Insulting Pictures: The Thief of Bagdad in Shanghai

By Jessica Ka Yee Chan

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 28, no.1  (Spring 2016), pp. 38-77

This essay examines an unusual way of categorizing films that arose in semicolonial Shanghai as a result of the exhibition of The Thief of Bagdad (Yuegong baohe) (Raoul Walsh, 1924) in the Isis Theater in 1925, which sparked controversies surrounding Hollywood Orientalist representation of the queue as a tainted icon. The term ruhuapian—“films that insult the Chinese”—refers to an understudied category of Hollywood Orientalist films. At the heart of the coinage of the term ruhuapian is the convergence of Hollywood Orientalist representation, sovereign and racial thinking, and the discourse of wounding. As a category, ruhuapian reveals much about Chinese self-conceptions in semicolonial Shanghai, particularly within the film industry. Through a close reading of the Shanghai Film Association’s open letter to Douglas Fairbanks, the leading actor of The Thief of Bagdad who visited Shanghai in 1929, this essay argues that the open letter functioned within the film industry as both a conciliatory strategy and a rejection of ruhuapian—two contradictory responses to the challenges to Chinese self-identity. In the final section of this essay, I explore a third perspective on the category of ruhuapian—in this case, one from an outsider to film. In the afterword to his 1930 translation of the Japanese Marxist film critic Iwasaki Akira’s “Film as a Tool of Propaganda and Provocation” (a chapter of Iwasaki’s Film and Capitalism [1931]), Lu Xun questions the obsession with insult by shifting the local and national discourse on ruhuapian to an international discourse on film and capitalism. Lu Xun articulates the pleasure principle of The Thief of Bagdad, whose appeal as a hegemonic form lies in its potential for restructuring spectatorial desire in a way that reinforces colonial subjugation and dependency on capitalism.