Animation in 1941: Wartime Allegory for Children

Whether because exhausted with politically-messaged “leftist” cinema, or because it provided a subterfuge for patriotic expression by rendering it as children’s storying, the Wan Bros. (万氏兄弟) Wan Laiming 万籁鸣 and Wan Guchan 万古蟾 (1900-97, 1900-95) are remembered for their pioneering of the full feature length 3D animated cartoon, “Princess Iron Fan, released by Lianhua Studious in 1941 but apparently begun as early as 1937.

There can be no doubt that it was aimed at a childrens’ audience, and for that reason stayed aloof from secular preaching of any sort. But likewise it is perfectly clear that the tale has allegorical anti-Japanese import. for the family had been involved in whole series of War-alluding short animations from 1932 on. This one is however special: it was produced in “island” Shanghai where the 2 named brothers decided to make their base (no doubt because its technical resources were unique), while the rest of the family headed inland. Perhaps ironically, politics dictated the Shanghai location also, because Chinese studios were (from mid-1937 on) under off-and-on KMT pressure to avoid making “provocative” (i.e. anti-Japanese) movies; whereas “open Shanghai”, despite being surrounded by a stagnant frontline inherited from 1937 until end-1941, was under no such constraint.

It is clearly a United Front story (indeed the Wans’ 1935 “Dancing Camel” was presented as a goodwill offering to Chiang Kaishek on his 50th birthday). With an emphasis on Unity, not social reform”: facing down a magically empowered Ox King Demon and his vassal the Fiery Mt. Genie (a wanton enemy who seems unable to even think of stopping), no individual heroics can prevail, nor can contrived, chest-thumping masculinity (gongfu in the animation) terminate the menace. An ultimate victory is gained by a religious leader (qua saint), Xuanzang, who fetches the gospel from far away “India”, then converts “humanity” to peaceful solidarity and mass unity. Perhaps there is an influence of the Gandhi “Quit India” Peaceful Resistance movement that flared up with Britain’s end-1941 “hot” war with Japan (which completed the censorship of Chinese-made film). More likely (but I admit I am just guessing) is that we (as children) are being encouraged subliminally to accept the second Soviet-led “United Front against Fascism” which also had its start in 1941, though in June not December, in which case the Tripitaka is Soviet “unity” gospel. No doubt to facilitate the disguise of the subplot as childish folklegend, the film lifts its story entirely from the “Sun Wukong” aka Monkey episodes of the mega-Romance Journey to the West (Xiyouji): specifically chapters 59-61. which, though reshaped and parsed, form a single episode, which relates how the famous Xuanzang and his followers deal with and eventually overcome the obstacle of the “Fiery Mountain”, which up till this point has defied any and all pilgrimages to The West (where the heat of the setting sun elevates the conflagration into sheer Hell).

Shaoxing Opera in the ’50s: From a Drama of Instruction to the Pastel Idylls of Cinema

Prolonged scandal and violent clashes of personality are perhaps more than the norm for or within theatrical productions of any sort; if so, the fate of Shaoxing Opera in its various Shanghai does not disappoint. The eddies of scandal swirling about the suicide (?) deaths of Ma Zhanghua and Xiao Dangui were grisly, but they were soon forgotten. Not so the 30 odd years’ of battling over playscript text and editorial authority that divided Yuan Xuefen’e Xuesheng (Yueju) Company from the rival 东山越艺社 (Dongshan Shaoxing Opera society) led or dominated by Liu Nanwei (1922-1989), the original script editor and link-personal to the “progressive” (read fellow-traveller) intellectuals associated organizationally with Tian Han, Xia Yan, Hong Chen and Ren Guang and with the League of Leftwing (huaju) playwrights (中国左翼戏剧家联盟)from as early as the late 1930s and well on into the first decade of PRC rule.

