Projecting a Nation:
Chinese National Cinema Before 1949

By Jubin Hu

Reviewed by Zhen Zhang
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November 2005)

Jubin Hu.                Projecting a Nation: Chinese National Cinema Before 1949 (University. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University, 2003.         ISBN: 9622096107. 276 pp.

Jubin Hu. Projecting a Nation: Chinese National Cinema Before 1949 (University. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University, 2003.
ISBN: 9622096107. 276 pp.

The study of Chinese cinema before 1949 has in the past decade experienced a considerable boom, thanks to a number of factors. The increased liberalization of Chinese economic and, to a lesser extent, cultural life on the Mainland since the early 1990s has made it possible for researchers to venture into previously forbidden or controversial areas, such as the “pre-liberation,” or Republican, era. The ascendance on the international scene of new Chinese cinemas, represented by the Fifth Generation and other contemporary filmmakers of Chinese-language cinema, inspired public curiosity and scholarly interest in the yesteryears of Chinese cinema, especially as the centenary of cinema approached in the mid-1990s. For political and financial reasons, the China Film Archive, the custodian of the material remains of early Chinese film history, had not been particularly invested in their preservation, restoration, and research, but now it too began to mine its troves and launched a number of noteworthy projects. For example, Jubin Hu, then a researcher at the Archive, began his current study and co-authored (with Li Suyuan) Zhongguo wusheng dianying shi (History of Chinese silent film) (Beijing: China Film Press, 1996), the first book-length study on Chinese silent film, which was translated into English one year later.

The burgeoning Chinese revisionist film historiography coincided with the flourishing of early cinema studies in the west, although Chinese scholars have not been keenly aware of this important new trend in Euro-American film studies, due to lack of access and scholarly exchange. The two sides brushed shoulders in 1995, when a Chinese delegation, which included Li Suyuan and Hu himself. attended the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in northern Italy, where an extensive program of Chinese silent film was offered. (Its success led to another installment in 1997.) The Chinese delegates were pleasantly surprised at the enthusiastic reception of early Chinese films, long relegated to the “historical trash bin” in China. More surprising, beyond the usual cultural and political interest shown by western audiences and critics in Mainland films, was western scholars’ admiration for the aesthetic quality of many films, hailing them to be on a par with the best silent films made elsewhere in the early twentieth century. The Pordenone experience showed that early cinema, regardless of national origins, is a global heritage, and that the mission of archives and archivists is to make the collections accessible for generating new cultural (and, why not, economical) riches.

The confluence of these public events and scholarly trends provided fertile ground for new research. The “historical turn,” in the wake of poststructuralism and postmodernism, ushered researchers into dusty archives, uncovering long neglected materials, and making new connections. Rather than simply being driven by an empirical (or fetishist) obsession with the archive, most scholars in this new quest for Chinese film history have sought to ask questions both big and small, conceptual as well as evidentiary. They try to place newfound or old evidence in dialogue with contemporary theoretical explorations within film studies and other related disciplines.

Jubin Hu’s Projecting a Nation is a representative synthesis of these efforts. It includes a wealth of primary sources on both the film industry and filmmakers and their works in a manner similar to the aforementioned History of Chinese Silent Film. It is an ambitious undertaking, showcasing both a virtuoso performance by an archivist adept in discovering precious primary sources, and the boldness of a theoretically-minded historian in engaging with them. The book is also the product of the recent transnationalization of Chinese cinema and its study, as Hu moved from Beijing to pursue his Ph.D in Melbourne, Australia in 1998. One can sense the subtle transformation of a rather independently minded but discursively constrained state-employed Chinese scholar to an international scholar with ideas independent of his institutional or national affiliation. Yet this is by no means a total conversion. The style of the prose, the manner in which ideas are pursued, and the organization of evidence suggest an intriguing hybridization of conventional contemporary Chinese historiography and western scholarship—as a mostly productive but at times also problematic experiment.

Projecting a Nation makes for refreshing reading, if one has been following the recent wave of scholarly or quasi-scholarly work on Chinese cinema in English, much of which remains nonsystematic, random textual readings, inspired by trendy theoretical concepts without in-depth research and analysis. Beside Hu’s book, Laikwan Pang’s Building a New China in Cinema: The Cinematic Left-wing Cinema Movement 1932-1937 (London: Rowman & Littefield, 2002), Yingchi Chu’s Hong Kong Cinema: Colonizer, Motherland and Self (Routledge, 2003), and Yingjin Zhang’s Chinese National Cinema (Routledge, 2004) are to my knowledge the only other serious book-length works using the national or quasi-national approach available in English to date. The books by Pang, Hu, and Zhang in particular share the common goal of rewriting Chinese-language film history by means of a sustained engagement with the discourse or problematic of national cinema that has been influential in film studies in the past two decades. The trend is exemplified by the Routledge “National Cinemas” series, edited by Susan Hayward (author of French National Cinema), which includes Zhang’s book.

