The term "Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies" 鸳鸯蝴蝶 (hereinafter MDB) originated as a disparaging reference to a form of popular literature which dominated the Chinese literary scene during the 1910s. At first it just meant classical-style love stories, usually the troubled romance of a poor scholar and a beauty. But beginning in the early 1920s, young writers emerging from the May Fourth movement began applying the term to all forms of popular old-style fiction, which in the 1920s and 1930s grew to feature, in addition to love stories, knight-errant novels, scandal novels, detective novels and many others.
Histories of modern literature usually omit discussion of the MDB school of fiction, regarding it as middlebrow, escapist entertainment for a mass readership, unworthy of serious academic and critical discussion. While it did degenerate into soap opera in the 1920s, and into pulp fiction in the 1930s, writers practicing MDB were hugely successful commercially.
As the 1920s began, Chinese filmmakers, led by the Mingxing studio, began turning to popular literature for source material, so naturally looked to MDB, the school of fiction most popular with ordinary people at the time. From 1921 until 1931, the various Chinese film studios collectively shot about 650 movies, and the majority of these were MDB films written by popular writers of the day, or adapted by them from earlier published works.
The most important year for MDB literature's entry into the motion picture arena was 1924. In that year, Zheng Zhengqiu adapted for the screen the novel "Yuli Hun"玉梨魂 (The Soul of Yuli) by Xu Zhenya徐枕亚 (1889-1937). That same year, the novelist Bao Tianxiao 包天笑 (1876-1973) joined Mingxing, writing 10 scripts for the studio during the rest of the 1920s, and gradually becoming the representative figure among MDB film writers during this early stage in the development of feature films..
Film Adaptations of Popular Novels
The 1920s experiment of merging MDB fiction with motion pictures left us with two notable historical landmarks: first, it resulted in the first Chinese lawsuit in which a motion picture was the bone of contention; second, and more important, adaptation of the massive number of MDB stories for the screen became a decade-long trend.
In any case, this type of popular literature catered to the tastes of the leisure class of the day, as well as those of the masses of urban dwellers, and eventually became an important storehouse of subject matter for motion pictures. Fiction and film have been co-operative partners from the start, with a great demand for movies based on literary works. This has been the case in every country with a movie industry.
One could say that Chinese motion pictures gained an excellent tradition through its experiment with film adaptations of MDB fiction, evolving from the romantic fiction of the early years through swordsman films, eventually producing its direct descendant, the global success "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
In the next post, we will look at one of the most popular of the early MDB movies, as well as the most prominent MDB novelist-turned-screenwriter.