The Common People and the Artist in the 1930s

An Essay in the Cultural and Social Metahistory of China through Visual Sources
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[ Movie actresses ]





[ Female impersonators ]




[ New Women ]





While photography allows us “to see”, the cinema has introduced a novel dimension into the global visual culture in the 20th century. The film does not merely visualize the real and the imaginary in static terms as photography does with photomontage and photo novels but also gives life to photography. At a more fundamental level, the film in the cinema of fiction creates a world in itself. In the historical field, the film is a very good way of exploring society and popular culture.1 Since the 1920s, cinema has become one of the most important forms of culture in China, especially in Shanghai. Despite this, few researchers have worked in this field to carry out research on the history of China or Shanghai.2 We would therefore like to provide a new perception of Shanghai's cultural and social history in the 1920s through the combined use of moving and still pictures.

The social group that we are targeting is the world of theatre actors and cinema actresses. Although they may appear to be separate, these two groups are doubly related. Firstly, they form part of a novel phenomenon that emerged in the 1920s, namely, the rise of the "stars" in the context of a real explosion of leisure activities in Shanghai.3 Secondly, the actors referred to here formed a very special category: it was they who played female roles and were at the heart of the "stardom" phenomenon.4 Finally, the lifestyles of the actresses and their representation in the press was very closely linked to the transformation of the social status of women.5 This was a group that formed part of a genuine continuum in terms of its training, social function and phenomenal impact on Chinese urban society.

The main corpus of this project is a collection of visual materials, mainly films produced in Shanghai and Peking, and cinema/theatre magazines with a wealth of iconographic and especially photographic material. The goal here therefore is to study a special social group – the world of theatre and cinema actors and actresses – as well as a milieu – the world of the theatre and of the cinema –in its relation with urban society and the construction of the images and myths that contributed to its shaping. More particularly, through the actresses, we shall also examine the transformation of the image, representations and the role of women conveyed by cinema, literature and journals.6 The appearance of the "new woman" (xin nüxing, modeng nüxing), a term that underlies the perception of profound change in the relationship between man and woman in the public space, is closely related to representations generated by the cinema.7

For our examination of cinema actresses, we have chosen to study specifically the surviving corpus of movies made inthe Lianhua studios. This company was the first in study and specifically should be separated.China to control all aspects of production, makingit similar to a Hollywood major. Moreover, it was Lianhua that first produced the type of movies that would set the tone for the entire Chinese cinema to graphic production of the 1930’s. The Lianhua films repeatedly addressed questions regarding modern Chinese society,such as the status of women. The film directors working at Lianhua were among the best of theperiod, and the actresses, such as Ruan Lingyu, amongthe most famous. These movies are therefore one of thef inest gateways to understand the world of Chinese cinemaof the 1930’s.

By way of complementary sources, we have biographies, autobiographies, memoirs of actresses, actors, directors (biographies of Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan, memoirs of Hu Die, and so on), film magazines (the Lianhua had its own magazine) and photographs of the 1920s and 1930s. The records of the Police Bureau in Shanghai and Peking are an invaluable and very rich source given the constant surveillance to which this milieu was subjected. Certain actors and actresses (like Li Lily, Tan Ying, Yuan Meiyun, and others) are living to this day. Oral histories will be integrated as full-fledged materials for the project. Again, vast quantities of visual materials have been uncovered in recent years. These include advertising photographs, various forms of advertising, paintings of actors and actresses of the 1920-1940 period.8 There is a very large historiographical corpus on China, covering huge segments of social life, the history of women, and local cultural life for the period considered.

The world of cinema naturally lends itself to an approach through images but, in this case as with the other programs of the project, the focus will be on setting up an interrelation between different forms of sources, including cartographical sources, to write a history of the artists of the theatre and of the cinema in China’s urban and mental space.

1 Marc Ferro was the first to elaborate a reflection on the use of cinema as a historical source Ferro, Marc, Analyse de film, analyse de sociétés, une source nouvelle pour l'histoire, Paris, Hachette, 1976; Cinéma et histoire, Paris, Denoël : Gonthier, 1977; Film et histoire, Paris, Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1984; Cinéma, une vision de l'histoire, Paris, Ed. du Chêne, 2003.

2 Zhang, Yingjin, ed., Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922-1943, Stanford: Stanford U. Pr., 1999.

3 Yeh, Catherine, City, Courtesan, and Intellectual: The Rise of Entertainment Culture in Shanghai 1850-1910, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2004.

4 Yeh, Catherine, “From Male ‘Flower’ to National Star: Choreographing Mei Lanfang’s Rise to Stardom”, in Erika Fischer-Lichte, Christian Horn, Sandra Umathum, Matthias Warstat, eds., Performativität und Ereignis, T?bingen and Basel: A. Franke Publishers, pp. 259-276; "A Public Love affair or a Nasty Game? -- The Chinese Tabloid Newspaper and the Rise of the Opera Singer as Star," in European Journal of East Asian Studies, 2:1, 2003, pp.13-51.

5 Yeh, Catherine, "Creating a Shanghai Identity -- Late Qing Courtesan Handbooks and the Formation of the New Citizen", in Tao Tao Liu and David Faure eds., Unity and Diversity: Local Cultures and Identities in China. Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 107-123; "Creating the Urban Beauty: The Shanghai Courtesan in Late Qing Illustrations" in Judith T. Zeitlin et Lydia H. Liu, eds., Writing and Materiality in China. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University East Asian Center, 2003, pp. 397-447.

6 Yeh, Catherine, “Qingmo Shanghai jin? fushi, jiaju yu xiyang wuzhi wenming de yinjin” (Fashion and Furniture in Late Qing Shanghai Courtesan houses and the Introduction of Western Material Culture,) in Xueren , vol. 9, pp. 381- 438.

7 See Barbara Mittler „Defy(N)ing Modernity: Women in Shanghai’s early News-Media (1872-1915) Jindai Zhongguo Funü shi yanjiu (Research on Women in Modern Chinese History) December 2003: 215-259 and Barbara Mittler„In Spite of Gentility: (New) Women and (New) Men in Linglong, a 1930s Women’s Magazine“in: The Quest for Gentility in China: Negotiations beyond Gender and Class (Daria Berg &Chloe Starr Hrsg.) Routledge (accepted for publication), forthcoming 2007.

8 Mittler, Barbara, “’Stay Home and Shop the World’: The Cosmopolitan Nature(s) of Advertising in Shanghai (1860s-1910s), Rudolf Wagner & Catherine Yeh eeds.), Studies in the Chinese Public Sphere II, New York, SUNY Press, under submission.

Page modified on 08 May 2007