In January, 1921, a movie opened in New York City which provoked considerable outrage among the city's Overseas Chinese community. The movie was "The First Born," which, while produced by and starring Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, featured Caucasians in yellowface filling all other significant roles. But it was not the casting the Chinese found most objectionable; rather, it was the movie's distorted stereotypes of what was purported to be everyday Chinese life and common practices: female foot-binding, bizarre foods and drink, drug-dealing in the streets, opium smoking, frequenting brothels, etc. This was a second cinematic blow to Chinese ethnic pride: less than two years earlier, another movie, "The Red Lantern," had opened in New York (ironically, on May 4, 1919), which gave similarly negative and warped images of the Chinese people and their culture. Like "The First Born," it also had an A-list cast for the time, including Noah Berry, Reginald Denny, and Alla Nazimova in a key dual role as half-sisters, one of mixed race. (The only authentic Asians were uncredited extras, including a teen-aged Anna May Wong.)
[right, a scene from 'The Red Lantern.' Alla Nazimova is at left. At the time, she was the studio's top money-making star]
A delegation of Chinese community leaders went to the New York representative of Sun Yat-sen's Guangdong government, demanding he approach Mayor John Francis Hylan about the matter, which they did. Hylan, a proud Irish-American familiar with ethnic slurs and stereotypes, agreed the films were unacceptably offensive, and took steps to ban them from further exhibition in NYC. Unfortunately, this was the petitioners' only success at the urban level, as both movies continued to be shown in other American cities. So the Overseas Chinese leaders took their grievance to the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, expressing to the board members how unacceptable they found these outrageous caricatures of the Chinese people and their culture. The Board's response was not at all what the petitioners had wanted, in fact was insulting: in effect, the Chinese were told that if they wanted accurate reflections of themselves, they should make movies that foreigners would want to see, not the silly and ephemeral comedy shorts that were the staple of Chinese moviemaking until that time.
So the Chinese decided to do just that. In May, 1921, with the financial support of Li Qidao (李期道), a wealthy New York Chinese, a group composed of New York Chinese residents and Chinese students pooled their talents and founded their own company to make movies which would accurately portray China and the Chinese. At first, it was called the Changcheng [Great Wall] Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, and in 1922 they released two short films in New York: these were "Zhongguo de Fuzhuang" 中国的服装 (Chinese Costume), and "Zhongguo de Guoshu" 中国的国术 (China's National Art) which were, respectively, introductions to China's traditional costume and its martial arts. But the prospects for such a company in the US were dim, plus becoming a major US studio had never been the objective, so in 1924 the young students who had started Changcheng decided to return to China and move the company, renamed the Changcheng (Great Wall) Film Company, and bringing with it all its film equipment. They set up operations in temporary quarters in Shanghai while a permanent studio was under construction, and moved into it in 1925.
Soon after it began producing films in Shanghai, Great Wall quickly became noted for its modern facilities and large talent pool. Most of its managerial and technical staff had been educated in the United States and had considerable familiarity with Western film and drama. In addition, the new studio had clear objectives and a sense of social responsibility, believing in the social function of art and its usefulness as a force to influence and reform society. Since it grew out of patriotic indignation and ideals, its production plans were understandably quite different from those of other, more commercially-focused movie companies. Great Wall also arranged to publish a periodical, and whenever the studio released a new movie, it would bring out an issue focused on discussing the film and the philosophy behind its production. In one of these it was stated that "films propagating violence and sex" were totally unacceptable to Great Wall, since they were "harmful and insulting to nation and society." It is interesting that while still based in the U.S., Great Wall proclaimed its intent was to concentrate on exposing distorted images of Chinese culture, but back in China, the company targeted social issues for criticism, and films based on problematic social events became the hallmark of the Great Wall Motion Picture Company. Each production raised and examined a core (social) problem. In keeping with this stated philosophy of "transforming society," studio management hired Hou Yao as chief director and head of the writing department, since his artistic and social views were widely known to mirror their own.
Under the creative direction of Hou and his wife Pu Shunqing (濮舜卿), Great Wall began producing films which conformed to the studio's strategy. It's first release, at the end of 1924, was "Abandoned Wife" (aka "The Divorcee," decrying the inferior social status and political powerlessness of women in Chinese society, especially independent working women. This was followed in 1925 by "Cupid's Puppets," which attacked the practice of arranged marriages, "The Person in the Boudoir Dream," which focused on the sufferings inflicted on ordinary people by widespread Chinese warlordism, and "Between Love and Filial Duty," largely summed up by its title. 1926 brought "A String of Pearls," which dealt with family problems, and "Wei Junzi" 伪君子 (The Hypocrite), exposing political corruption. Great Wall's distinctive characteristics and lofty objectives drew critical acclaim, and the expression "Great Wall School" of filmmaking became for a time synonomous with quality. Probably reflecting the overseas backgrounds of Great Wall's creative talent, the studio's "problem films" were heavily influenced by the works of Henrik Ibsen, much like the popular "problem dramas" and "problem fiction" of an earlier generation of Chinese artists. But even more profound influences were the traditional Chinese intellectual view that "wen yi zai dao" 文以载道, i.e, that "literary works can lead the way," combined with the modern desire to "transform society," and the belief that literature and art can be useful in achieving that end.
But the studio itself had a major problem: these noble aims met with little understanding and support from audiences. While products of the "Great Wall School" of filmmaking were received enthusiastically by the intelligentsia, the reaction of the majority of urban filmgoers was far less warm. The Great Wall studio's productions had little box-office appeal, and critical acceptance seldom translated into monetary payback.
On the surface, the reason for Great Wall's lack of financial success appeared to be that its productions were just too highbrow to have mass commercial appeal. But the studio's leadership could not agree on this as the main problem. The young creative talent that had set out with such high hopes began squabbling about what to do. One faction, led by Hou Yao, argued that the company's path to success lay in basically staying the course, adhering to the original principles, but finding some way of getting its messages across in a more entertaining way. The other faction wanted to change course and switch to making more commercial, and therefore more competitive, motion pictures. After a series of meetings that must have gotten heated at times, the latter side won out, and as a result, several of the more idealistic writers and directors (including Hou Yao) left the studio in early 1927. Great Wall switched its focus to making films in keeping with the two (sometimes overlapping) fads of the late 1920s: ancient costume movies and swordsman/martial arts fantasies. But in spite of some success that staved off immediate financial disaster, the studio at last fell victim to the worldwide economic depression that reached China at the end of the decade, and went out of business in 1930, closing a brilliant but ultimately sad chapter in Chinese movie history.