments when history congeals and implodes, generating as much tension as energy. At that moment, everything seemed possible; all the historical actors found themselves at a masquerade ball that could last forever--but which, of course, did not. Events were taking place at a head-spinning speed as past and present intertwined.

It was a moment when the Chinese film industry, concentrated in Shanghai since the early 1910s, was suddenly seized by an urgency to view self-reflexively its history on the screen, as though propelled by a desire to arrest its own image in a hall of moving mirrors. The craze of the "martial arts magic-spirit" (wuxia shenguai) genre was reaching its peak. The advent of sound had triggered a cacophony of public debates as well as a deluge of experiments in various formats, in particular the "dancing and singing" (gewupian) genre, to incorporate sound into the silent screen. The film industry was being reconfigured as a result of the [End Page 230] establishment of the Lianhua company (which quickly rivaled the veteran Mingxing company) and the campaign to "revive national cinema" (fuxing guopian). It was also a time when the Nationalist government took definitive steps to make its legitimacy felt in the film scene by, among other things, instituting a fully fledged censorship organ. 1931 was also marked, especially in standard Chinese film historiography, as the turning point at which a more progressive and patriotic cinema began to emerge following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria that same year. That shift was quickened by a new crisis, when, on 28 January 1932, the Japanese also bombarded Shanghai, which brought immense destruction to the film industry.

In the midst of these interconnected changes and on the eve of catastrophe, the Mingxing company, a leading studio in the prewar Shanghai film industry, released an eighteen-reel, two-part feature, called...


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pp. 228-263
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Archived 2005
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