Not unlike so many other prolonged antipathies birthed during the early days of the People’s Republic, there were undoubtedly one or several strands of personality dis-synch dividing the parties: in this case so powerful that it became a hereditary friction coming to climax in 2011 only after Nanwei’s two children were forced to drop a copyright infringement suit they had launched against the Shanghai Yueju Arts “Academy” (qua Yuan Xuefen) in 2008 (not even the termination of the suit has stopped blogchatter of a still vitriolic nature..).

If we can back away from the daily grit and try to place the struggle in genre-evolution context, however, another view becomes persuasive: i.e., that the anti-Yuan resentment of Liu Nanwei and freres had much to do with the impact of the Silver Screen, which had had little to do with “minor” regional opera until around 1947, when the (peripheral) Qiming (1948) and 文华影片公司 (1949) studios saw the potential and jumped into the business of xiqupian (filmed opera) for purely commercial reasons. Even the chaos the 1949 regime change did not stop the building craze for (now) color-filmed opera segments, which, only two years after Liberation, coalesced (1953) into a two-hour 12-act monument of Shaoxing opera-in-film, “Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai” (I have uploaded the full film with English subtitles for those interested – I suggest having a look before moving on because a lot of what I pose or suggest for analytic consideration derives from a close viewing of that monster production, also China’s first feature-length, multi-Act 35 mm color film, period – though a short color film of Mei Lanfang in 生死恨 was produced in 1947 by Fei Mu’s 上海實驗電影工廠, a year earlier ). When Yuan’s Xuesheng Company was granted audience at the Huairentang “little” palace in autumn, 1949, they did not just perform: they brought with them a copy of a 1948 film based on Lu Xun’s Zhufu, as well as a 1949 film anthology of 4 Yueju operettas. Since that turning point, mainland audiences’ familiarity with Shaoxing opera has, at the margin, come from film, not live performance.

Insecure Space: Movie Theatres as Make Do Chinese Opera Stages in Wartime Shanghai

Photo: Xiao Dangui Shaoxing Opera Company Onstage at Cathay (Movie) Theatre, Aug. 21, 1936
99f1ea413e0c16e18f3c9b56a76ac7f3 Guotai Cathsy inetririor  XDG company ondstage memorial

The above photo caption reads “Commemorative Photo of Entire [Shaoxing Opera] Company of Cathay Theatre”, dated Aug. 21, 1946. Inside the photo two names are multiply inserted: (1) That of Xiao Dangui herself, after whom the troupe was named; and (2) Xu Yulan, a latecomer “young male” impersonater who was recruited on Sept. 1, 1945 (in anticipation of an immediate postWar boom, and, surviving the company’s 1947 extinction (qua “Xiaodan Company”), went on to rename the company after HER self, then earn fame as the spoiled male adolescent Bao Yu in the 1954 color film version of Hongloumeng.

But the supercaption is misleading. There never WAS a “Cathay Theatre Company” because the Cathay was built (in 1932) as a first-run movie house for foreign (Hollywood) feature films, not as a Huaihailu version of a Broadway upmarket theatre. Only in /after 1946 did it become a rotating (for-lease) venue for Yueju and other local troupes: but by May 1954 it was back under its original name as 国泰电影院. It is in that latter incarnation that it is filmed as the “New Great Shanghai Theatre (Xinhu Daxiyuan)”, though the interior (esp. the upholstered row seating) is that of the 1954 renewed building as a dedicated movie house.

Fig. 1: Interior of Cathay Movie House Today
Interior of Cathay used in stage susterds film

The 1947 Suicide of Xiao Dangui Part 3 : The Challenge of the New Media and Film

Note on the header photos (left to right):

(1) ca 1925 publicity poster for Dazhonghua Theatre (later stage for
new Yueju): a Soochow “modern” lady (unidentified) wearing qipao (shizhuang, or “period costume”. )
(3) The Guotai (“Cathay” Theatre where Dangui’s company last performed
(2) Xiao Dangui (seated, as huadan) and Xu Yulan, standing, xiaosheng), probably May 1947, in period costume (shizhuang): 是我错 “It’s my fault”
probably at the Zhedong Theater, one of his 11 major holdings.

