Silence is Still Golden: Women and the Metropolis in Early Chinese Cinema

By Yap Soo Ei, Ji Xing, Nicolai Volland, Yang Lijun, and Paul Pickowicz

Feng Xiaogang’s blockbuster Aftershock is making headlines these days, setting new records at the box office in China. We cannot say yet if the excitement is justified—Aftershock has only just hit the theaters here in Singapore. It is clear, however, that the current cinema craze in China is not at all a new phenomenon. In fact, new releases on the silver screen created similar sensations in Shanghai as early as eighty years ago. And many of these old films continue even today to fascinate. Films by pioneering Chinese directors of the 1920s and 1930s still dazzle, with their opulent sets, the metropolitan glamour of Shanghai, not to speak of their melodramatic stories of love and distress, passion and agony.

At a workshop held at the National University of Singapore in June and July 2010, directed by Paul Pickowicz and chaired by Yang Lijun and Nicolai Volland, we took a closer look at some of these films, gems of China’s silent film era. Although interest in “Golden Age” Chinese cinema has gradually picked up in recent years, many of these films remain little known, as opposed, for instance, to the works of directors from China’s “fifth” and “sixth” generations. Yet after several days of collective movie-watching and intensive discussion, there is little doubt about the richness of this treasure trove of early Chinese films.

Imagine, for example, the following opening shots: The camera zooms in on the supple thighs of a young woman. A few seconds later, you—the viewer—see her charming smile. She is wearing a simple short sleeved shirt, both arms exposed, and clad in shorts with one of the seams torn. In full view now, you are able to admire her slender body. She is in a playful mood. Such are the opening shots of Sun Yu’s 1931 film Wild Rose (Ye meigui), set in an idyllic countryside. But this dream world will not last; misfortune will soon befall the female protagonist and the man she loves. Painful separation seems inevitable. Will the couple eventually reunite? What will lead them back together? Just a hint (spoiler alert!): they both sign up for a vaguely defined “revolution.”

The intertwined themes of romance and revolution have recurred throughout the history of Chinese filmmaking and continue to have remarkable appeal today. Call it cliché, but early Chinese silent-era filmmaking produced a good number of such stories and audiences never tired of them. Neither did we. In the films of the 1930s we viewed, women took center stage—from the innocent Xiao Feng (played effectively by Wang Renmei) in Wild Rose (1931) to the seductress Li Huilan (played nicely by Xue Lingxian), a woman who seeks men for pleasure and money in A Dream in Pink (Fenhongse de meng, 1932, d. Cai Chusheng). The viewer first marvels at how the materialistic “new woman” Zhang Tao (played by the vivacious Li Lili) ultimately repents in the film National Pride (Guo feng, 1935, d. Zhu Shilin), and then feels emotional distress as Xiao Mao (played again by Wang Renmei) loses her only brother to malnutrition in Cai Chusheng’s famous Song of the Fisherman (Yu guang qu, 1935).

It is the women, played by Shanghai’s top film stars, who command the audience’s attention. Not only are their lives inevitably entangled with issues like imperialism, violence, and poverty, but they are able to endure mountains of heartache along the way. The directors—some of the most creative artists in Shanghai’s highly entrepreneurial cultural marketplace—identify a wide array of “modern” women, and dwell on the complexities of the social and personal problems these resilient women faced in their daily lives. The fact that quite a few of these problems—self-sacrifice, marriage, temptation, vanity, and love—remain unresolved in present-day society points to the contemporary relevance of these films. While directors generally proposed reconciliation as the solution to most problems, the viewer is easily touched by the earnest attempt of the male directors to openly discuss the plight of women, especially in Spring in the South (Nanguo zhi chun, 1932, d. Cai Chusheng) and A Dream in Pink. One of our favorite films is Shen Xiling’s Boatman’s Daughter (Chuanjia nü, 1934), a seamless and powerful narrative about modern-style exploitation and violence woven into a quasi-traditional Chinese love story about a boatman’s daughter (played beautifully by Xu Lai) and a laborer.

