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  • An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema 1896–1937
  • Paul Clark (bio)
Zhang Zhen. An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema 1896–1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. xxxiii, 488 pp. Paperback $30.00, ISBN 0–226–98238–6.

This book is a remarkable achievement, deserving a place on the bookshelves of all serious researchers of Chinese film and indeed world cinema. Any student of modern Chinese culture can learn much from this important work. The first forty years of cinema in China have not been widely researched, with the exception of the 1930s, the period in which the post-1949 film enterprise traces the roots of left-wing or progressive filmmaking. Previous studies have focused on the film industry, on particular film texts, or on reception. Zhang Zhen presents a nuanced, detailed examination of film culture, a much broader concept. In her introduction she declares, “What I try to offer in this book is cultural history of Chinese modernity through the lens of Shanghai cosmopolitan film culture of the prewar period” (p. xxviii). She has succeeded admirably.

Zhang addresses several assumptions or themes that researchers have traced through these first decades of film in China. These include the shadow play and older origins of Chinese cinema, the influence of Hollywood, and the rise of the left-wing filmmakers. On the shadow play, Zhang brilliantly contextualizes the wonderment Chinese urban dwellers felt toward the new entertainment and traces how film fit into the broad menu of distractions available to such audiences. The idea of the flâneur from Tom Gunning’s study of early Western cinema lends itself to an approach for examining the Chinese phenomena that takes in window shopping, dancing, and a whole range of modern activities in which the cinema was embedded. Zhang traces how film culture was a major part of the production of a “sociocorporeal sensorium and a broadly defined vernacular movement” (p. xxx). She places a particular emphasis on how gender issues played out in this film culture, discussing the notion of the “modern girl” (e.g., pp. 254–274).

On the interplay between Hollywood cinema and Chinese film culture, Zhang delves into the complexity of relationships between personnel, understandings, and audience responses. A simplistic model of foreign influence and Chinese response has been shown in other fields of modern Chinese history to be clearly well past its use-by date. This book offers a more sophisticated interpretation of the mutual dependence and interactions between all the players in the film arena. The discussion of Maxu Weibang’s Song at Midnight (Yeban gesheng [1937]), which rounds out the book as a key work in the transition from silent to sound cinema, shows well Zhang’s abilities to trace influences, mark difference, and place the “cinema of attractions” (e.g., p. 153) in the broader cultural context. [End Page 305]

Recent work (for example, Pang Laikwan’s Building a New China in Cinema [2002] and Hu Jubin’s Projecting a Nation: Chinese Cinema before 1949 [2003]) has properly brought into question the linear claims to inheritance that many post-1949 Chinese film researchers have asserted from the 1930s film corps who remained active on the mainland after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Zhang takes this analysis further, not by simply extending the implication, but through her innovative readings of a range of handbooks and other materials and her concentration on the wider theme of film culture. The approach through “vernacular modernism” in effect allows her to step back from the self-absorbed intellectualisms of the 1930s filmmakers and their alleged heirs to present a broader view. “Demythologizing does not discredit the historical importance of this progressive cinema, but rather traces its history, in particular its interaction with urban modernity and a mass culture of consumption and entertainment” (p. 247).

This is a densely argued work in which Zhang makes careful use of the idea of “vernacular modernism” articulated by her doctoral supervisor, Miriam Hansen. With the linguistic skills of a native speaker, Zhang has been able to extend her mentor’s ideas into deeper, more revealing territory. The result is a tour de force...