Hu’s book differs from the others mainly in scope, periodization, and approach. It is not focused on a single movement or period as is Pang’s, nor is it as expansive as Zhang’s project which, aimed at classroom use, covers not only the entire twentieth century but also Taiwan and Hong Kong. The periodization Hu adopts, however, reflects a former mainland scholar’s strong revisionist impulse to fill a big gap in the exiting historiography authorized or sanctioned by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), by offering a systematic alternative account of pre-1949 cinema history. It is not this ambitious goal per se but rather the way in which the author challenges the entrenched and unreflecting subscription to the notion of national cinema as “natural and inevitable” (p. 10), widely held among Chinese scholars, that makes the book a valuable contribution to the field of Chinese film studies, especially within China. The most daring and insightful parts of the book, such as chapter 5 on the highly contentious wartime cinema (in Chongqing, Shanghai, and Manchuria), demonstrate an intellectual open-mindedness and sophistication rarely seen in Chinese film scholarship. For instance, Hu pusuasively argues that the concept of national cinema in wartime was “multi-faceted, contested and fluid” (p. 157). The claim is supported by a nuanced periodization and evidence that reveals the complex and ambivalent relationship between Shanghai, Chongqing, and Manchuria—a major departure from previous binary and reductive historiography.For these reasons, I strongly recommend that the book be translated into Chinese as soon as possible.

On the other hand, the chronologically organized linear approach and the sub-periodization indicated by the chapters’ titles—as marked by significant political events and crises in the national history—show vestiges of time-honored principles of monumentalism and developmentalism that have governed historical writing in modern China, especially after 1949. The book is organized by a theoretical red thread, namely the question of national cinema and its applicability in the Chinese context. Indeed, the author has done an admirable job in delineating the changing and multiple manifestations of the nation or the national found in Chinese cinema throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The textbook formula, as well as the perhaps unconsciously evolutionist and reflectionist ways of plotting the history of a mass-mediated aesthetic medium as a mirror of the career of Chinese nationalism, however, have undercut the force and complexity of the main argument.

The author mobilizes an impressive amount of primary and secondary sources to make his case about the fundamentally political nature of Chinese cinema up to 1949 (and beyond). But the desire to maintain a consistent level of theoretical rigor has its attendant problems. The imperative to subsume all aspects of film practices—industrial and economic relations, reception, film criticism, and to some extent film aesthetics—under the umbrella of the national paradigm creates certain methodological tensions, in terms of inclusion and exclusion. As a result, the age-old historian’s headache of evidentiary authority and truth claims haunts this work, too. The author keeps the problem at bay with considerable success by differentiating various brands of nationalism—in all six of them, excluding its incipient form he calls “cultural awareness.” Hu assigns each to a different epoch, such as the “industrial nationalism,” which accounts for the rise of a domestic film industry in 1921-1930, and “class nationalism versus traditionalist nationalism,” which describes the ideologically antithetical left- and right-wing films and discourses in 1931-1936. Most of the time this strategy seems to work on the rhetoric level, as all resources are forcibly channeled into the streamlining of the secondary argument about a self-contained, period-specific version of nationalism—positive or negative, internally bred or externally caused—and how it absorbed the film world entirely into its machinations.

This apparently watertight sway that nationalism holds over the Chinese film world, despite or even because of its malleability and multiplicity, is precisely where the book opens itself to challenge and criticism. It is true that modern Chinese culture and arts, including literature, drama, painting and cinema, has been touched and even shaped by political upheavals and the accompanying ideological movements. But not all writers, artists, filmmakers, readers, spectators, and other producers and consumers of a wide range of mass cultural forms during the extremely unstable and divisive Republican period were uniformly or consistently recruited to the cause of nationalism, at least not always in a politically active fashion. And the six or seven forms of nationalism ascribed to their respective periods are in reality not always mutually exclusive. Hu does indeed introduce many nuances into the question of national cinema within the Chinese context by attaching time-sensitive modifying labels. I am not entirely convinced, however, by the assertion that Chinese national cinema, in contradistinction to many European cinemas, was not primarily a cultural form but merely a symptom of the national survival instinct and internal ideological strife. The book’s revisionist effort to challenge the official version of (or taboo on) the era in question deserves true appreciation. The exclusive focus on the centrality of politics and ideology, which the filmic practices illustrate without achieving their own expressive forms, however, unwittingly repeats the received model of doctrinaire historiography under the aegis of the CCP (or for that matter, the KMT). This results in another version of “official history” (zhengshi)—”general and macrocopic,” as Hu admits (p. 193)—leaving out, via ideological interpellation as it were, much of the flesh and blood of history, especially whatever does not fit into a neat linear narrative and conceptual scheme. We are reminded of Prasenjit Duara’s call, in the heyday of the topic’s popularity, for a “rescue” from precisely this tyranny of the nation and of nationalism.

