When in the mid-1980s the productions of such prominent Chinese directors as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige began receiving international attention, references to "China's Fifth Generation" of filmmakers increasingly popped up in Western media. Now we have the "Sixth Generation." But while this implies that at one time there was a First through Fourth Generation, they are seldom mentioned. Who were they? We will discuss these earlier filmmakers here from time to time,, but we have to start out with the First Generation, and the man who was first among the First: Zhang Shichuan.
Zhang Shichuan 张石川 was born Zhang Weitong, on January 1, 1890 in the city
of Ningbo, Zhejiang province. He was 16 when his father died, and the
boy was sent to Shanghai to live with an uncle, who found him a job in
a textile factory. The company employing him did considerable work
with Shanghai's sizable foreign business community, and his reputation
soon grew among them. He enhanced his career prospects by taking ESL
night school classes, and was soon speaking what was termed "Yang Jing
Peng English," named after the creek which flowed between the French
and the International Settlements in Shanghai, and indicating a level
of fluency suitable for communication in business dealings.
In 1913, Russian-American expatriate entrepreneur Benjamin Brodsky decided to return to the U.S. via Hong Kong, and put his Asia Film Company up for sale. The buyers' correct identities are unrecorded, but in 1913 two American businessmen whose names are transliterated in Chinese documents as "Isher" and "Shafei" purchased the company, and their high regard for the 23-year-old Zhang Shichuan prompted them to ask him to join them as their adviser and company COO. Zhang directed several short narrative films for the Asia Company, among which "A Couple in Difficulty" is regarded as China's first narrative film.
In 1916, when the Asia Company announced it was ceasing operations, Zhang Shichuan joined with four others (Zheng Zhengqiu, Zhou Jianyun, Zheng Zhegu and Ren Jinping) to establish their own film studio, which they called "Mingxing" 明星 (Star). Mingxing eventually grew into the largest film studio in China, and from 1923 to 1937 Zhang Shichuan directed 70 films for the company, becoming the father of Chinese movie direction, the leading director of its First Generation of filmmakers.
Zhang Shichuan was a strong advocate of making movies with "box office value." If the romantic movies of what was called the "Mandarin ducks and butterflies school" made money, he filmed them; if martial arts fantasies sold tickets, he filmed those. And when the left-wing film movement emerged, Zhang made such movies as "Cosmetics Market," "Prospects," and "The New Year's Gift." Conversely, to complement the Nationalist government's campaign to suppress the Communists, he made a documentary, "Report on Suppressing the Bandits."
After several years of steady encroachment on China's sovereignty and interference into her internal affairs, Japan in 1937 launched a full-scale invasion. The invaders shut down the movie studios, and many Chinese film workers fled Shanghai, some to Hong Kong, and some to Wuhan and later to Chongqing (Chungking). However, the Japanese did not occupy the foreign concessions, and in this part of Shanghai, the "Orphan Island," Zhang Shichuan joined the Guohua Film Company, directing movies for them until the Japanese occupied the foreign concessions at the end of 1941. Unlike their actions in 1937, the Japanese this time allowed film making to go on in Shanghai, so long as anti-Japanese themes were not included in the subject matter. Zhang joined one of these wartime studios, serving as its plant manager and head of production in addition to directing.
Three Unforgettable Films
In a 1933 article Zhang wrote that, "There are three movies I can never forget: 'Orchid in an Empty Valley,' 'Burning of the Red Lotus Temple," and 'A Marriage Through Tears and Laughter' ... "
Why did Zhang consider these three films as unforgettable? Each has its own reasons.
"Orchid" is the representative work of China's early silent movies. It has been said that "whenever early films are discussed, 'Orchid in an Empty Valley' must be mentioned." Adapted from Chinese author Bao Tianxiao's translation of a novel by Japanese author Ruikō Kuroiwa (1862-1920), this 1926 release introduced and molded the screen images of actor Zhu Fei and actresses Zhang Zhiyun and Yang Naimei, and made 120,000 yuan at the box office, a huge success at that time.