Despite their immense popularity with audiences in the 1930s, many of these films were criticized by reviewers, including leftists, for “failing to provide further insight or understanding” of such hot-button political issues as spiritual pollution. At our workshop there were lively discussions after each screening about the difficulties of achieving such clear cut ideological indoctrination in commercial entertainment films. Many films (then and now) have unintended consequences. Further, a good film certainly invites more than one mode of interpretation. Does one end up emulating the protagonist Zhang Lan in the film National Pride not because of her lofty moral qualities, but because the part was played by screen legend Ruan Lingyu and this was Ruan’s last film before her tragic suicide at age 24? Films can be both popular and politically compelling for reasons that are largely external to the intentions of a particular director. A challenging problem for contemporary viewers and researchers is figuring out how these films were received by audiences in the 1930s. One suspects, however, that present-day audiences (including scholars!) share some of the sentiments and instincts of actors, directors, and viewers eighty years ago. In short, there is a humanistic dimension to these ignored cultural artifacts. We love these films because there is a bit of “us” in the human dramas that unfold on the screen.

A second theme that caught our attention is the depiction of the big metropolis, that is, “Shanghai modern” and its irresistible allure. Take A Dream in Pink, complete with a street lined with tall trees, an art deco interior, women in bright qipaos dancing in the marbled mansions of the French Concession. Similar images appear on screen in almost all the films we viewed. It seems that many movies from the 1930s were bathing in the glitz and glamour of the modern metropolis.

The city-on-screen, however, is highly paradoxical. Almost invariably the modern metropolis is revealed to be as evil as it is alluring. Underneath its bright and modern veneer is a moral abyss which causes people—the young in particular—to lose their moral bearings and fall into a degraded state. In National Pride, Zhang Lan (whose name, Orchid, implies nobility and virtue) learns that big city culture will destroy young people, while rustic life and self-discipline will purify their minds. Propaganda is a conspicuous component of National Pride, which was produced for the Guomindang’s New Life Movement, but it is interesting to note that the demonization of the modern city is a common theme in Chinese films of the 1930s, including so-called leftist works. In this respect, they resonate (intentional or unintentionally) with cultural traditions that tend to favour the countryside over the city, the rural over the urban. Literature since the late Qing has depicted the prosperity of Shanghai as a symbol of hypocrisy. Ugly and immoral phenomena, including prostitution, deception, and greed, are said to corrode the simple and modest lifestyles of the past.

The danger of the metropolis is often attributed in these films to spiritual pollution—corrupt culture (especially “Western” culture) imported from abroad. Once again, we have a theme that feels very “current.” How to resist this pollution? How does its harm manifest itself? The answers to these questions vividly unfold in such films as A Dream in Pink, where the screen vamp Li Huilan literally “embodies” the attractions and dangers of “Western” culture and ultimately stands in for the metropolis itself. She is independent, fashionable and charming. She never waits for men. She talks about love but never relies on love. At the end of the film, she deserts her lover (who has divorced his lovely wife in favour of the vamp) and leaves with another man. She is a female figure who differs radically from what is often imagined to be the stock “traditional” Chinese woman. Director Cai Chusheng thus poses poignant questions. Is “Western” culture suitable for China? Is a city (like Shanghai) a safe place to be? What is substantial and good in the city? The relationship of city and countryside, and the larger configuration of modern/Western and traditional culture featured prominently in our discussions, as they do in the films. Are the representations of “traditional” and “Western” culture reliable or are they crude, distorting, and manipulative caricatures?

Despite its potentially corrupting influence, the modern city retains its magnetic powers of attraction, a pull that was obviously well understood by the directors and permeates the films. Young women from the rural areas, for example, cannot help being fascinated by the modern, educated ladies on display in such films as Boatman’s Daughter. And in a film like National Pride, which explicitly devalues the city and “Western” culture, extravagant and luxurious city life is omnipresent on screen and seems to undermine the original anti-urban messages. Is this another example of unintended consequences? Similarly, while the countryside might appear idyllic (in Song of the Fisherman and other works), it is almost always shown to contain violent and life-negating elements (in Wild Rose for instance) and other negative forces. This paradox of the city, its allure and glamour alongside its pernicious influences, was clearly one of the powerful riddles that attracted Chinese films audiences of the 1930s. Eighty years later, this attraction has lost little of its allure.

Yap Soo Ei and Ji Xing are graduate students in the Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS). Nicolai Volland and Yang Lijun teach Chinese Studies at NUS, and Paul Pickowicz is professor of Chinese History at the University of California, San Diego.

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