Because of the First World War (1914-1918), the European powers, preoccupied with post-war reconstruction, relaxed their grip on China, while the American influence stepped in and filled the shortage of film supplies. From the late 1910s on, film viewing in China was dominated by American films (something like 90% of all films show in China were American; the whole period before liberation, Hollywood films constituted over 75% of the market; after 1949, this changed dramatically, but Hollywood films have returned with a vengeance in the 1990s). The foreign presence was also felt in film production. Many of the companies had foreign advisors or workers; and so had been the case for the distribution and ownership of theaters. For example, the British-American Tobacco Company had strong control of Chinese film exhibition and attempted to monopolize theatre ownership. They controlled most of those in Shanghai and Tianjin and showed only foreign films or Chinese films made by foreigners.
But with the popularity of Western film increased and moviegoing becoming a fashionable urban pastime, the demand for full-length feature films with domestic themes and subjects also increased, and the new film industry attracted extra capital seeking for investment after the 1921 stock market crash. The 1920s thus became a period in which Chinese began to develop a film industry in the hands of Chinese filmmakers and businessmen, and an indigenous popular cinema gradually took shape in the craze for new entertainment and profit. The year of 1921 saw the production of three indigenous long features, Yan Ruisheng 阎瑞生, Sea Oath (Haishi 海誓), and The Vampire (Hongfen kulou 红粉骷髅). Innumerable film production companies were registered in a short time. From 1922 to 1926, 175 film companies were opened, among which 145 were located in Shanghai. Although most of them would make one or two films and die out, a few companies were more established and had stable productivity.
One of the most important studios at the time was the Mingxing 明星 (Star) Film Company, which was founded by Zhang Shichuan, Zheng Zhengqiu, and others. The company also founded the Star Film Acting School to train actors and to bolster the company's income. The Star Company began its activity with a three-reel comedy The King of Comedy Visits China (Huaji dawang you hua ji 滑稽大王游华记), an imitation of Charlie Chaplin, in March 1922. The company's manifesto emphasized the educative and reform functions of film, but also its xingqu, or interest, and xiao, or laughter. The first three films the company made were all comedies, conceived by Zheng Zhengqiu and directed by Zhang Shichuan. Laborer's love 劳工之爱情 (Laogong zhi aiqing 1922), also known as Romance of a fruit merchant (Zhi guo yuan 掷果缘 ) is the earliest extant complete Chinese film. Presenting a comic view of reality, the film is a romantic comedy about a carpenter-turned fruit vendor who wins the hand of an unsuccessful doctor's daughter, by arranging more business for his future father-in-law through ruses. After an unsuccessful fourth film, Zhang Xinsheng 张欣生 (1922), a gruesome account of a true story of a son who murders his father for money, the company turned to the production of the so-called "social drama" (shenghui pian 社会片), promoted by Zheng Zhengqiu. Eight months in production, Orphan Rescues Grandfather (Gu'er jiu zu ji 孤儿救祖记, 1923) was the first truly successful full-length feature of the Star Company. The sentimental stories attracted favorable attention through its careful production and it established the Star Company so solidly that five years later, when left-wing writers took a serious interest in filmmaking, it was the Star that employed them and became the center of their film activities [Leyda 1972: 38].
The Minxin 民新 (The China Sun Motion Picture Co. Ltd) Film Company was founded by Li Minwei, Li Beihai, and Li Haishan brothers in Hong Kong in 1923 and moved to Shanghai in 1926, along with the establishment of the Minxin Film and Drama School. The company was closely associated with the nationalist cause led by Sun Yat-San, and maintained high standard for the film art and social influence of its production. The owners of the company, especially Li Minwei (Lai Man-Wai in Cantonese), saw film as a serious social institution, something more than entertainment. From 1923 to 1927, the Minxin Studio produced some important documentaries of the last years of Sun's activities, including his Northern Expedition in 1927. They produced some sophisticated films like Pure as Jade, Clean as Ice (Yujie bingqing 玉洁冰清, 1926), Romance of Western Chamber (Xixiangji 西厢记, 1927), Poet by the Seaside (Haijiao shiren 海角诗人, 1927), etc..
The Tianyi 天一 Film Company, formed by the Shaw Brothers in 1925 in Shanghai (moved to Hong Kong in 1937 and transformed into the Shaw Brothers in 1958), was the most prolific studio of popular films, especially costume dramas. The company had a very clear tradition-oriented guideline for film production and made many costume dramas adapted from "talent and beauty" love stories from vernacular literature and opera repertoires, such as The Butterfly Lovers (Liangzhu tongshi 梁祝痛史, 1926), Legend of White Snake (Baishe zhuan 白蛇传, 1926), Madame Mengjiang (Mengjiang nü 孟姜女, 1926), etc. Classics like Pilgrimage to the West, Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms also supplied rich stories for their cinematic adapatations.