[right: "Orchid in an Empty Valley"]
"Burning of the Red Lotus Temple" was Zhang's adaptation of a martial arts novel. As the story goes, Zhang's son loved to read martial arts novels, and one night the elder Zhang, having trouble getting to sleep, picked up a copy of this book from his son's bedside nightstand in the hope that reading might make him drowsy. He soon found himself wide awake, inspired with ideas for adapting the book for the screen. He read through to the end, and the next morning began work on a film version. The movie was a huge success, with 18 parts filmed between 1928 and 1931. Its success launched a succession of imitations from other studios, and for a time martial arts fantasies dominated China's movie screens. But this eventually led to a public backlash and even political pressure to stop making them. So this was an "unforgettable" film for Zhang not only because of its exceptional financial success, but also for the eventual condemnation of the genre.
[left: "Burning of the Red Lotus Temple"]
six-part "A Marriage Through Tears and Laughter" was another literary
adaptation, of a novel by the prolific novelist Zhang Henshui. The
Star studio invested heavily in its filming. However, the Great China
studio was making its own version at the same time, and the rights
question inevitably wound up in the courts. The two sides agreed to
mediation by Du Yuesheng, the head of Shanghai's leading triad, as well
as a powerful political force. The outcome was that Star won the right
to make the movie, but only after paying Great China a sizable
indemnity. However, the movie was released at a time (1932) when
anti-Japanese feelings were growing among the Chinese people, in no
mood for sentimental romances. So the movie did poorly at the box
office, which combined with the payoff to Great China forced the Star
company into bankruptcy for a time. This was why Zhang Shichuan listed
it among his three "unforgettable" films.
When the Star Company was newly established, out of its competitive needs, Zhang Shichuan discovered and made the reputations of four of China's biggest silent film actresses: Wang Hanlun, Yang Naimei, Zhang Zhiyun and Xuan Jinglin.
Wang Hanlun was an instant success in her first movie, "An Orphan Saves His Grandpa," so Zhang quickly capitalized on this by casting her in the lead in three more films, "The Death of Yuli," "Pitiful Son, Weak Daughter," and "A Young Laborer." These four successes made her for a time China's biggest star of the mid-1920s.
"The Death of Yuli" was Yang Naimei's first screen role, but her signature work was her performance in "A Resurrected Conscience," adapted from Tolstoy's novel "Resurrection." Yang's interpretation of the heroine, a seduced and abandoned peasant girl who winds up on trial in a climactic court scene, was lauded by contemporary reviewers as flawless. During the film's initial run, Yang came on stage to sing during intermission, and this practice quickly caught on with audiences.
In 1925, an entertainment venue in Shanghai held what we would today call a film festival, with the city's several film studios participating. The Star Company contribution was "Orchid in an Empty Valley," starring Zhang Zhiyun. The movie drew the largest attendance at the festival, and Zhang Zhiyun was voted "Best Actress" by filmgoers.
Xuan Jinglin had the longest tenure with Star, making more than 20 films there. She herself said the ones she found most satisfying were "Twin Sisters" and its sequel "Flowers Reborn," "Orchid," and "A Big Family."
In addition to these four actresses, another source of pride for Zhang Shichuan occurred in 1927, when he took advantage of a reorganization at the rival Tianyi studio to bring the "pillar" of that studio, Hu Die, to the Star studio. Hu Die, often billed as "Butterfly Wu" (or "Woo") when her films were shown outside of China, made many films for Star, and in 1933 was awarded the title "Empress of Film" in a nationwide survey. Her reputation was undying, and she became Star's money tree.
But his satisfaction at the successful results of this decision were tempered by another he made at the same time. After securing Hu Die's services for Star, Zhang released Ruan Lingyu from the company. Ruan had joined Star in 1926, but soon became unhappy over Zhang Shichuan's lack of emphasis on her as a lead actress. When Star let her go, Ruan joined the Lianhua (United China) studio, and under the tutelage of such people as Sun Yu, became a top star, recognized today as China's greatest actress of the silent era. Zhang eventually realized his mistake, and it was something he regretted the rest of his days.
