The popularity of slapstick comedies on American screens in the silent era naturally produced many marvelous comic actors, such legends as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, to name a few. As China's domestic film industry grew, the popularity of these and other Hollywood comics with Chinese audiences inevitably led to Shanghai studios fostering their own screen funnymen. Among the Chinese comic actors of the classic era, two are mentioned most often in Chinese film histories: Han Lan'gen, who began in the mid-1920s in small martial arts movie roles, and only later became a comic, his career not taking off until the 1930s; and Tang Jie, who began in serious roles, then turned to comedy in the early 1930s, gaining fame with his very popular "Mr. Wang" character. Their careers and popularity extended well into the era of sound.
But even before Han and Tang there was another Chinese screen actor who specialized in comedy and became so popular that in the 1920s he became known as "the Oriental Chaplin." While there were others who had done comedy, especially comedy shorts, Zhou Kongkong was the first to gain stardom in that genre in feature-length films.
Zhou Kongkong 周空空 (birth name Zhou Dapeng 周大鹏) was born in Changshou Township near Chongqing (Chungking), Sichuan in 1887. He came from a family of scholars: his paternal grandfather was a Qing dynasty official who at one time served at the imperial court as teacher to the royal family's children. After the grandfather retired and returned to Changshou, he became president of the Changshou College there. The future screen comic's parents were also scholars, his mother the founder and first headmistress of the Changshou Girl's School, at a time when it was rare for a woman to rise that high in education. Not surprisingly, their son was also an apt student, especially in art and music. He also studied and performed in Sichuan opera, usually in a female role, which led to his interest in acting.
[Zhou in a publicity still. The writing on the barrel says "Zhou Kongkong's makeup." Click on any image to enlarge.]
Zhou's early years were also the last years of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, a time of civil unrest, rampant political corruption and widespread poverty domestically, accompanied by humiliating diplomatic and military weakness and repeated territorial concessions in China's foreign relations. Zhou's parents had sent him to Japan for his higher education, and planned for him to become an imperial official like his grandfather. But at that time, a number of ambitious young Chinese studying in Japan became enthused with anti-Manchu revolutionary fervor, and joined the Tongmenghui (Revoutionary Alliance) organized and led by Sun Yat-sen. One of these students was Zhou Dapeng. He later returned to Sichuan to join the revolutionaries and worked in the anti-Manchu underground. The Manchus were overthrown in late 1911, and in his home town a stage production was written and staged to celebrate the event. Zhou auditioned for and secured the female lead in the production.
In the Zhou family, Dapeng was considered the brightest of five brothers and sisters, and his parents considered him the most promising for success. But instead of returning to his studies, he concentrated on honing his performing skills. They had earlier feared that his covert participation in a revolutionary party would hurt the entire family; now they were further upset by his becoming a performer, and moreover his dressing as a female was outrageous. Parents and son became daily more estranged, and when they at last confronted him with a demand that he stop, and he replied with his characteristic wisecracking humor, his father slapped him. At that, Zhou Dapeng left his parents' home and went alone to Chongqing.
After arriving in Chongqing, he formally took up performing as a career by joining a Sichuan opera troupe, and changed his stage name to Zhou Kongkong.
He soon attained local reknown as an opera "leading lady," but after a few years certain practices required of performers began to chafe on him. At the time it was a customary practice for opera companies to hand out free tickets to warlords, bureaucrats, local thugs and hooligans, or giving free performances when some politico hosted a banquet, a birthday, a wedding, etc. These practices he could not accept: he was a skilled professional, with talents people would pay to see, so why should he be forced to donate those talents to people whose status demanded it? So about 1922 he resigned from the opera company. But it raised a dilemma: what was he to do? He made up his mind to continue with opera performances, traveling from province to province working here and there as a freelance, often continuing in female roles but sometimes just clowning around. But in 1924 an audience member in one small town changed his life forever. The man in the audience was Mingxing studio head and chief director Zhang Shichuan, who found he couldn't stop laughing at the young comic's antics. So he went backstage and recruited him for China's fledgling movie industry, an opportunity Zhou didn't hesitate to accept.
[left, one of Zhou Kongkong's characters in a typical tough spot.]
For some reason, however, Zhou Kongkong made his motion picture debut in 1925 not with Mingxing, but with the smaller Xinhua studio, which folded a year later. Perhaps Zhang Shichuan owed someone a favor, but whatever the reason Zhou moved to the Mingxing studio later in 1925. From that point until 1930 he logged nearly 40 movie credits, and earned the rubric the "Oriental Chaplin." Although none of his films have survived, it appears this was not due to his duplicating Chaplin's "little tramp" character, but rather because he was funny, the first outstanding Chinese screen comic.
The details surrounding Zhou Kongkong's eventual fate is unclear. In 1930 he returned to Chongqing in his native Sichuan province to direct a movie, a serious non-comedy. The movie, to be called《Repentance》(忏悔) was believed to be a searing critique of Chinese revolutionaries. Shortly after he arrived, Zhou Kongkong died suddenly on August 12, 1930. The Chinese sources vary widely as to the cause: some say he succumbed to a sudden illness; some say he was murdered by a warlord who bore him a grudge. (They may have both been right.) Whatever the truth, the career of China's first major screen clown ended abruptly.
[right,Zhou Kongkong out of character, in dapper street clothes]