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It took a while for Chinese film after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In the 1980s the film industry fell on hard times, faced with the dual problems of competition from other forms of entertainment and concern on the part of the authorities that many of the popular thriller and martial arts films were socially unacceptable. In January 1986 the film industry was transferred from the Ministry of Culture to the newly formed Ministry of Radio, Cinema, and Television to bring it under "stricter control and management" and to "strengthen supervision over production.” [Library of Congress]

The number of Chinese watching Chinese films declined significantly in the 1980, 90s and 2000s. In 1977, just after the Cultural Revolution, a peak of 29.3 billion people attended films. In 1988, 21.8 billion people attended films. In 1995, 5 billion movie tickets were sold, which is still four times the number as of the United States but about the same on a per capita basis. In 2000, only 300 million tickets were sold. In 2004 only 200 million were sold. The decline has been attributed to television, Hollywood and watching pirated videos and DVDs at home. In the 1980s, about half of all Chinese still didn't have televisions and virtually no one had a VCR.

Government statistics show Chinese revenues surged from 920 million yuan in 2003 to 4.3 billion yuan in 2008 ($703 million). Mainland China made about 330 films in 2006, up from 212 films in 2004, which was up 50 percent from 2003, and a figure exceeded only by Hollywood and Bollywood. In 2006, the United States produced 699 feature films. Film revenues in China reached 1.5 billion yuan, a 58 percent increase from 2003. The year 2004 was also significant in that the top 10 Chinese films outgrossed the top 20 foreign films in China. The market grew by almost 44 percent in 2009, and about 30 percent in 2008. In 2009, it was worth US$908 million — about a tenth of the $9.79 billion of US revenues in the previous year. At the current rate, the Chinese film market will outgrow the American market in five to 10 years.

Francesco Sisci wrote in Asian Times that two primary elements in the growth of Chinese film are “an increase in the importance of the Chinese domestic film market and a global appeal of certain “China issues”. These two things will increase the impact of Chinese culture in our homes. We could then become culturally more Chinese long before China becomes a first-world economy, which could happen in 20 to 30 years. The cultural change could occur with or without critical sense, and possibly only through the almost subliminal impact of future blockbusters made in China or for the Chinese market. Times are tight for acquiring the necessary cultural tools to gain a critical sense of China's complicated culture, past and present.

Websites: Chinese Film Classics ; Senses of Cinema; 100 Films to Understand China “The Goddess” (dir. Wu Yonggang)is available on the Internet Archive at . “Shanghai Old and New” is also available on the Internet Archive at ; The best place to get English-subtitled films from the Republican era is Cinema Epoch They sell the following Classic Chinese filsm: “Spring In A Small Town”, “The Big Road”, “Queen Of Sports”, “Street Angel”, “Twin Sisters”, “Crossroads”, “Daybreak Song At Midnight”, “The Spring River Flows East”, “Romance Of The Western Chamber”, “Princess Iron Fan”, “A Spray Of Plum Blossoms”, “Two Stars In The Milky Way”, “Empress Wu Zeitan”, “Dream Of The Red Chamber”, “An Orphan On The Streets”, “The Watch Myriad Of Lights”, “Along The Sungari River”

Fourth Generation of Chinese Film

John A. Lent and Xu Ying wrote in the “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”: Fourth Generation filmmakers were trained in film schools in the 1950s, and then their careers were sidelined by the Cultural Revolution until they were about forty years old. (They found a short time in the 1980s to make films.) Because they experienced the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals and others were beaten and otherwise tortured and banished to the countryside to do menial work, Fourth Generation filmmakers told stories about disastrous experiences in Chinese history, the havoc caused by the ultra-left, and the lifestyles and mindsets of rural folk. Armed with theory and practice, they were able to explore the laws of art to reshape film, using a realistic, simple, and natural style. Typical was Bashan yeyu (Evening Rain, 1980), by Wu Yonggang and Wu Yigong, about the Cultural Revolution years. [Source: John A. Lent and Xu Ying, “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”, Thomson Learning, 2007]