Note on Zhang Chunfan, owner of the Cathay: “国泰”、“浙东”、“明星”、“天宫”、“皇后”、“虬江”、“丽都”、“同孚”、“老风”、“恩派亚”等戏院. OF which Zhedong and Guotai were the most profitable, “goldmine” venues. .

Though the tabloids (Huangse baokan) insisted on pursuing the Xiao suicide case as if there were behind it all a monstrous theatre-owning millionare persecuting a wayward actress with too much dramatic innovation on her mind – another Yuan Xuefen 袁雪芬, though less irritating because she lacked Yuan’s intellectual skills – the contest for “ownership” needs to be recontexted into the rather bohemian arts world (wenyijie) that dominated all theater and film in “island” and then post war Shanghai.

The 1947 Suicide of Xiao dangui Part 2 : Sisterly Solidarity facing the KMT Mobster’s Gun

Stage or film stars have perhaps always been closely associated with suicide, just as with alcoholism and narcotics. It would be nice to imagine that the fans who who mourned them or read their death notices (with mountains of PR fotos) in the tabloids were stirred mainly by admiration or regret for the passing of a major talent. There was always that side, of course, but public jealousy and sadism were what sold the most newspapers, as did also the tangled web of courtroom testimony and never quite complete police post mortems. There was always the urge to suspect something BIG was being swept under the rug by those with money and political connections. Jim Garrisons were always on the prowl in such cases as much as with gangster murders.

But sometimes the unexplained surprise of a seemingly happy and famous stage-or film star brutally killing herself indeed raises issues of broader social concern, no matter the inevitable poverty of evidence.
Many issues relating to the upbringing of a poor girl (housemaid) in a older male kinsman’s very wealthy home and (therewith exposure to attempted or actual seduction, prompted criticism of the institution of adoption (“fostering”), which seems to have been the startpoint for Lingyu’s emotional confusion and (later on) inability to extricate herself from the dangers of the love triangle. The strain seems to be what killed her, or rather, caused her to kill herself with a bottle of sleeping pills, leaving behind the famous 4-character line: “gossip is fearful thing!”. (人言可畏).

The operatic self-immolation in Shanghai of the famous silent-film star Ruan Lingyu (1910-1945), was one such case, but it shrivels in proportion to the socio-echoing of another (today much lesser known) suicide by a superstar Shaoxing opera (Yueju) female-role-player (huadan) named Xiao Dangui (1920-1937), who swallowed a fatal dose of lysol in her upscale French Concession apartment on Oct. 13, 1947, just when her ambitions for a renovated Shaoxing opera were being fulfilled. But the “just when” is no paradox: from the still partially embargoed court-trial archival evidence, it seems likely that her death was not only “instigated” by mental cruelty and threat, but prompted by underworld threat then botched attempt at disfiguring and/or blinding her. And behind that, some think, was the KMT “Society” Dept. (social morals inspectorate) whose function was to keep ad hoc social movements from gaining to much popularity – which of course placed the opera stage square in their oversight.

Film Truer than Fact: “Stage Sisters” and Xiao Dangui’s Suicide

Yin Guiifang

山河恋 – Theatre Advertisement in Film

SS fil joit perf sign

and photograph of actual cast, Xiao Dangui playing 宓姬 (4th from right)

3068077246147474066《山河恋》剧照 1947

To quote Mark Twain, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” True, but what happens when the “truth” is that of the world of the stage, where nothing is ever quite true or false, only shadow, and (to make matter even more difficult) associates with a still unexplained suicide of a famous real-life actress/opera-diva, Xiao Dangui (1920-1947), a “whydunnit” that cannot be resolved because the perpetrator cannot testify?