The returning of overseas Chinese talent and capital also contributed to the growth of film industry in the 1920s. Playwright Hong Shen 洪深 (1894-1955), a student of George Pierce Baker at Harvard University, returned to China in 1920 and became one of the pioneers in Chinese modern drama and cinema. He was very active in theatrical circle in Shanghai and joined in the Star Company in 1925. He published the first Chinese film script Madame Shentu (Shentu shi 申屠氏) in 1925, wrote and directed a couple of films for the studio, among which Love and Gold (Aiqing yu huangjin 爱情与黄金 1926) was very popular established his fame in the film circle. His early works, in Leyda's words, at least reinforced "the dramatic solidity of this company" [Leyda 1972: 50]. Two companies were incorporated in the United States, the Great Wall Film Company (with capital of U.S. $200, 000, all shareholders are Chinese overseas merchants) and the Peacock Motion Picture Company, a Sino-American corporation, under the laws of Delaware (capital U.S. $5,000,000) backed up by some high-rank Chinese officials [Leyda 1972: 39]. The Great Wall Company opened Shanghai offices before the profit fever of 1925. Followed the Ibsenism, which maintains that "art must criticize life and blend with life", the company produced a series of films reflecting on women's rights (and someimes drawing upon a variety of European writers such as Maupassant, Sardou, etc.), including Divorcee (Qifu 弃妇, 1924), The Star-Plucking Girl (Zhai xing zhi nü 摘星之女), The Pearl Necklace (Yi chuan zhenzhu 一串珍珠, 1925), etc. The other group that was chiefly supported by overseas Chinese was the Wonderful Continent (Shenzhou 神州) Film Company, incorporated in 1924 by Wang Xuchang, a wealthy young man who had studied film production in France and advocated making films around "a concealed message" to reform the society.
Many genre films were developed for popular entertainment during this time period. Comedy was one of the earliest developed popular genres at the time, as being considered "a cure-all for the financial ills of film firms"[Leyda 1972: 36]. The earliest productions of the Star Company were all comedies. Crime stories, often adapted from true stories and wenming xi 文明戏, were also among the earliest feature films for sensational purpose. For example, one of the earliest long features, Yan Ruisheng (1921), was based on a famous Shanghai murder case of 1920. Yan Ruisheng killed a prostitute Wang Lianying, who was a concubine of great renown in the pleasure quarters of shanghai, for money. The case received huge publicity and intrigued the Shanghai Cinema Studies Society to make a film about it. The company asked Yan's good friend Chen Shouzhi, who looked like Yan, to play Yan, and a former prostitute to play the victim. Well into the mid-1920s, most of the films produced during this period were adaptations from the popular romantic Butterfly fiction or scripts written by Butterfly writers, and most of the 600 feature films made during this period could be labeled Butterfly films. One of the popular Butterfly film is Jade Pear Spirit (Yu li hun 玉梨魂, 1924), a tragic love story between a widowed woman and the teacher of her son, based on Xu Zhenya's popular Butterfly novel. It took issues on the oppression of women by the old customs but remained very ambiguous about whether women were victims of the feudal marriage system or they should sacrifice themselves for men.
In the late 1920s, the Chinese cinema was dominated by martial arts film, as a result of the great popularity of the publishing of martial arts novels and comic books, also as a escapist response to the tightened censorship from the KMT government after the 1927 purge of CCP members in Shanghai. The first Chinese martial art film, Burning The Temple of Red Lotus (Huoshao Hongliansi 火烧红莲寺, 1928), written by Zheng Zhengqiu and directed by Zhang Shichuan from the Star Company, was such a sensational success that within three years, it was followed by 18 sequels from the same studio and other imitations from many small studios. According to Jay Leyda, "of the approximately four hundred films produced by the more than fifty Shanghai film producers between January 1928 and December 1931, about two hundred fifty films were of this swordplay-cum-mystery type, and all the financial successes of the period-except for the first Chinese novelties-were in this group" [Leyda 1972: 61-62].
Figure 1: Zheng Zhengqiu, the "Father of Chinese cinema"
Figure 2: Zhang Shichuan, one of the earliest pioneers in Chinese cinema
Figure 3: Film still of Yan Ruisheng, 1921
Figure 4: Film still of Orphan Rescues Grandfather, 1923
Figure 5: Li Minwei/Lai Man-Wai, the "Father of Hong Kong cinema"
Figure 6: Film still of Lai Man-Wai's documentary of the Nationalist Army, 1927
Figure 7: Film still of Laborer's Love, 1922
Figure 8: Film poster of Romance of Western Chamber, 1927
Figure 9: The Tianyi Film Studio
Figure 10: Hong Shen, pioneer of Chinese modern drama and film
Figure 11: Yang Naimei, one of the earliest film stars, the leading actress in Jade Pear Spirit
Figure 12: Film still of Orchid in Empty Valley (Konggulan, 1925), a popular Butterfly film
Figure 13: Film still of Burning the Temple of Red Lotus