“Fourth Generation directors stressed the meaning of life, focusing on an idealistic view of human nature. Characterization was important, and they attributed to their characters traits based on the common philosophy of ordinary people. For example, they changed military films to depict ordinary people and not just heroes, and to show the brutality of war from a humanistic approach. The Fourth Generation also expanded the varieties of characters and forms of artistic expression in biographical films. Previously, historical figures and soldiers were the main subjects, but after the Cultural Revolution, films glorified state and party leaders such as Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), and Mao Zedong (1893-1976) and showed the lives of both intellectuals and common people, as in Cheng nan jiu shi (My Memories of Old Beijing, 1983), directed by Wu Yigong; Wo men de tian ye (Our Farm Land, 1983), directed by Xie Fei (b. 1942) and Zheng Dongtian; Liang jia fu nu (A Good Woman, 1985), directed by Huang Jianzhong; Ye shan (Wild Mountains, 1986), directed by Yan Xueshu; Lao jing (Old Well, 1986), directed by Wu Tianming (b. 1939); and Beijing ni zao (Good Morning, Beijing, 1991), directed by Zhang Nuanxin. “Long Live Youth”, directed by Huang Shuqi, is a popular film, from the 1980s about a model high school student inspiring her classmates to better things.

“The representation of social issues — housing in Lin ju (Neighbor, 1981), by Zheng Dongtian and Xu Guming, and malpractice in Fa ting nei wai (In and Outside the Court, 1980) by Cong Lianwen and Lu Xiaoya — was an important theme. The Fourth Generation also was concerned with China's reform, as exemplified in Ren sheng (Significance of life, 1984) by Wu Tianming (b. 1939), Xiang yin (Country Couple, 1983) by Hu Bingliu, and later, Guo nian (Celebrating the New Year, 1991) by Huang Jianzhong and Xiang hun nu (Women from the Lake of Scented Souls, 1993) by Xie Fei (b. 1942).

“Other contributions of the Fourth Generation were changes made in methods of storytelling and cinemato-graphic expression. For example, in Sheng huo de chan yin (Reverberations of Life, 1979) Wu Tianming and Teng Wenji developed the plot by combining it with a violin concerto, allowing the music to help carry the story. Ku nao ren de xiao (Smile of the distressed, 1979) by Yang Yanjin used the inner conflicts and insanity of the lead character as the narrative thread. To realistically record scenes, filmmakers used creative techniques such as long takes, location shooting, and natural lighting (the latter two especially in Xie Fei's films). True-to-life and unadorned performances were also necessary in this generation's films, and were supplied by new actors and actresses such as Pan Hong, Li Zhiyu, Zhang Yu, Chen Chong, Tang Guoqiang, Liu Xiaoqing, Siqin Gaowa, and Li Ling.

“Like their male counterparts, Fourth Generation women filmmakers graduated from film schools in the 1960s, but had their careers delayed because of the Cultural Revolution. Among them were Zhang Nuanxin (1941-1995), who directed Sha ou (1981) and Qing chun ji (Sacrificed Youth, 1985); Huang Shuqin, known for Qing chun wan sui (Forever young, 1983) and Ren gui qing (Woman, Demon, Human, 1987); Shi Shujun, director of Nu da xue sheng zhi si (Death of a College Girl, 1992), which helped reveal a hospital malpractice cover-up in the death of a student; Wang Haowei, who made Qiao zhe yi jiazi (What a family!, 1979) and Xizhao jie (Sunset Street, 1983); Wang Junzheng, director of Miao Miao (1980); and Lu Xiaoya, director of Hong yi shao nu (Girl in Red, 1985).

Fifth Generation and Chinese Film in the 1980s

leftBy the ’80s, as China began a program of Reform and Opening Up initiated by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, filmmakers in the country had a new freedom to explore themes that were verboten under the first-wave Communist regime, including meditations on the roiling societal impact unleashed by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In the years immediately following the "Cultural Revolution", artists in film began to free their minds and the film industry again flourished as a medium of popular entertainment. Animated films using a variety of folk arts, such as paper cuts, shadow plays, puppetry, and traditional painting, were also very popular with children. [Source: Lixiao,, January 17, 2004]

