Village Life in Old China

Source: Cornelius Osgood, Village Life in Old China; a community study of Kao Yao, Yünnan (New York, Ronald Press, 1963), pp. 19-20

Text: A little after nine we set out for the Cosmopolitan cinema in our host’s car. The journey was a short one and we descended at the side door which led to the directors’ office. My first impression was of being in a dark basement room of an old house, but the feeling was soon displaced by friendliness when tea was served. About ten, we all went into the theater to see the picture, a box with comfortable overstuffed arm chairs of the European type being reserved for us. The building itself was originally a temple famous for its great red columns of a celebrated hard wood notably used for expensive coffins. We sat in a reserved section of the left wing of a balcony, the central part of which extended some distance to the rear. All quarters of the house were crowded with Chinese and, as the picture began, someone started shouting at the other side of the balcony creating a din which made the English sound track of the film, already somewhat muted, completely inaudible. I expected the man who was yelling to have vented his feeling after a while, but when he continued with no sign of stopping, I discovered that he was the speaker, and that he was paid to convey the theme of the film to the audience who could not understand English nor, for the most part, read the Chinese characters customarily added to a foreign production. My companion informed me that Kunming was one of the few cities in China where the custom of having a speaker still existed. I regretted not being able to understand for, from what I could comprehend of the picture, it could not have helped from being considerably improved by an oriental commentary.

Comments: Cornelius Osgood (1905-1985) was an American anthropologist who conducted research in China, as well as the Arctic and Korea. Though published in 1963, his book Village Life in Old China describes field research undertaken in 1938. Lecturers who explained the action to audience were common in Chinese and Japanese cinemas into the 1930s, when films were silent.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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