Miracles of Life

Source: J.G. Ballard, Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton – An Autobiography (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), pp. 37-38

Text: In September 1939 the European war began, and quickly reached across the world to Shanghai. Outwardly, our lives continued as before, but soon there were empty places in my class at school, as families sold up and left for Hong Kong and Singapore. My father spent a great deal of time listening to the short-wave radio broadcasts from England, which brought news of the sinking of HMS Hood and the hunt for the Bismarck, then later of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. School was often interrupted so that we could visit one of the cinemas for screenings of British newsreels, thrilling spectacles that showed battleships in line ahead, and Spitfires downing Heinkels over London. Fund-raising drives were held at the Country Club, and I remember the proud announcement that the British residents in Shanghai had financed their first Spitfire. There was constant patriotic activity on all sides. The German and Italian communities mounted their own propaganda campaigns, and the swastika flew from the flagpoles of the German school and the German radio station, which put out a steady stream of Nazi programmes.

Newsreels soon became the dominant weapon in this information war, many of them screened at night against the sides of buildings, watched by huge crowds of passing pedestrians. I think I saw the European war as a newsreel war, only taking place on the silver square above my head, its visual conventions decided by the resources and limits of the war cameraman, as I would now pull, though even my 10-year-old eyes could sense the difference between an authentic newsreel and one filmed on manoeuvres. The real, whether war or peace, was something you saw filmed in newsreels, and I wanted the whole of Shanghai to be filmed.

Comments: James Graham Ballard (1930-2009) was a British writer known for his dystopian novels and experimental fiction. He was born in Shanghai, China, where his family lived in the International Settlement. The family was interned by the Japanese over 1943-45.

The New China

Source: Henri Borel, The New China (New York: Dodd, Mead and company, 1912), p. 77

Text: The bioscope films—Tien ying or “lightning shadows”—have become immensely popular in China, and here and there even begin to supplant the ancient, very popular Chinese theatre. In the large Ta-Sha Lärl Street, in the Chinese City, some theatres where special Chinese plays used to be given have been entirely re-arranged for bioscope productions, although only in very exceptional cases are Chinese scenes reproduced. The bioscope seems an invaluable instrument for giving the Chinese people some idea of life in Europe, of which they used to have not the slightest notion; and the Chinese also forms by its means a clear conception of modern inventions. I positively saw in Peking good films of balloon ascents and aviation. It is certainly a sharp contrast to visit the Chinese City in the evening, to go through the sombre mediaeval Ch‘ien Mên Gate, to walk along the wide Ch‘ien Men Street, where not a single European can be seen at that time of day, to pass into the crowded Ta-Sha Lärl Street and traversing a long, dark passage, to enter a Chinese theatre and see on the canvas a Paris Boulevard with Parisian gentlemen and girls, clearly on the spree, sitting, half seas over, in front of a café. Shade of Confucius, how is it possible?

Comments: Henri Borel (1869-1933) was a Dutch travel writer, journalist, novelist and diplomat. He was an authority on Chinese affairs. This account of Chinese film shows refers to Beijing.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Spell of China

Source: Archie Bell, The Spell of China (Boston: Page Co., 1917), pp. 102-104

Text: Charlie Chaplin has “invaded” the Orient and he is winning friends for the “American drama,” where acting and singing companies have failed to do so. They told me of an American comic opera company that visited Shanghai some time ago. My informant declared that the troupe gave creditable performances, but the Chinese ears were tortured by the singing. At first the audience calmly endured it, thinking that the agony would soon be over. Then they looked at one another absent-mindedly, and, finally, before the evening was over, most of the men had folded their coat sleeves over their mouths, so their laughter would not be audible. But they all have heard about the popularity of Chaplin in America, and for once in their lives Orient agrees with Occident. Chaplin is a great entertainer! The Chinese enjoy him, because his antics coincide exactly with their ideas of what comedy should be; and think he is the funniest man who ever lived. It is amusing to attend a theater in China where a Chaplin exhibition is in progress. When I first saw him in the country it was in a rather imposing theatre and “Our Best People” were said to be in attendance. The first glance at them, however, was rather shocking. Here was “full dress” with a vengeance; “full dress” that quite put into the shade any similar effort at undress in the Metropolitan horseshow in New York. Many Chinese were stripped to the waist and wore either a pair of bathing trunks—the idea was borrowed from America—or the long, baggy Chinese trousers that are tied around the ankles with ribbons. As I looked out over the audience from the back of the house, the bathing trunks, trousers and ribbons were invisible. What I saw was an ocean of bare backs and shoulders. I took a seat among this strangely costumed multitude, and finally recovered sufficiently to note that a Charlie Chaplin comedy was being shown. Bang! Something came down and hit him on the head. Zipp! He tripped his toe and fell headlong. The audience laughed as I had never seen Chinese laugh. There were few ladies present, because it is not yet considered quite the “proper” thing for a Chinese matron or her daughters to attend a cinema exhibition, but I carefully observed the perspiring gentlemen close to me. They seemed to be having the time of their lives, sometimes laughing so violently that it seemed to pain them, doubtless because it pained them to realize that they were so far forgetting themselves. Whenever “Our Charlie” took a particularly heavy fall, or whenever something fell on his head, apparently causing him great suffering, the Chinese closed their eyes, sat back on their benches and laughed facially and inwardly. It was a typical July night and it was very warm. The perspiration flowed down their backs in streams as they literally undulated with glee.