In the 1980s, China's filmmakers started an all-round exploration and the range of film subjects extended. Films depicting the good and evil of the "Cultural Revolution" were very popular with the ordinary person. Many realism films reflecting the transformation of society as well as people's ideology were produced. Early in 1984, a film One and Eight (1984) made mainly by the graduates of the Beijing Film Academy shocked China's film industry. The film, together with Chen Kaige's “Yellow Earth” (1984) made people experience the magic of the fifth generation of filmmakers, including Wu Ziniu, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Huang Jianxin and He Ping. Amongst this group Zhang Yimou first won an international prize with “Red Sorghum” (1987). Unlike the middle-aged fourth generation directors, they broke with traditional filmmaking, in screenplay and film structure as well as narrative. In January 1986 the film industry was transferred from the Ministry of Culture to the newly formed Ministry of Radio, Film and T//elevision to bring it under "stricter control and management" and to "strengthen supervision over production."

China is known in international film circles for the beautiful art films of the Fifth Generation directors like Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Wu Ziniu and Tian Zhuangzhuang, who all attended the Beijing Film Academy together and were “weaned on directors like Godard, Antonioni, Truffaut and Fassbinder." Although films by the Fifth Generation are critically acclaimed and have huge cult followings abroad, for a long time many were banned in China and were seen mostly in pirated form. Many of the filmmaker's early films were financed primarily by Japanese and European backers.

John A. Lent and Xu Ying wrote in the “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”: Best known outside China are Fifth Generation films, which have won major international awards and in some cases have been box-office successes abroad. Much heralded among Fifth Generation directors are the 1982 Beijing Film Academy graduates Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang (b. 1952), and Wu Ziniu and Huang Jianxin (b. 1954), who graduated a year later. In the first decade of their filmmaking (until the mid-1990s), Fifth Generation directors used common themes and styles, which was understandable since they were all born in the early 1950s, experienced similar hardships during the Cultural Revolution, entered the film academy as older students with ample social experiences, and felt an urgency to catch up and fulfill tasks expected of them. All felt a strong sense of history, which was reflected in the films they made. [Source: John A. Lent and Xu Ying, “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”, Thomson Learning, 2007]

Commercialization of Film in China

In the 1980s, some sectors of China's film production began turning its attention market-oriented forces. While other pursued art. Some young directors began to make commercial films for entertainment. The first wave of post-Mao entertainment films reached its peak at the end of 1980s and lasted to 1990s. Representative of these films is the “Orphan Sanmao Enters the Army” a series of humorous films directed by Zhang Jianya. These films combined cartoon and film characteristics and were fittingly enough called “cartoon films”. [Source: January 18, 2004]

“A Knight-Errant at the Double Flag Town”, directed by He Ping in 1990, was an action movie different from those made in Hong Kong. It depicts the actions in symbolic and exaggerated style that is as well accepted by foreign audiences even without translation. Action movies on the horse refer to movies made by Mongolian directors Sai Fu and Mai Lisi to depict the Mongolian culture. Their representative films are Knight and the Legend of Hero From the East. The films won success in box office and arts by showing the natural beauty on the grassland and creating heroic characters. These entertainment films with Chinese characteristics have their own position in China's film market, balancing the expansion of foreign entertainment films.

John A. Lent and Xu Ying wrote in the “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”: One scholar, Shaoyi Sun, has identified four types of filmmaking at the beginning of the twenty-first century: the internationally known directors, such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who have few problems financing their work; the state-financed directors who make major "melody" films that are likely to reinforce party policy and present a positive image of China; the Sixth Generation, hit hard by augmented commercialization and struggling to find money; and the relatively new group of commercial filmmakers who strive solely for box-office success. Epitomizing the commercial type is Feng Xiaogang (b. 1958), whose New Year — celebration movies such as Jia fang yi fang (The Dream Factory, 1997), Bu jian bu san (Be There or Be Square, 1998), Mei wan mei liao (Sorry Baby, 2000), and Da wan (Big Shot's Funeral, 2001) since 1997 have grossed more money than any films except the imported Titanic (1997). Feng is candid about his "fast-food filmmaking," gleefully admitting to a goal of entertaining the largest audience while succeeding at the box office. [Source: John A. Lent and Xu Ying, “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”, Thomson Learning, 2007]

