A Timeline of Notable Films from Mainland China Through the Years
※ In the twentieth century, as critics commonly assert, Chinese filmmaking has generated six chronological groups, or generations, of filmmakers. The First Generation refers to China’s film pioneers of the 1920s; the Second Generation, the leftist filmmakers of the 1930s and 1940s (mostly working for various private film studios in Shanghai); the Third Generation, mostly Yan’an-trained filmmakers who became important in the early People’s Republic of China (PRC) cinema of the 1950s (Yan’an, a rural town in northwest China, was the capital of the Communist revolution before the founding of the PRC); the Fourth Generation, those trained in the early 1960s but who had to wait until the post-Mao late 1970s to start making films; and the Fifth Generation, the first post-Mao graduating class from Beijing Film Academy and other young directors who joined them in the post-Mao cinematic wave. (Celluloid China: Cinematic Encounters with Culture and Society by Harry H. Kuoshu)
※ Another way of defining the different generations focuses on the filmmakers’ aims: the First Generation, described as May Fourth era filmmakers, were intellectuals concerned with social and cultural reform during the Republican era; the Second Generation, whose films are categorized as “socialist realism” (inspired by the Soviet Union), combined heroic celebration of the socialist state with condemnation of life in pre-revolutionary China; the Third and Fourth Generations primarily focused on melodrama and produced films consistent with or reinforcing state ideology; and the Fifth Generation, whose films were made after the Cultural Revolution, continued the May Fourth tradition of social commentary and national critique, albeit from the vantage point of a very different historical moment. (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture by Edward L. Davis)
※ In the mid-1990s, a new group of directors emerged – sometimes described as the Sixth Generation – who had graduated in the late 1980s and embarked on their careers at a time when the state studios could no longer afford experimental films in the wake of economic reform. In many ways, these directors intentionally challenge the aesthetics of the Fifth Generation. Instead of abstract reflection on or exhibitionist display of Chinese culture and history, the Sixth Generation prefers images and motifs expressive of their personal feelings of alienation, anguish, and anger at the status quo. Apart from emphasizing youth subculture, a relatively new subject in Chinese cinema, the Sixth Generation pursues the kind of screen images they perceived as more realistic, more “truthful” to everyday life than the films of the previous generations.
(A Centennial Review of Chinese Cinema by Yingjin Zhang)
―Two great articles about Chinese cinema have been written in the Notebook section of the site:
• When Change Meant Change: Revisiting 1930s Chinese Leftist Cinema
• NYFF 09: 17 Years of Chinese Films, from Top to Bottom
A work in progress. Suggestions are welcome, of course!
‹ 1920s ›
―Commercial cinema flourishes in Shanghai; the most popular genres are fantasy, martial arts and traditional opera. Political fragmentation results in relatively little state interference in the film industry.
‹ 1930s ›
―The Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist government consolidates control of China’s cultural and intellectual life. Censors ban Cantonese-language films, fantasy subjects that encourage “superstition” and Hollywood movies that feature humiliating portrayals of China and Chinese people.
―The first Golden Age sees the Shanghai-based film industry produce prestige features for middle-class audiences, led by the Mingxing, Tianyi and Lianhua studios. Leading progressive directors Sun Yu, Bu Wancang, Cai Chusheng and Wu Yonggang make wenyipian – literary, melodramatic art films – with patriotic themes implicitly opposing the Japanese occupation of northeastern China that began in 1931. The films highlight social inequities in urban centres and oppose the oppression of women.
―During the “Orphan Island” period of Shanghai cinema (after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937), the city’s isolated international status allows some filmmakers to make movies with patriotic themes. Many filmmakers flee to Hong Kong, providing a foundation for the colony’s movie industry.
‹ 1940s ›
―During World War II, Chinese film production is largely split among pro-Japanese propaganda movies made in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, commercial occupation cinema made in Shanghai, patriotic anti-Japanese films made in the KMT stronghold of Chongqing, and documentary and propaganda movies made in Yan’an. A postwar film boom leads to Shanghai’s brief second Golden Age.
―Consolidation of the Shanghai film industry under government control sees the establishment of the major state film studios, which operate under a production quota system. The Central Film Bureau, established in 1946, controls all aspects of Chinese movie production, distribution and exhibition, and privately owned studios disappear.
• Eternity (1942) – Bu Wancang, Ma-Xu Weibang and Zhu Shilin
• Eight Thousand Li of Cloud and Moon (1947) – Shi Dongshan and Wang Weiyi
• Daughters of China (1949) – Ling Zifeng
• Sorrows and Joys of a Middle-Aged Man (1949) – Sang Hu
• Three Women (1949) – Chen Liting
‹ 1950s ›
―Under politicized film production, genres such as socialist utopianism and socialist realism flourish in the 1950s and 1960s. American films are almost completely banned from exhibition in China, and films from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe fill the gap.
• The White-Haired Girl (1950) – Wang Bin and Shui Hua
• Family (1957) – Chen Xihe and Ye Ming
• The Story of Liu Bao Village (1957) – Wang Ping
• It’s My Day Off (1959) – Lu Ren
• Lin Tze-hsu (1959) – Zheng Junli
• Song of Youth (1959) – Cui Wei and Chen Huaikai
‹ 1960s ›
―Following the disastrous failure of the Great Leap Forward, the policies of hard-line leaders including Mao Zedong are reversed, and there is a brief opening of relative freedom in cinema oversight. Some liberal films emerge, only to be criticized later.
• Early Spring in February (1963) – Xie Tieli
• Serfs (1963) – Li Jun
‹ 1970s ›
―During the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1972), Chinese film production practically ceases. Eight “revolutionary model operas,” including two ballets, are the only Chinese movies made and shown. Domestic film production gradually resumes starting from 1973. Foreign films exhibited in China include titles from the Soviet Union, Albania and India.
―After Mao’s death in 1976, a reform era begins in earnest. Films from Third Generation directors explore, within limits, past excesses of the Communist Party rule.
‹ 1980s ›
―In a rapidly modernizing society, the Fourth Generation of Chinese filmmakers advances a critical reexamination of traditional culture. In the late 1980s, the Fifth Generation’s avant-garde movement begins. Radical films break with tradition and challenge standard revolutionary accounts of Chinese history.
‹ 1990s ›
―China’s Sixth Generation directors emerge in the aftermath of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square movement. Dark, cynical visions of Chinese urban culture, not exhibitable in China, find success on the international festival circuit. The state studios continue to produce “mainstream films” favored by the government, including biographies of revolutionary heroes, model cadres and revolutionary and anti-Japanese war epics.
―From the late 1980s, Chinese documentaries began to evolve from official, grand narratives to focus on the poor, the marginal, and ordinary people, and their often trivial lives. There is a shift toward independent and semi-independent films, with the emergence of individuals styles, with a realistic, bottom-up rather than top-down description of Chinese society.
‹ 2000s ›
―The last decade of Chinese filmmaking sees de-professionalization. Filmmaking has moved beyond the Beijing Film Academy, responsible for so many filmmakers superbly trained in their crafts, and towards something much more broadly based and open, dominated by amateur digital filmmaking.
• Along the Railway (2000) – Du Haibin
• Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2007) – Yang Fudong
• Survival Song (2008) – Yu Guangyi
―Decade commentaries from Timeline by Shelly Kraicer
(For Taiwanese cinema, please see this list.)Read less