Comments: Archie Bell was an American travel writer. The racially questionable piece goes on to argue that “no better exhibition could be devised for the entertainment of the Chinese audience. He is supposed to have a ‘heart,’ but the Chinaman derives much satisfaction when he sees another man suffering, particularly if there is a remote possibility that he deserves it.”

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Roving Through Southern China

Source: Harry A. Franck, Roving Through Southern China (New York: Century, 1925), p. 555

Text: Now even the cages of the animals had been cleaned up; the lotus-lake was open to pleasure navigation; a good commercial museum was functioning, and there were several tea-houses and places of entertainment, including an outdoor moving-picture house – of which most of the stock naturally did not belong to the governor’s enemies. Not the least interesting of my experiences in Chengtu was a Saturday evening at the new open-air movies. I went with my host, and therefore with the governor and most of his family, for one of the duties of foreign advisers to a Chinese military potentate of the interior is to translate the titles of the execrable American films that sometimes get that far up country. While the wildest of our melodramas flashed its lurid prevarications in the faces of the incredulous, yet often over-credulous, Chinese throngs, the thought came to me that perhaps they were judging it by the incredible things which their tuli was even then accomplishing in the ancient city. Fortunately we were there, for if we had not been able to assure the governor that life in America is not always what a film no doubt forbidden even in its native land purported it to be, he might have been forced in self-defense to renounce his allegiance to foreigners and their ways.

Comments: Harry Alverson Franck (1881-1962) was an American travel writer, whose journeys took him China, Latin America, Europe and the USSR. His Roving Through Southern China was a follow-up to this 1923 travel book Wandering in Northern China (1923). Chengdu (romanticised then as Chengtu) is a city in Sichuan province. A tuli is described by Franck as being a highly self-exalted Chinese personage.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Crippled Tree

Source: Han Suyin, The Crippled Tree (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965), pp. 377-379

Text: The cinema was called in Chinese the True Light Cinema. It had a brown gooey façade, and at that time it looked enormous; it had suffered, forty years later when Rosalie returned to stare at it (renamed the People’s Theatre, and with a grey sticky façade), the shrink that all revisited childhood monuments suffer. The True Light Cinema showed chiefly American pictures in the 1920s, because there were no Chinese film companies. The films were all galloping horses, villains, and usually a buxom girl, with long fair hair, who was constantly getting herself tied to railtracks and rescued in the nick of time from a rapidly enlarging locomotive belching smoke that blackened the screen and dimmed the cinema too. An orchestra of White Russians in the pit made appropriate music with drum beats for revolver shots. The King of Kings, and City Lights with Charlie Chaplin (which Mama did not think funny), Rosalie would remember for many years; also a film, The Birth of a Nation, which showed hooded horsemen clad in white sheets riding down ugly black men, and the same fair-haired, buxom girl, throwing herself down some rocks because a black man was running after her and smiling. It was at this film that the incident occurred.

Someone in the audience (while it was dark and musically solemn because house was heing burnt with the white-clad horsemen ranged round watching) got up and started to shout. There was immediately a commotion, lights were switched on, policemen appeared from the four corners of the hall where they were always posted, and the young man who had shouted was dragged away, the usual sticks plying upon him quick and fast while he strove to cover his bleeding face with his hands. And it reminded Rosalie of Charlie Chaplin, though this young man was Chinese and had the scarf round his neck which indicated he was a university student.

While the young man was being dragged out, Mama turned to Rosalie. who was not sitting in the same row as Mama and Tiza and Papa, but alone behind, because there had been only three seats in the row. The young boy who occupied the seat next to Tiza had left it to run to the aisle, as many others did, to get closer to the young student, whom the policemen were dragging away. ‘Quick, now,’ said Mama, ‘sit here with us.’

