A bluffer's guide to Chinese film

Ten things you didn't know about China's rich film history

The Founding of a Republic (2009)

No Chinese movies made before 1922 exist

Chinese cinema can be said to begin with the short film The Battle of Dingjunshan, which was filmed in Beijing in 1905. Unfortunately, the next 17 years of cinematic output from China is either lost or missing. The highly flimsy nature of the nitrate film used to make these pictures means that virtually none of the earliest kung fu and comedy movies made in China have survived.



The world’s oldest cinema is here in Beijing

It is claimed that Daguanlou, located in the Qianmen area of Beijing, is the oldest surviving purpose-built cinema in the world. Established by photographer Ren Qingtai in 1903, the cinema hosted the first screening of China’s oldest film (see above) and was also a very popular teahouse. Daguanlou was reopened in 2005 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Chinese film.


Ruan Lingyu killed herself four times on screen before doing the terrible deed for real

Seen by many as China’s answer to Greta Garbo, Ruan Lingyu is perhaps the most famous Chinese actress of the 1930s. With her performances in films such as Little Toys (1933) and The Goddess (1934), she typified the tragic heroine who suffered social injustice. In four of her movies, her character commits suicide.

The misfortune of the protagonists she played had ironic and tragic echoes: on 8 March 1935, aged just 24, after personal troubles and intense media scrutiny, she committed suicide in real – not reel – life. Her fans were suitably upset and her funeral procession stretched for over three miles.


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Ruan Lingyu


China’s oldest surviving movie is a rip-off

Well-known for being highly influenced by Hollywood movies, China’s industrious pioneering filmmakers Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu decided the best way to make a comedy classic was to wholesale steal the idea.


Laborer’s Love (1922) is the oldest Chinese movie that can still be watched and enjoyed today. As it turns out, the plot was lifted from a silent great – Harold Lloyd’s 1921 movie, Never Weaken, about a man whose chances of marriage to his dream girl depend on first improving her father’s business.



Laborer's Love (1922), China's oldest surviving film


In the 1930s, being a film actress in China was thought of as only slightly better than being a prostitute

Whereas Chinese filmmakers of the 1930s came from the leftist intellectual elite, actors were usually from more humble backgrounds. Treading the boards was typically considered a lowly profession, and even film acting was seen as something that high-class families shouldn’t take part in.


The social status of those in the industry during that period was confirmed by the appearance in Shanghai of controversial posters depicting the most famous actresses alongside high-profile prostitutes. Understandably, the actresses were not happy.



Only a handful of films were made in China between 1966 and 1976

When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, movie production in the Middle Kingdom ground to a shuddering halt. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing (herself an actress in the 1930s, performing under the name Lan Ping), strictly controlled any celluloid output. Of the few films made, most were filmed performances of the ‘model operas’ conducted on sound stages.


Chinese animation originally inspired Japanese animation – not vice versa

The Wan brothers were China’s pioneering animators. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, they toiled away in a studio in the French Concession. It was in such conditions that the Wans produced China’s first feature-length cartoon, Princess Iron Fan (1941), and in it hid an anti-Japanese message.

The criticism passed the occupying authorities by to such an extent that, when the Japanese left China, Princess Iron Fan was taken home with them, where it became highly popular and influenced a generation of Japanese animators.


Princess Iron Fan (1941)

‘Horror movies’ are technically banned in China

In 2006, concerned by the rise of ‘disturbing’ content online and in movies, China’s film censorship board, SARFT, banned all films with ‘excessive’ or ‘unhealthy’ scenes of horror. So don’t expect to see any of the movies from the Saw series at your local multiplex any time soon.


Over 100 Chinese film stars appeared in 2009’s epic The Founding of a Republic

The 2009 blockbuster smash hit (pictured) made to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC was packed to the rafters with big-name talent. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, John Woo, Andy Lau, Chen Kaige, Zhang Ziyi, Donnie Yen and Feng Xiaogang were just some of the heavy hitters queuing up to make appearances in the movie.


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The Founding of a Republic (2009)


Director Zhang Yimou reportedly sold his own blood to buy his first camera

Director, cinematographer and Olympics opening ceremony organiser Zhang Yimou started out as a simple stills photographer in his native Shaanxi province. But, as his formative years happened during the Cultural Revolution, he needed to make extra efforts to be able to procure his first camera.

Over a period of a few months, he sold his blood to raise the capital needed. Considering the beautiful way he shoots his movies, we’re so very glad he did.



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