Commercial and Party-Endorsed Films in the 1990s and Early 2000s

In the 1990s, China experienced prosperity in its film industry. At the same time the government allowed the showing of foreign movies from 1995. More of China's films won awards at international film festivals, such as Ju Dou (1990) and To Live (1994) by Zhang Yimou, Farewell My Concubine (1993) by Chen Kaige, Blush (1994) by Li Shaohong, and Red Firecracker Green Firecracker (1993) by He Ping. “Jia Yulu” by Wang Jixing was a favorite. It was a about a Communist official who devotes him himself to helping China despite having a serious illness. However, these films encountered more and more criticism, in particular for their stylized form and neglect of audience response and absence of representation of the spiritual bewilderment of the people during the transformation of Chinese society. [Source: Lixiao,, January 17, 2004]

The most popular films are American blockbusters, Hong Kong kung fu films, horror flicks, pornography and action adventures with Sly Stalone, Arnold Swarzeneger or Jackie Chan. Critically-acclaimed films like “Shakespeare in Love” and “Schindlers List” are usually regarded as too slow and boring.

Actions movies are very popular. “Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II” was the top-grossing film in China in 1994. In Canton, Theroux saw a poster for a movie called “Mister Legless”, in which the wheelchair-bound hero is showed blowing off the head of the man who maimed him. Rambo I, II, III and IV were very popular in China. Scalpers often appeared outside of theaters hawking scarce tickets.

Because of prohibitions, restrictions and meddling, Chinese films are often not very interesting to Chinese let alone an international audience. Chinese or Hong Kong movies that make their way to the West tend to be martial arts movies or art house films. Pornographic films — usually sold on the streets as DVDs — are known as yellow discs in China. See Sex

Communist-Party-endorsed films released in the early 2000s included “Mao Zedong in 1925"; “Silent Heroes”, about a couple's selfless struggle against the Kuomitang; “Law as Great as Heaven”, about an courageous policewoman; and “Touching 10,000 Households”, about a responsive government official who helped hundreds of ordinary citizens.

Changes in the Chinese Film industry

John A. Lent and Xu Ying wrote in the “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”: “China's film industry has had a number of major shakeups since the mid-1990s that have substantially changed its infrastructure. By the early 1990s the studio system was already disintegrating, but it was hit even harder when state funds were cut sharply in 1996. Replacing the studio system are a number of independent production companies that are owned privately, either jointly with foreign investors or collectively. Also having an impact on the industry was the breaking up of the China Film Group's monopoly on distribution in 2003. In its place is Hua Xia, made up of Shanghai Film Group and provincial studios, China Film Group, and SARFT. A third factor that transformed Chinese cinema was the reopening in January 1995 of China's film market to Hollywood after a lapse of nearly half a century. Initially, ten "excellent" foreign films were to be imported yearly, but as the United States pressed for a wider opening up of the market, holding China's anticipated entry into the World Trade Organization as a bargaining chip, the number was increased to fifty and is expected to rise further. [Source: John A. Lent and Xu Ying, “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”, Thomson Learning, 2007]

“Other significant changes came about soon after 1995. In production, restrictions on foreign investment have been considerably loosened, the result being that the number of international coproductions has grown at an accelerated pace. An overhaul of the exhibition infrastructure was implemented by SARFT after 2002, with goals of upgrading the sorry state of rundown theaters and remedying the numerous prohibitive restrictions exhibitors face. China pushed forward with multiplexes and digitalization, bypassing more conventional means of exhibition. Because of the enormous profits to be realized, US companies, particularly Warner Bros., became prominently involved in the Chinese exhibition circuit.

“Censorship is still strictly enforced, although modifications of the censoring process (especially of script approval) have been made and a ratings system considered. Previously banned films can now be shown, and filmmakers have been encouraged to participate in international festivals. Government authorities and film personnel have tried to contend with the industry's problems by encouraging foreign producers to use China as a place to make movies, and by upgrading technologies, changing promotional strategies, and advancing the profession through the creation of more film schools and festivals.

“These film reforms resuscitated an industry that was in dire straits after 1995, with the result that the number of films made has increased to more than two hundred, some attracting international attention and success at the box offices. But many problems remain, including loss of audiences to other media and other activities, the high prices of tickets, and rampant pirating. As China's film industry panders to Hollywood and commercialization, the biggest concerns are what kinds of films will be made and what about them will be Chinese.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, University of Washington; Ohio State University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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