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Chapter One: The Dawn of Chinese Film: 1896-1949
After seeing these shadow plays, I thereupon sighed with the feeling that every change in the world is just like a mirage. There is no difference between life and shadow play...suddenly hidden from the view, suddenly reappearing. Life is really like dreams and bubbles, and all lives can be seen this way.
-- A line from the earliest known Chinese movie review
In the spring of 1905, an ambitious photographer named Ren Qingtai hit upon a way to boost business at his thriving portrait studio: He decided to turn a large, unused side room into a theater where his friends could put on opera performances. The idea was less jaw-droppingly implausible than it might seem; Ren counted some of Shanghai's most popular actors and musicians among his acquaintances, and they readily agreed to put on impromptu concerts in his makeshift venue -- the Fengtai Photography Shop performance hall and gallery.
What turned heads was Ren's other idea for the space. On nights when his friends weren't available, he wanted to use it to showcase the fancy new technology known as dian ying xi, "electric shadow plays" -- or, as they were known in the West, "movies."
By that time, motion pictures had been shown in China for nearly a decade. In 1895, the Lumiere brothers launched the industry known as cinema by displaying their primitive vignettes in a Paris cafe;; a year later, on August 11, 1896, a Spanish entrepreneur known as Galen Bocca brought the new medium to Shanghai, screening a series of one-reel wonders to crowds who gathered at an "entertainment center" called Xu Garden. These entertainment centers offered a somewhat lowbrow alternative to Chinese opera, the most popular diversion of the time. Often located on the rooftop levels of department stores, they featured storytellers, jugglers, acrobats, and other performers who might otherwise be plying their trade on the streets.
But the miracle of the movies drew audiences of all types, from the elite to the working classes, to gawk at recordings of the exotic and the mundane -- foreigners dancing, wrestling, and cavorting on beaches; faraway cities and sights, with their unusual architecture and the quirky customs of their residents. Bocca's movie festival packed the house. The following year, an American impresario came to Shanghai and began showing films to similar crowds in teahouses throughout the city. Despite the instant appeal of the medium, until Ren, no one had ever created a venue where movies were shown strictly for the sake of showing movies. There were no tickets sold for performances at teahouses and department stores; the exhibitions were there to lure paying customers into the building. Ren had hit upon the concept of the movie theater.
In a matter of months, the motion picture side of the Fengtai Photography Shop gallery quietly but surely squeezed out the live performance side. People who rarely went to operas were turning out for movies in droves, and it dawned upon Ren that his offbeat idea just might make him more money than he'd ever seen in his life. Unfortunately, the demand for motion pictures was beginning to outstrip the available supply of foreign imports, and Ren was reluctant to disappoint crowds with reruns. Like many a practical innovator, he resolved to take matters into his own hands. Through his stage acquaintances, he recruited Tan Xinpei, then known as the "King of Beijing Opera," to perform one of his most celebrated roles, the warrior-king in Dangjun Mountain, at the gallery. Then he borrowed a movie camera and invested in a reel of celluloid filmstock. The result, a crude piece of work shot in one take with a fixed camera (Ren was, after all, only familiar with still photography), nevertheless captured a thrilling performance by one of the era's biggest stars.
Upon its release in Ren's gallery, Dangjun Mountain (1905) proved to be a giant hit. People loved the opera, and people loved the movies. The "opera movie" provided the best of both worlds...while making it possible for anyone who could afford a ticket to see a performance often limited to the elite. Ren and his assistants at Fengtai would crank out other opera films for the next few years, and were rapidly beginning to believe they'd acquired a license to print money. Owners of the established opera theaters were, to say the least, discomfited by the idea that an upstart photo shop owner could, if he wanted, feature the great Tan Xinpei 365 days a year using this foreign technology (and without paying a dime of Tan's exorbitant fee). Ren deflected criticism with a shrug and a reference to the march of progress, no doubt while mentally counting his receipts.
In 1909, the Fengtai Photography Shop mysteriously burned to the ground. Perhaps taking the hint, Ren decided to get out of the film business altogether.
But the world had changed, and the movies were in China to stay. Beginning in 1907, permanent, film-only theaters were being built in Beijing and Shanghai, and had already begun popping up in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Then, in 1910, an American filmmaker named Benjamin Brodsky set up shop in Shanghai under the banner of the Asia Film Company -- China's first film studio.
Copyright © 2003 by Jeff Yang