STAGE SISTERS (1965, Xie Jin dir.): Opera in a Fishbowl

The closest Chinese equivalent of Hollywood’s “backstage musical” (houtai yinyueju) – if it were to be given a name or assigned a genre label (it has not)- would probably have to be called “backstage xiqu (“opera”): that is, films made about the inner working and psychology of the stage actors who performed traditional vernacular opera against a backdrop of galloping innovation in the way stage-music was performed. I here single out Xie Jin’s remarkably cinemagraphed “Stage Sisters” (libretto 1963, premier 1965) as the most successful undertaking of this sort, for it addresses change and competition head on, though with a loyalty to the most essential and traditional of all xiqu forms: the stripped down dockside temple performances (万年台两头红) that were a staple of the “country of waterways” in East Central (“lower Yangtze”) China, the memory of which Xie Jin (like Lu Xun) carried with him from his pre-teen years in Shanghyu, Zhejiang.

(NB for the film in full with English subtitles see (August 18 2013) for Part 1 (of 4) and the next 3 uploads, parts 2-4) and/or this post end-page.)

As with “Singing in the Rain” (1952), the backstage theater (musical) form works perhaps best when a new technology and/or venue of production is in the process of replacing an older one, calling into question just about everything that had supported Peking and regional old-style opera (xiqu): ownership of the company and its proceeds (moving from private to pubic), the selection of material for libretti (also increasingly state-influenced); the stature of the stars and of women actors in particular (rising, at the expense of the all-male and partially transgendered casting formula, influenced by the ascent of the female filmstar who often starred in filmed opera as well as narrative film – Zhou Xuan the most famous example), to the move away from the austerity (nakedness) of older mode of performing opera, no longer in tune with younger audience audio-visual expectations, conditioned from the 1930s by film and the popularity of filmed opera (“sound film” made this possible from 1935); and finally the rise to prominence of NON-musical (non-“operatic”, if opera is taken to mean xiqu) stage drama (huaju) often re-syncretized into a “modern” opera by the addition of purpose composed, orchestrally accompanied arias or choruses using Western scales and harmonies.

All or almost all of these changes are in play in Xie Jin’s film, though it takes a fair amount of familiarity with the literary politics and range of traditional xiqu titles to sense just how much change was in progress in the repertory of the Big City stage, and how much influence the Party was already wielding (or thus represented) by the late 40s (Lu Xun’s 祥林嫂 for example appears staged as the new style huaju “New Year’s Blessing”; and the 1945 “modern” opera White Haired Girl, usually regarded as the first “modern” style stage opera, comes on stage near the end).

But there are few other such films (post-49, that is) of this historical sensitivity. The weight of politicization falls too heavily. Since stage performers, from 1949 on, became full time public employees of the State, factional politics inevitably replaced theatre-gossip as the tale within the tale, at the cost of psychological realism, or projection of performance detail. But even before direct subsumption of authority (and bankbooks) in 1949, left-right political factioning surrounds the careers of the “star” new-opera composers, Xian Xinghai (Yellow River Oratorio, 1939) and Nie Er (Yangzijiang Baofengyu, 1934), and thus blocks THEIR biopics – potentially promising backstage dramas – from being anything more than tales of heroic composers agonistes, their works left unexplored and audiences ignored.

The omnipresence of politics in fact (and ironically) bears down even more heavily after Mao: in Chen Kaige’s hallmark post-reform film “about” Peking Opera , Farewell My Concubine, the Troupe and its two Stars appear for the first time in the story already victimized by totalitarian politics, making the rest of the story in essence a “backstage” account of 20th century Chinese (-colonial) politics and its seemingly inexorable culmination in the Cultural Revolution. Anyone who comes to that film hoping to “look inside” traditional stage opera as a social or artistic synthesis will be grievously disappointed: for all that is ever seen of “opera” are 2 or 3 snatches from the Peking Opera that (inter alia) made Mei Lanfang famous as a dan: Farewell My Concubine. One would never even know that there were rival stars or troupes, not to mention operas-in-film or “straight” (new style) stage drama competing for attention.

