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The Beginnings: Shanghai as the centre, 1896-1945
Motion pictures were introduced to China in 1896. The first recorded screening of a motion picture in China occurred in Shanghai on August 11, 1896, as an "act" on a variety bill. The first Chinese film, a recording of the Beijing Opera, The Battle of Dingjunshan, was made in November 1905. For the next decade the production companies were mainly foreign-owned, and the domestic film industry did not start in earnest until 1916, centering around Shanghai, a thriving entrepot center and the largest city in the Far East then.
During the 1920s film technicians from the United States trained Chinese technicians in Shanghai, and American influence continued to be felt there for the next two decades. The first truly important Chinese films were produced starting from the 1930s, when the "progressive" or "left-wing" films were made, like Cheng Bugao's Spring Silkworms (1933), Sun Yu's The Big Road (1935), and Wu Yonggang's The Goddess (1934). During this time the Nationalists and the Communists struggled for power and control over the major studios, and their influence can be seen in the ensuing films produced. The post-1930 era is called the first "golden period" of Chinese cinema, where several talented directors, mainly leftists, worked. Three production companies dominated the market in the early to mid 1930s: the newly formed Lianhua, the older and larger Mingxing, and the Shaw Brothers' Tianyi. The period also produced the first big Chinese movie stars, namely Hu Die, Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan, Zhao Dan and Jin Yan. Other major films of the period include New Women (1934), Song of the Fishermen (1934), Crossroads (1937), and Street Angel (1937).
The Japanese invasion of China, in particular their occupation of Shanghai, ended this golden run in Chinese cinema. All production companies except Xinhua closed shop, and many of the filmmakers fled Shanghai, relocating to Hong Kong, Communist- and Nationalist-controlled regions, and elsewhere. The Shanghai film industry, though severely curtailed, did not stop however, thus leading to the so-called "Solitary Island" period (also known as the "Sole Island" or "Isolated Island"), with Shanghai's foreign concessions serving as an "island" of production in the "sea" of Japanese occupied territory. It was during this period that artists and directors (who remained in the city) had to walk a fine line between staying true to their leftist and nationalist beliefs and the Japanese censors. Director Bu Wancang's Mulan Joins the Army (1939), with its story of a young Chinese peasant fighting against a foreign invasion, was a particularly good example of Shanghai's continued film-production in the midst of war. Following declared war with the Western allies in the aftermath of December 7th, 1941, this period largely ended; the solitary island finally being engulfed by the rest of the Japanese occupation. By the end of WWII one of the most controversial Japanese-authorized company, Manchukuo Film Association, would be separated and integrated into Chinese cinema.
Actress Zhou Xuan in Yuan Muzhi's Street Angel (1937)