Scissors Appear Under the Mercury Lamps
As more than one film scholar has noted, Chinese movies in their earliest phase were merely a superficial, insignificant form of entertainment having gone through the three dominant phases of the 1920s: slapstick comedy shorts, "Mandarin ducks and butterflies" romances, and martial arts fantasies, successively. But in the topic of this article, the 1931 "Film Censorship Act," these "shadow play activities" were not even regarded as art. While large-scale entry into the market made movies a "tool for the global exchange of ideas" in the eyes of filmmakers, the announcement of the censorship act in November, 1930 (enactment was deferred until January, 1931) added a pair of scissors to the market "sword" already hanging over the head of the Chinese movie industry.
Acrobatics on Ice
The specific reasons spurring the Nationalist Government to formulate the Film Censorship Act are still unclear to this day. Left-wing filmmakers wanted to attribute the government action to its need to repress dissent, but while many have believed this to be true, and while it may have been (at least partially) true, it does not sum up the whole picture of why such a law was introduced.
It is noteworthy in this regard that in the same year the Film Censorship Act was introduced, the most sensational event in the Chinese film world was the storm of protest that erupted following the release of the American film《Welcome Danger》, considered as "insulting to the Chinese people" by Shanghai municipal agencies, which eventually banned it. To calm the storm and protect its growing China market the Paramount studio pulled all copies of《Welcome Danger》from the country, and took out full-page newspaper ads of apology. In the months following the incident it soon became evident the Chinese government was taking a hard line stance on foreign films. To take 1934 as an example, in that year the government censorship standards were revised, and under this new set of rules, 9 films were banned, 6 of which were American, twice the number of domestic films banned. The central film authorities of the Nationalist government announced they would "pay attention to foreign films having topics insulting to China," and sent a delegation led by the Lianhua studio's chief executive Luo Mingyou to the US to communicate with American filmmakers, in an effort to prevent a similar incident from recurring. During that time, MGM was preparing the script for the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's novel The Good Earth, and the Chinese side reviewed the script and suggested changes, plus there were Chinese observers present during the filming. These actions which followed the introduction of the censorship law makes it clear how important the preservation of national dignity was to both sides. Beyond this, however, repression of dissent and stifling the proliferation of martial arts fantasies were the other two of three major themes behind the campaign to preserve traditional moral standards.
So in 1930, the 25th anniversary of Chinese motion pictures, Chinese filmmakers found themselves in a situation similar to that of a figure skater performing acrobatic leaps, jumps and spins on ice, moving at high speed while trying on the one hand to keep the body in balance, while still paying attention to the actual situation underfoot. Fear of movies' effects and the popular mania for them had been on a collision course, and when they finally collided the Film Censorship Act was the result, laying down strict conditions which severely restricted what filmmakers could show on screen. For example, the section of the act dealing with things "prejudicial to public order or dignity," included nine provisions prohibiting such things as propaganda for another country, harming the image of the Chinese people, denigrating the current government of the Republic of China, performing in a way adverse to the customs of Chinese nation or people, ridiculing the commonly admired sages of the past or a currently famous person, showing scenes of opium or morphine use, etc., etc.
[The following is a translation of an interview which was published in the Beijing News on May 15, 2004. The interviewee, Wang Zhaoguang 汪朝光, is a Research Associate in the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Institute of Modern History. Doctor Wang is one of China's leading historians specializing on the Republican period (1912-1949), and many of his numerous publications have dealt with the film hstory of that era. The original interview is still on-line at several Chinese news sites. The interview was conducted for the Beijing News by journalistic intern Zhang Yue 张悦]
Anti-fantasy, But Also Anti-Hollywood [right, Wang Zhaoguang]
The implementation of the "Film Censorship Act" was far-reaching, because from that point on, Chinese motion pictures were no longer seen as simply a means of entertainment, and were now labeled with the official seal of the law as a form of commerce. But after brushing off the dust of history, what after all did these new regulations do for movies? To find the answer, this reporter interviewed an expert, Wang Zhaoguang, of the CASS Institute of Modern History.
Beijing News: What sort of societal context gave birth to China's earliest censorship system, the Film Censorship Act?
Wang Zhaoguang: The earliest foreign films seen in China were fundamentally documentary in nature, but they didn't draw widespread attention due to technical and exhibition limitations. Then about 1910 films began being shown in all of China's large cities, their impact extended, and even a succession of foreign detective films began to exhibited. And although during the time the Northern warlords were in control, there were some calling for restrictions on their screening, there was no specific implementation. In 1927, before the Nationalist government took office, some local film regulations appeared in Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu, but that still didn't close all doors.
Beijing News: What were the various reasons why the national government promulgated the Film Censorship Act?
Wang Zhaoguang: Three reasons, mainly: first, a movie requires a certain amount of control during its production, because otherwise the movie might go astray; second, the national government called the "Three Principles of the People" the nation's foundation; and third, there was a growing opposition to martial arts fantasy films, which were very popular but were producing many negative effects. An additional reason was the uncontrolled entry of Hollywood films into China, and the authorities disapproved of this. These reasons all contributed ultimately to the introduction of the Film Censorship Act.
Beijing News: We know that in the United States in 1930 The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) drafted the famous "Hays Code," while our Film Censorship Act was introduced almost simultaneously. The two were similar in some places and different in others; how do you view this?
Wang Zhaoguang: There are basically two film censorship systems in the world: the one is that used in England, the United States and other countries, which stresses film censorship through "industry self-regulation," like the Hays Code basically used market forces as the means of constraint; another, used in the former Soviet Union, Japan, China and other countries is the system set by government agencies, and is basically mandatory.
Beijing News: Was the Film Censorship Act effective at the time of implementation? And what were the reactions of the major film studios?
Wang Zhaoguang: The effects of the law were quite obvious, as it made a number of sharp constraints mandatory for the four types of prohibited films. And, according to the historical records on film, some studios were disgruntled because, they were, after all, losing some economic benefits, but in general, opposition to the Film Censorship Act was pretty muted. [Beijing News editorial note: some film companies that had specialized in movies dealing with supernatural topics were forced to accommodate their productions to the new policy. As of 1933, a small number of fantasy films were being released, but these were concentrated in outlying provinces where central government control was weaker.]
Beijing News: What do you believe was the significance of the Film Censorship Act for Chinese cinema?
Wang Zhaoguang: As their movie industries have developed, every country has drawn up film censorship regulations to a certain extent, and also regulated their industries. Our movie censorship system was special because it was the product of a definite historical period, that is to say, it meshed closely with society's needs at that time. Another special aspect was the "regionalism" of certain movies, that is, certain scenes which were fashionable at the time could be shown in Shanghai, but would be unacceptable in a relatively isolated city in the interior. Generally speaking, the film censorship system of the time had a definite positive significance, for without those rules there could be no standards.