Rosalie obeyed. She sat next to Tiza, in the seat left vacant by the boy.

But the boy now returned, and said: ‘This is my seat.’

Mama indicated the seat in the row behind, which Rosalie had left. ‘You can sit there.’

The young boy began to shout: ‘This is my seat, my seat.’

And all the people in the cinema now crowded round them, round Mama, Papa, Rosalie and Tiza.

Then another young man with a scarf began to shout, and the young boy suddenly raised his fist and screamed: ‘Down with all white devils from over the sea,’ and there was noise like a train approaching quickly, and it was the whole cinema, together making this noise. They stamped, clapped, whistled, and suddenly they were all shouting, in time: ‘Down with the colonialists, down with the imperialists,’ and singing.

The policemen reappeared, and again they began to use their sticks, but they were too few, and they crowded round Mama and the girls and got them out of the cinema, and Papa stayed behind. Then he too came out, and he was so pale, Rosalie had never seen him that colour before.

Comments: Han Suyin (1917-2012) was a Chinese Eurasian physician, novelist, memoirist and historian, best-known for her novel A Many-Splendoured Thing. She was born Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou to a Chinese father and Belgian mother. Her book The Crippled Tree, a combination of history and memoir covering 1885-1928, documents the great challenges their family faced during a period of political turmoil in China. In this passage, recording an incident in a Peking cinema, she refers to herself in the third person (Rosalie). The anecdote continues with a bitter row over race between the two parents. There was a small amount of Chinese film production in the 1920s, particularly towards the latter end of the decade, but it is not clear when the incident described took place. A screening of The Birth of a Nation (1915) in China in the 1920s feels unlikely, but the scenes she recalls are part of the film.

Call to Arms

Source: Lu Xun, from the preface to Call to Arms, contained in Selected Works of Lu Hsun vol. 1 (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1956), p. 3

Text: [1956 translation] I do not know what advanced methods are now used to teach microbiology, but at that time lantern slides were used to show the microbes; and if the lecture ended early, the instructor might show slides of natural scenery or news to fill up the time. This was during the Russo-Japanese War, so there were many war films, and I had to join in the clapping and cheering in the lecture hall along with other students. It was a long time since I had seen my compatriots, but one day I saw a film showing some Chinese, one of whom was bound, while many others stood around him. They were all strong fellows but appeared completely apathetic. According to the commentary, the one with his hands bound was a spy working for the Russians, who was to have his head cut off by the Japanese military as a warning to the others, while the Chinese beside him had come to enjoy the spectacle. Before the term was over I had left for Tokyo because after this film I felt that medical science was not so important after all.

[1980 translation] I have no idea what improved methods are now used to teach microbiology, but in those days we were shown lantern slides of microbes, and if the lecture ended early, the instructor might show slides of natural scenery or news to fill up the time. Since this was during the Russo-Japanese War, there were many war slides, and I had to join in the clapping and cheering in the lecture hall along with other students. It was a long time since I had seen any compatriots, but one day I saw a news-reel slide of a number of Chinese, one of them bound and the rest standing around him. They were all sturdy fellows but appeared completely apathetic. According to the commentary, the one with his hands bound was a spy working for the Russians, who was to be beheaded by the Japanese military as a warning to the others, while the Chinese beside him had come to enjoy the spectacle. Before the term was over I had left for Tokyo, because this slide convinced me that medical science was not so important after all.

Comments: Lu Xun, also Lu Hsün, the pen name of Zhou Shuren (1881-1936) was a Chinese short story writer, poet and designer. In the preface to his 1922 short story collection Call to Arms (吶喊) he writes about seeing on a screen the beheading of a Chinese while he was a medical student at the time of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). The Chinese word ‘diànyǐng’ normally means motion picture, but it can also mean magic lantern slide. The 1956 translation above suggests that what he saw was a film; the 1980 translation suggests that it was a slide. Lu Xun also wrote about the incident in his 1932 memoir Dawn Blossom Plucked at Dusk (朝花夕拾):

In our second year we had a new course, bacteriology. All the bacterial forms were shown in slides, and if we completed one section before it was time for the class to be dismissed, some news in slides would be shown. Naturally at that time they were all about the Japanese victories over the Russians. But in these lantern slides there were also scenes of some Chinese who had acted as spies or the Russians and were captured by the Japanese and shot while other Chinese looked on. And there was I, too, in the classroom.

“Banzai” the students clapped their hands and cheered.

They cheered everything we saw; but to me the cheering that day was unusually jarring to my ear.