A line of inquiry that would have both complicated and enriched the project of Projecting a Nation is the intertwined questions of capitalism and modernity. The book touches on these only tentatively in chapter 3 on “industrial nationalism,” and in chapter 6, on the postwar period before the CCP won the civil war and took power in 1949. The relationship between film industry and national culture could be more meaningfully pursued in areas that the author admits to have had to leave out, namely, material registers (such as film technology), aesthetic forms (such as genre formation and cinematic style), and reception (spectatorial expectation and reaction).

Often, “westernization” or “modernization” are used interchangeably to describe the urban milieu and modern trends reflected in films or changes in film industry. But the author always quickly harnesses this horse before it runs amok, by diverting the questions that these terms open up back into the through-line of nationalism, attributing everything to the desire to build a strong modern nation. To what extent and in what ways did the introduction of capitalist modes of production and consumption, especially in cinema and other forms of “culture industry,” affect Chinese culture and society at large, and not just certain elites’ obsession with a strong nationhood and their own masculine prowess? How did this transformation give rise not just to cinema as a subdivision of national industry but to the flourishing of a multifaceted, intermedia, and to some extent transnational mass culture, the content and form of which the term “national” cannot adequately account for? The question of cinematic modernity and transnational cultural production pertains not only to the five years between the end of the Sino-Japanese war and the end of the civil war, which created conditions for pronounced yearnings for a peace and democracy that “modernization” might provide and hence a seemingly “non-national” cinema.

I would suggest that this parallel track never lost its importance, even in the most intense periods of nationalist fever, as the sections on cinema in post-1932 bombing of Shanghai and later in occupied Shanghai suggest. The choice not to canvass the broader landscape of film culture and not to write a cultural history of cinema becomes understandable when one realizes that the author is primarily concerned with writing a history of the imprints that the discourse of nationalism left on cinema. While certain aspects of economic conditions and industrial relations are detailed in the book, they serve the purpose of explaining the series of discursive battles between different groups of intellectuals and government officials on the function of cinema in the nation-building project. When these materials and their analysis—certainly very valuable when so many films from the period do not exist anymore—take up most of the book, little room is left for talking about spectatorship, film form, star-text, or other important issues for a film history concerned with the medium’s larger socio-cultural role and effects, beyond training patriotic citizens of one kind or another.

In the final analysis, Hu’s main argument works on the discursive level. Thereby, the “projecting” in the title can be interpreted mainly in the psychological sense as a state of mind, pointing to intellectuals’ and policymakers’ desire to harness and manipulate a mass medium for a certain imaginary of a Chinese nation. “Projecting” in this sense has less to do with screen practices, viewing relations, and the actual films made and seen. Hu mentions many films and discusses some with insight (particularly those he had access to while working at the Archive). But these discussions tend to be hasty plot summaries, used to illustrate the “content” of the prevalent form of nationalist ideology at any given time. To say that some films served the ideology of nationalism directly is one thing, but to suggest that the entire cinema of the pre-1949 period was derived from and at the constant service of such an ideology or ideologies comes across as a sweeping generalization.

It is also debatable whether the highly popular genres, such as costume drama and martial arts-god spirit films, were simply traditional and, by extension, national or nationalist in nature. A careful examination of some of the extant films, especially their unique ways of incorporating modern technology, assimilating foreign film genres, and addressing pressing social (especially gender-related) issues shows that they had much to do with urban modernity, changing social mores and lifestyles, and the fashioning of modern subjectivities. More extensive forays into these areas would not make the question of the national disappear entirely, but would significantly complicate the picture presented by the book. It would require more thorough engagement with studies of cinematic modernity and modernism, as well as of gender and spectatorship, among other subjects that have been widening domains of historical writing on film.

The conceptual and organizational pitfalls enumerated above are perhaps inevitable, given the omnivorous tendency of a meta-theory that has always to be right and disallows anything that does not fit neatly into its parameters. Ironically, its explanatory power seems to thrive precisely in places of irregularity and instability. Given the tall order of its application to a messy situation that is China, Projecting a Nationaccomplishes much by taking the concept apart while leaving its basic premises and utility unchallenged.

Despite these issues, which are in any case too big and thorny to be resolved in one single book, I warmly recommend this readable and clearly organized book (each chapter has a conclusion), especially for students of Chinese cinema. I do so not simply because it is the only sustained study in English on the first four decades of a hitherto much-neglected period in Chinese film history, but also because of its intelligent use of a vast array of rare sources and many critical insights. Chapter 5 is particularly instructive in mapping out the complex triangle of Shanghai, Chongqing, and Manchuria. There are other thoughtful sections in the book, such as the assessments of Sun Yu and Cai Chusheng: rather than rehashing the one-dimensional myths of these directors, Hu shows their entanglements in competing ideological camps and the ways they resolve political ambivalence in their films through compromise and creativity. The last chapter addresses, usefully but rather belatedly, the question of film form, approached via some of the more extended and sophisiticated textual readings in the book. As indicated earlier, a Chinese translation of the book would serve great purpose in China: books like this, poised to raise questions and challenge preconceptions and rigid notions of the Chinese nation, are much needed in view of the current revival of nationalism in China.

Zhen Zhang
New York University