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Uncover the Forgotten 'Hollywood of the East'

Posted on 04 Oct 2018

Since the birth of the Chinese movie industry in 1920, over 300 movie periodicals were created; although little trace now remains of that once-flourishing print genre, 'Chinese Movie Magazines' collates and contextualizes more than 500 full-colour covers, “from Charlie Chaplin to Chairman Mao”.

Unlike Hollywood’s male-oriented action movies, China’s wuxia genre was noteworthy for its sword-wielding heroines, who dominated Chinese screens in the late 1920s and early 1930s. One of the most renowned “lady knights” was Fan Xuepeng, seen on the cover of this special edition magazine from You Lin studio in Shanghai. Xuepeng shot to fame in the five-part Heroic Sons and Daughters, released between 1927 and 1931.

Before Mao Zedong dismantled China’s independent cinema industry, the country was home to a flourishing commercial film scene. With its central hub in Shanghai, the “Hollywood of the East”, the early 1920s saw the advent of bona fide studios, feature length films, a homegrown constellation of movie stars, and an attendant publicity machine. The thriving movie culture also spawned its own journalistic genre — the Chinese movie magazine, a remarkable 300 of which emerged in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The publications were a colourful kaleidoscope of newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets, and photograph albums — beautiful artifacts that contained some of the most striking poster designs, artworks, and photography of the time.

These magazines document not only cinematic developments — the transition from silent film to the “talkies” — but also China’s dramatic political metamorphoses in the decades leading up to the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The magazines reveal the effects of Japanese invasions, as well as the ideological battle between Left and Right that culminated in Mao Zedong’s rise to power.

Among the wealth of cinematic publications was a subgenre dedicated exclusively to movie sound and music. Their emphasis on songs rather than stars resulted in some of the most graphically innovative magazine covers of the period. This 1934 edition showcases the theme song for All Quiet on the Western Front.

This unique perspective on modern Chinese history has largely been forgotten: little trace has survived of these magazines. Their publication stopped after Mao entered office, with the last fanzine shut down in 1951. The new regime snuffed out the independent movie publishing industry as much as it dismantled the last privately operated studios and instituted a complete ban on Hollywood movies. Under the campaign to “rectify arts and literature”, cinema was now construed not as a star-driven commercial art but rather as a solely propagandistic medium to support the ruling party. Many archive issues of Chinese movie magazines were thrown away by erstwhile collectors and subscribers who were nervous to hold onto relics from the much-stigmatized Republican past.

In the 1980s, one man recognized the value of these precious publications. Peter Fonoroff was a young American who moved to China after the reestablishment of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic ties in the early 1980s. He studied Chinese film at Peking University, played a small role in a Chinese film, and then moved to Hong Kong where he became a film critic, a television host, as well as a dialect coach for Jackie Chan.

“Hollywoodization” takes hold as the Yi Hwa studio releases its first attempt at a true American genre, the crime thriller. Xinhun daxue’an (Newlywed Murder Case) was the motion picture debut for Cheng Mang-ha, declared by the press to be Shanghai’s answer to Ginger Rogers.

In the process, Fonoroff developed a fascination for Chinese cinematic paraphernalia, trawling through bookstores, flea markets, and decaying movie theatres to rescue these historic magazines. The result, nearly four decades later, is Chinese Movie Magazines: From Charlie Chaplin to Chairman Mao, 1921–1951, featuring some 500 covers and posters from around 300 movie publications. From the first generation of Chinese stars to Hong Kong’s colonial movie culture, from sword-wielding warrior women to China’s variant on the Pin-Up “Cheesecake”, the publications provide a unique window onto a period of intense social, cultural, and political transformation, as much as stunning examples of Chinese design, illustration, and typography.

Find the complete collection in Chinese Movie Magazines: From Charlie Chaplin to Chairman Mao, 1921–1951 and more Chinese history in Magnum China.

The Sino-Soviet Friendship Association, founded in October 1949, introduced a “Soviet Film Week” and an associated bilingual Russian-Chinese journal. This cover featurs a still from The Fall of Berlin, with Stalin played by Mikheil Gelovani.

Words by Eliza Apperly.

All images © Paul Kendel Fonoroff Collection for Chinese Film Studies, C. V. Starr East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley

Chinese Movie Magazines

From Charlie Chaplin to Chairman Mao 1921-1951 Paul Fonoroff

Magnum China

Colin Pantall, Zheng Ziyu, Jonathan Fenby

China (British Museum)

A History in Objects Jessica Harrison-Hall