“Rewriting Chinese Film History” Symposium

For those who are interested in Chinese film history, particularly in pre-1949 Chinese cinema, the two important events taking place in Beijing this year, one in September, the other in October (to be covered later), will be remembered for a long time.

“Rewriting Chinese Film History: A Tribute to Predecessors” Symposium, held on September 22, 2012, Beijing, Chinese Academy of Arts.

This one, titled “Rewriting Chinese Film History: A Tribute to Predecessors,” held on September 22 and organized by Shanghai University’s School of Film-TV, Institute of Film & TV Research of the Chinese Academy of Arts, and the Journal of Contemporary Cinema, is inherently contradictory and double-faced. The second part of the theme is to pay tribute to the writers and editors of the two-volume book and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Historical Development of Chinese Cinema, but the first part is calling for a re-evaluation and re-writing of the book, a call that was initiated in 2005 by the Contemporary Cinema journal when Chinese cinema celebrated its centennial history.

Cheng Jihua (left) and Li Shaobai (right), two living editors of “A Historical Development of Chinese Cinema” published in 1962 at the symposium.

Almost all important scholars active in Chinese film history attended the one-day symposium. It was highlighted by the rare and possibly the last appearance of Cheng Jihua and Li Shaobai, two of the three editors credited on the book’s cover. Cheng, in his 90s, made a written speech at the symposium (read by a younger scholar at the China Film Archive), firmly rejecting any notion that there is a need to re-evaluate many of the problematic judgements made in the book. Considering the fact that he was imprisoned for eight years during the Cultural Revolution because of this book, one could understand his stubbornness. But Li Shaobai, in his 80s, took another stance. He suggested history is always open to re-writing and re-evaluation, and there is a need for many histories of Chinese cinema.

Li Shuyuan, author of “A History of Chinese Silent Film,” revealing a shocking truth at the symposium behind the writing of “A Historical Development of Chinese Cinema.”

The general milieu of the symposium was celebritorial and respectful. While there were people harshly critiquing the book and its “Party/State” nature, they were generally understanding and noted it was written in a time when Party politics dominated every aspect of Chinese life. One shocking truth, at least to me as well as to many present film historians, was revealed by outspoken veteran film historian Li Shuyuan, author of much acclaimed A History of Chinese Silent Film. He used his time to call everybody’s attention to the name of the third (and the last) credited editor of the book, Xing Zuwen (already passed away), saying the book was mainly written by Xing: “It has eight chapters. Zuwen wrote seven chapters, and Li Shaobai wrote one chapter,” suggesting Cheng Jihua, the first and supposedly most important author, didn’t contribute to the writing of the book (by that time Cheng has already left the symposium). Li Shuyuan cited his close relationship with Xing Zuwen as an evidence to this claim, saying that Xing Zuwen himself, as an honest and serious man and scholar, shared this secret with him and told him not to reveal to anyone.

The symposium for sure will be remembered simply because ailing Cheng Jihua and Li Shaobai appeared together in public and it itself is historic and will be recorded in future Chinese film history books.

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