It is most likely that he saw a lantern slide of the incident, though Chinese beheading films, both actuality and fictionalised, had been made in Britain around this time. My thanks to Dawid Glownia for having brought these passages to my attention, and for providing background information.

Links: Copy at BannedThought.net

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

The Spell of China

Source: Archie Bell, The Spell of China (Boston: The Page Company, 1917), pp. 97-102

Text: The Chinese are becoming infatuated with the motion picture exhibition to such an extent that they will gladly attend a performance, the program of which extends through four, five, or even six hours, which is quite in keeping with the time limit of native theatrical representations. I saw a crowd quite overcome with joy at the vicissitudes that befell the heroine in the American-made film, “The Hazards of Helen.” The thrilling scenes were greeted by outbursts of applause, many of the spectators rising to their feet and shouting lustily when the hero saved Helen and her baby by venturing onto the railroad bridge and jumping into the river with the two in his arms as the express train whizzed across the screen.

Such a demonstration meant much more in China than it would mean in a Western country. It is not “good form,” not even “proper,” for a Chinese to betray his emotions; at least, he must not let them rise to the surface. He may applaud at the theater, but even while making this demonstration, which is not in accordance with ancient custom, he must not smile or laugh. The comedian may grimace; gentlemen in the audience are not supposed to do so. The
scene may be very thrilling and tense, but Chinese gentlemen should have better control of themselves than to show by any facial movement that they are excited.

But Helen, assuredly very modern, as seen in the motion pictures, caused them to forget some of the things that they had been taught by their fathers. They not only betrayed the fact that they received the thrill, but they seemed to be delighted to do so and seemed to desire to let the hero know that they appreciated what they had done. When “close-up” portraits of the characters were shown, smirking and “looking pleasant,” which is so contrary to all the canons of Chinese theatric art, they stood up and waved their hands. When the express train was flashed on the screen, whizzing along at a mile a minute — in a country where trains seem likelier to move a mile in ten minutes — they applauded as we in America applaud when a favorite star makes her “big speech” in the third act. Certainly they enjoyed “The Hazards of Helen.” It was the first time that I saw a Chinese audience witnessing a film that was “Made in America.” If I had never seen another Chinese audience beholding a “Made in America” film, I would have had the impression that the motion picture was more popular in China than in America. But I saw many of them. I saw audiences only mildly interested, and I saw some that were quite visibly bored, because they did not know what it was all about, and, not knowing, they could not feel an interest any more than the popular American audience would feel for Greek tragedy or the sacred dances of Siam. At Chinese motion picture houses a lecturer frequently stands on the stage and explains the action, even in such stories of primitive situations as “The Hazards of Helen.”

“Now you see the little child going out on the railroad bridge,” he says. “She is a thoughtless infant, who does not know that death is lurking in her path. She is as happy as any innocent little child can be. She skips over the railway ties, having found a new amusement. But what will happen when the fast train comes thundering along the track? What will become of the child!”

Oh, he is an eloquent extemporaneous speaker, this Chorus who explains the play! He weaves much into his “explanation” that is prompted by the picture itself, much that never entered the mind of the scenario writer.

“Helen sees the little girl,” he continues; “What can she do? How can she save her?” (Helen is flashed on the screen gazing bridge-ward, with a sort of hunted-deer expression.) “Will she stand there and see the child run over by the train, or thrown into the river below? No, she does not think twice, but rushes out onto the bridge and snatches the child into her arms. But the cruel train is coming; see, it is coming around the mountain. It will plunge into the tunnel and then out onto the bridge.” (Business of express train plunging into a tunnel.) “The hero sees Helen and he, too, rushes out onto the bridge. Will he reach her and the child before the train comes? That is the great question. See! He has reached them, but it is too late! In ten seconds the train will be upon them. There is no time to escape, so the hero takes both Helen and the child in his arms and jumps off the bridge into the river. Will he be strong enough to swim and reach the shore in safety with his precious load?”

And so forth, the “lecturer” creates action, when he thinks the interest is flagging. During the scenes that make merely an “exposition” of the characters and plots he is obliged to keep up his story, or at least he does so. He invents enough plots and counterplots to provide another instalment of the serial. I was unable to learn the origin of these gentlemen, who seem so important to the movie in China, but they must have had much theatrical experience in their native country. They must have as ready knowledge of all the old plots as the average
dramatist in America. Perhaps some of them have acted in Chinese plays, the plots of most of which are the same as the stereotyped plots in American drama. They remember, but the audience does not, apparently, because, as in America, it appears to enjoy the unraveling of the same old stories. It is the “lecturer” who makes the American motion picture intelligible to the oriental audience, at least the Chinese audience, which insists upon knowing something about what is transpiring. Chinese actors carry “suggestion” so much further than the Americans would attempt to do their speeches are so absolutely inaudible, on account of the strumming and squawking of the various instruments of the orchestra, that people do not expect to hear too much and have learned to trust to their eyes. Or perhaps they do not care to understand. In the course of a six-to-ten hour entertainment, which is not an uncommon length of time for a Chinese play to run, they will hear enough to satisfy them and reward them for going to the theater. It is useless to permit one’s self to become overwrought and excited about mere play acting. Life itself is much more comic, much more tragic; and they do not become excited about life, seeming to value it very lightly, and not worrying about death.

