No one has asked me, but a question that could be raised is: "Since such a large percentage of Chinese films of the classic era have been lost, including an estimated 95% of the silents, how can these lost films be reconstructed in such sources as The Chinese Mirror, and often in such considerable detail?" The answer is: by drawing on the multiple printed and online Chinese sources which relate the films' plot synopses, and cast listings as they were presented on screen. But this begs the question, "So where do they get their information?" In many cases, the answer is from archived shuomingshu (说明书), invaluable documents for the Chinese film historian.
To clarify what these were, a brief lesson in the Chinese language may help. If one consults a modern Chinese-English dictionary, the usual definitions of shuomingshu that first turn up are "reference book," "manual" or "guide." For example, if you acquire an appliance or an electronic device, it usually comes with a booklet telling you in some detail how to set it up, operate and maintain it. That booklet in the modern sense is a user's manual, in Chinese a shuomingshu. But the classic meaning of the term is somewhat different: the basic meaning of shuoming (说明) is "explain," and while shu (书) is most often used to mean "book," its basic meaning is "document." So a shuomingshu, in its most fundamental sense, is an "explanatory document." I have found no standard English translation for shuomingshu when applied to movies, but they remind me of the "playbills" or "program notes" handed out to audiences attending stage productions in the West, except that the Chinese version carried plot synopses, telling the filmgoers much (or all) of what would happen in the movie. So without a standard definition, I have chosen in my filmography plot synopses to use the more modern Western expression "program notes" as my translation for shuomingshu.
Like the films themselves, the earliest program notes were imported into China by Western movie companies. At first these were in the same foreign languages as the films they accompanied, but soon were being printed in Chinese, a way of increasing Chinese audiences' interest in attending foreign movies. Chinese filmmakers soon began issuing program notes for their own movies, and by the time China's classic film era was reaching its peak, almost every movie was accompanied by one of these publications, many of them free of charge but sometimes sold at very low prices. They ranged from single sheets of paper having only a short statement of introduction, to relatively elaborate multi-page pamphlets. The latter, heavily subsidized by advertising, were illustrated and beautifully printed, and sometimes even contained the entire script of the film. It was not uncommon for someone who had enjoyed a particular film to keep the program notes document and affix it to a wall at home as a keepsake, a memento of a pleasant afternoon or evening's entertainment. It is fortunate they did so, for such private contributions have enriched the collections of these documents at motion picture archives in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei, and today these aged and yellowed documents are a rich and invaluable source for researching the history of Chinese film.
Program notes are especially useful for information on those films which, while perhaps popular at the time, are not usually listed in standard Chinese movie histories and reference works as being classics, or included on "best" lists, etc. An example of a successful "non-classic" is this early silent, a hybrid of two popular 1920s genres.
This 1925 production featuring a flying heroine interceding to save two lovers' romance and eventual marriage was popular with audiences, but is not usually listed by historians as being among the landmark films of its era. It's plot was nothing unusual, a standard "mandarin ducks and butterflies" romance of two young lovers breaking up because of a jealous third party creating a misunderstanding between them, with all turning out well in the end. It's popularity at the time derived largely from, first, its casting: it co-starred Fen Juhua and Lin Yongrong, two very popular opera performers of the day, and included over a dozen of the Tianyi studio's top talent in supporting roles. Second, although wire work to give the appearance of flying was not new, this is generally regarded as the first film to feature a flying female. While not a martial arts film as we think of the term today, Chinese movie historians classify it as one of the pioneer films of that genre because of the flying heroine. A variation from other films of the time is its treatment of the practice of arranged marriage: usually an inequitable burden imposed on the couple, in this instance it was something they readily accepted.
Chinese sources disagree as to the film's actual premiere date, varying from December 16, 1925 to January 1, 1926.
Nüxia Li Feifei (1925) 女侠李飞飞 (Heroine Li Feifei)
Tianyi. B&W. Silent. 10 reels. Direction: Shao Zuiweng. Screenplay: Shao Cunren, Gao Lihen. Cinematography: Xu Shaoyu. Principal cast: Fen Juhua (Li Feifei), Lin Yongrong (Hong Yulin), Wu Suxin (Guo Huizhu), Wei Pengfei (Zhang Shen), Gao Lihen (Chen Shu'an, the matchmaker), Tan Zhiyuan (Guo Houzhai), Zhang Dagong (Jiang Yimin). Also: Fu Shusheng, Zhang Lingli, Ding Huashi, Zhou Kongkong.
A wealthy man named Hong is obsessed with respectability and his family's public image, so much so that he strictly controls their activities and appearance. As he ages, Hong wants before he dies to see his son and heir Yulin married, so arranges for a matchmaker to find the young man a bride. He wants the bride-elect to be a suitable consort for his son, a respectable young man who will someday be a leader in the community, honorably carrying on the family's name. So Hong demands the girl selected also be of good family, virtuous and innocent without even a suggestion of scandal about her. A businessman named Guo Houzhai has a beautiful daughter, a student named Huizhu, and a match is made. Although an arranged marriage is not of the young couple's own choosing, on their first meeting the two are very impressed with each other, and agree to the match. One person not at all happy about it is Jiang Yimin, a classmate of Huizhu who had been courting her without success. Consumed with jealousy at missing out, Jiang begins stalking the young woman, hoping to find something which will break up the engagement.
[But when the film proved to be more successful than expected, a more elaborate and detailed version was issued. Heroine Fen Juhua is at the center, with Wu Suxin above her (at noon) and leading man Lin Yongrong at one o'clock . The entire film synopsis is presented.]
One day when his father is away on business, Yulin is out dressed in casual clothes, rather than the business suit and tie he usually wears in public. By chance, he runs into Huizhu on the street, and they stop for a chat. While they are talking, Jiang covertly takes a photograph of the two together, but with Yulin only seen from the back, his face not shown. Jiang then sends the photo to the elder Mr. Hong, with an anonymous cover letter claiming it is proof Huizhu is a tart who talks with strange and lower class men on the street, and not at all the demure and respectable young woman she claims. The father angrily sends a message to Huizhu and her father breaking off the engagement, and forbids his son from ever seeing her again. Since he doesn't explain his actions, the confused and distraught girl attempts suicide by swallowing poison, but a heroine named Li Feifei flies over the wall and into the Guo family compound to stop her. Convincing Huizhu to have hope, Li Feifei then flies to the Hong compound and insists the elder Hong talk to his son. When Yulin sees the photo he explains to his father that he sometimes liked to dress in something more comfortable than standard business attire, and the man in the photo was indeed him. The father, embarrassed at not recognizing his own son, relents, and the couple is together again.
[right, Several of the makers of《Heroine Li Feifei》gather for a group photo. From left, actor Zhang Dagong, actor Lin Yongrong, director Shao Zuiweng, cinematographer Xu Shaoyu, actress Wu Suxin, studio executive Shao Yifu, actor/screenwriter Gao Lihen.]
[The explanatory information of "Shuomingshu' was a necessity for films imported from the West. At left is the one for the first sound film, 1927's《The Jazz Singer》, bearing the Chinese title《King of the Jazz Singers》, while below is the one issued for 1932's《Tarzan the Ape Man》. Click on any image to view full size.]