Two Complex but Happy Matches
When Zhang Shichuan first arrived in Shanghai as a lonely teenager in the world's most wicked city, he began frequenting low-class brothels. At one of these places he met a girl, and it was love at first sight. She was pretty, she was kind, the two moved in together and soon had a child.
When his filmmaking career really began to take off, Zhang became acquainted with He Yongchang, a man known as Shanghai's "King of Fur." This very wealthy man believed that fathers should choose their sons-in-law, and on first meeting Zhang Shichuan the young movie director's capability, shrewdness and initiative so impressed He Yongchang that he decided this was someone destined to accomplish great things. He insisted on introducing Zhang to his daughter He Xiujun, a first meeting at which the older man declared "You two are an ideal match, and I will choose an auspicious day for your marriage!" He Xiujun saw in Zhang Shichuan an astute and capable young man, handsome and ambitious. Zhang saw her as a vivacious and lovely young woman with a wealthy and influential father, a bridal prospect with no down side. The two quickly began to discuss marriage.
Zhang's first wife came from a poor background, and realized she had no way of supporting her husband financially in what was becoming a meteoric rise to success. Therefore, she did not oppose his marriage to He Xiujun. But she did set out certain conditions, namely that she also be regarded as his legal wife, that her living boudoir be recognized as co-equal to that of He Xiujun, and her children be given full status in the family as Zhang's heirs. Zhang Shichuan was bewildered: a wife and a concubine were not uncommon for successful men, but how can you have two co-equal wives in the same household? After puzzling over this for some time without result, Zhang did what he often did when confronted with a knotty problem: consult with his close friend, writer/director Zheng Zhengqiu.
Zheng Zhengqiu was an expert at mediating disputes, and in the end he came up with the solution he thought best for all concerned, namely: let Zhang Shichuan and He Xiujun go to Hangzhou to marry. Then, after their return to Shanghai, they would establish a home in a new location, while his first wife and their child would continue living at their current address. As Zheng put it, this would maintain the form of "one family, two locations," with each wife reigning supreme in her particular household. Both sides agreed enthusiastically to this, and implemented the arrangement. [right: Zheng Zhengqiu]
earlier, Zhang Shichuan had remained in Shanghai for the duration of
World War II, during which he worked for a time at the Huaguang (China
Light) film studio. This came back to haunt him after the war, when he
was accused of treason for working at a film studio regarded as
collaborationist although it really just made movies that were escapist
entertainments. At the time he was accused, Zhang was in Hong Kong directing Zhou Xuan in "An All-Consuming Love" for the Great China studio. As soon as
he learned of the charges against him, he was naturally overcome with
worry and fear. He already suffered from a variety of ailments, and
this added provocation caused his heart trouble and diabetes to flare
up. After days of agonizing concern, he resigned from the film and
hurried back to Shanghai to face the charges. When he arrived, he
found that many in the Shanghai film community had been accused of
being wartime collaborators, but were using social and political
connections to get off, not a difficult task since the evidence of
actual treason was so flimsy. Ironically, one of the leading political
figures in getting charges against filmmakers dropped was the deputy
mayor of Shanghai (with whom Zhang's daughter turned out to be having
an affair). While the entire film community was for a time abuzz with
the possibility of treason charges against so many of them, in the end
no one was actually brought to trial.
But while it turned out to be a false alarm, the ordeal had taken its toll on Zhang, and from 1946 on, his health steadily declined.
In 1948, the Liu brothers (Liu Zhongliang and Liu Zhonghao) established two film studios, Guotai (National Peace) and Datong (Great Unity), and asked Zhang to join them as Datong's head of production. He agreed, but after making just one movie, "A Woman in Troubled Times," he felt he could not continue, and retired for good.
Zhang Shichuan moved for a time to Suzhou, but soon returned to Shanghai. After passing a few years there as a frequently bedridden invalid, he died June 8, 1953, age 63.
For further reading:
Liu, Siping. Zhang Shichuan cong ying shi (History of Zhang Shichuan in movies). Beijing: China Motion Picture Press, 2000.