Comments: Archie Bell was an American travel writer. The Hazards of Helen was an American serial, originally starring Helen Holmes (later episodes starred Rose Gibson in the role), that was originally released 1914-1917 in 119 episodes. Lecturers explaining the action of silent films were common in many cultures, most famously the benshi of Japan. The film shows described were probably in Shanghai.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Into China

Source: Claude Roy, Into China (London: McKibbon & Kee, 1955), pp. 283-284, trans. Mervyn Savill from Clefs pour la Chine (Paris, 1953), reproduced in Jay Leyda, Dianying: An Acount of Films and the Film Audience in China (Cambridge, Mass./London: The MIT Press, 1972), p. 187

Text: In China I saw an amazing film whose beauty seemed to challenge all the esthetic rules of the game between film stock and light. For the first quarter hour in this long documentary on prostitution and its suppression, the camera did not move away from the ordinary and very distressing face of a young woman who only told her life story. A french audience probably would have been annoyed by this fifteen-minute-long passage in which the camera remains immobile and where nothing happens – except the reflection on one face of a whole destiny of humiliation and servility. I can imagine how a French audience would have sought release either in laughter, no matter how tense and nervous, or in flight from the theater. What was most moving for me in this film showing was not merely the nakedness and authenticity of the woman’s testimony, it was the attitude of the audience. The hundreds of spectators in this Chinese cinema did not give the usual impression of being spectators, of being on the other side of a mirror that stretched across this great space of a face and a life. An almost concrete link was established between them and the screen – nor was this merely uneasy curiosity or pharisaical hostility. No fear of ridicule, no enjoyment of indiscretion, no contemptuous withdrawal broke the equality between the woman who laid her burden before all of us and the “spectators” who received it without irony and without scorn – I might even say, without pity. At least without that pity which is already a judgment in its condescension. Each one felt that it could have happened to him. That is all. That is enormous.

Comments: Claude Roy (1915-1997) was a French poet, autobiographer and travel writer. The film described here is Stand up, Sisters! aka Peking Prostitutes Liberated (China 1950 d. Shih Hui).

Report from a Chinese Village

Source: Li Hung-fu, interviewed for Jan Myrdal, Report from a Chinese Village (London: Picador, 1975, orig. Rapport från kinesisk, pub 1963), trans. Maurice Michael, pp. 248-250

Text: With the years, life has got better. We are making progress all the time. In the old days, for example, we had few possessions. Now we have thermoses, galoshes, blankets, hand-carts with rubber wheels, bicycles. There’s no comparison between what is was like before and what it is like now. We had been hoping for a long time to be able to buy a bicycle. We had planned to buy one. Eventually, in 1959, we had got enough together to buy one. We use it for transporting things, for bringing things home when we have been in the town shopping, and I usually take it to ride over to my relations in other villages. Sometimes I take my wife and children with me. I give them a lift then. It’s a quick way of getting there. Women walk so slowly. I also take the bicycle when I am going into the town to go to the opera or the cinema. I like the opera and cinema; but on the other hand I am not particularly amused by the song-and-dance troupes. It’s mostly operas that are already classics that I like. Of the films I remember, I can mention ‘The Monkey King Conquers the White Bone Spirit Three Times’, that is a filmed opera, and ‘Hwa Mountain is Conquered’. I like films. My ten-year-old son can’t get on with opera, but he likes films, he wants to see films like ‘A Warrior of Steel’. He wants adventure and excitement and war and that sort of thing.

Comments: Li Hung-fu (b. c.1928-?) was a battalion commander in the People’s Militia and resident in the North Chinese village of Liu Ling, near Yenan (the town referred to here). He was interviewed and profiled by Swedish sociologist Jan Myrdal during a month’s study of the village undertaken in 1961, which resulted in his Report from a Chinese Village. The films referred to are Monkey King Conquers White Bone Ghost Three Times (China 1961), Capture by Stratagem of Mount Hua (China 1953) and Steeled Fighter (China 1950). Opera here refers to Chinese opera.