Regional Cultural Enterprises and Cultural Markets in Early Republican China: The Motion Picture as Case Study

Matthew D. Johnson, Grinnell College
Undated photo of Li Minwei as Zhuangzi’s wife in a production of "Zhuangzi Tests His Wife." Source: Li (2005, 16).
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The transition of the motion picture from foreign amusement to local enterprise was primarily the result of transnational commercial activity linking investors, entrepreneurs, and entertainment professionals. Amid the ongoing urbanization of China’s early Republican period, the enterprises emerging from this activity became increasingly profitable and, as a result, film production and exhibition became regularized phenomena, rooted in identifiable genres and standardized approaches to engaging audiences within the immersive space of the theater. By the early 1920s, those closest to the nascent industry were eager to legitimize its power by portraying the medium as a tool for political and social reform. However, commercial strategies and aesthetics remained relatively undisturbed despite this progressive rhetoric. In geographic terms, motion picture–related enterprises and culture remained strongly regional: affected and constrained by the non-Chinese national industries operating in politically divided China, by competing forms of local popular culture, and by existing geographies of exchange and infrastructure. The early Republican “experimental” period in Chinese cinema was, from an enterprise-centered perspective, one of numerous coexisting subnational cultural centers and zones.

Keywords: modern Chinese history, Republican era (1911–1949), business history, cultural geography, Sino-foreign enterprise, media change, cinema, motion pictures (production and exhibition), film theaters, popular culture