Casting “Flophouse” Shanghai (1947): Yedian (“Night Inn”)

Yet another classic BW film – to my mind the best of them – about Historic Shanghai (SANS waiguoren!). Though it could be about any Big City slum…”Night Inn” (“Flophouse”), 1947. Once again: the credit sequence and its underlying montage catch our attention. How does the matrix of actor and enacted operate and what view of social morality does it pre-communicate? How ambitious is the portrait of Urban Place as an overbridging unity? Why did its eye-catching portrait take such precedence in the first minutes of the 30s films? But here cease to enthrall by the post-War years? (After all, the Shanghai Bund and other of that city’s icons from the 30s have not just survived but- as “restorations” – climbed very high indeed in the post-1980s re-imaging of China). Again, the “overture” (credits, establishing shots, aerial takes, etc) has a great deal of impact- more than in these times – on how we apprehend what follows.


Shanghai, still dark (阴暗) and gloomy, perhaps even more so now that we are looking back from the late 40s. Dir 黄佐临, playscript 柯灵, 文华影片公司 studios, rel. 1947. But the screen credits play out in a way entirely different from the ’30s “left” films discussed above.

The opening sequence is characterologically specific – actors/characters are all people with sharp-etched names, often caricatured ones, who make choices (or discover by trying that they can’t). They are all trapped yet also above or beyond mindless despair (Malutianshi), or for that matter “chin up” bonhomie (Crossroads) an affectation that still overrides character and choice. So they not only have mis-en-scene appellations. But abrasively ironic ones, taking us before we start, into the conflict between self-perception and other-perception.

Night Inn (1947) Credits roll (first 6 of 20)

Titles Yedian 1947

Role Name            Name  Means…                                                  Played By

Wen Taishi       |    “Grand Tutor”   Wen                                      |      Shi Hui
Sai Guanyin     |     Goddess Guanyin                                         |      Tong Zhiling
Yang Qilang      |    Yang Sibling 7                                                 |      Zhang Fa
Shi Xiaomei      |     “Litle Sis” Shi                                                    |      Zhou Xuan
Jin Laotou         |     Old Jin                                                               |       Shi Yu
Lin Daiyu          |     Ill-fated heroine, Dream of Red Chamber           |      Wei Wei

Street Angel (Malu Tianshi), 1937 III: Giving Credits, I

The “modern” feature-length movie in its B and W days (say, before 1960) differed from its current day offspring in one telling regard: the credits are all compressed into an opening montage. You had nothing to learn as a screen buff by waiting for the end sequence. (How different nowadays when most information — too much– other than the names of the director(s) and lead actors – reels out at the end, in ever shrinking fonts.)

In that regard, our currently featured film (Malu Tianshi, 1937) is thoroughly BW and pre-War in its placement of credits: directorial, technical, and of course actorial. As indeed are its best surviving Chinese cogenerationals (Crossroads, Dushi fengguang etc.). With the art of the “credits” montage in such high esteem, one finds a great deal of interpretive “information” about the film to come is already percolating in the subconscious before the action sequence(s) begin.

Even by those high standards, though, the credits sequence (start to 2:45) as expanded seamlessly into the famous downward pan of an art deco highrise (2:45-3:06) thence again into the equally famous wedding procession is extraordinarily full of what might be called editorial message.

Perhaps because the wooden skyscraper so dominates what we recall as we move into the story proper, it is easy to overlook or under-appreciate the internal messaging that precedes, in the titles proper. (The skyscraper by the way is not just symbolic of social altitude: it fuses elements from the Metropole Hotel (1930), left, and the Rockefeller Center International Building (also 1930), which establish that ’30s Shanghai was exactly synchronic in its architectural modernity with New York).

But a patient review of the acting credits reveals something essential about the Neo-Realist aesthetic that is these days back-attributed to director Yuan Muzhi: that is, the deliberate anonymity of his presentation of actors, from leads down to almost unnoticed cameos.

No Escape. Malu Tianshi (“Street Angel”) as Shanghai Demi-Noir, 1937.

N.B. This post is a reconstruction and simplification of the preceding train-of-thought meditations on the “Shanghai Noir” classic named in the title.

This film is a remarkable one, a linguistically orphaned work of film art ahead of its time not just in China but in the (post-WWII) Big Studio worlds of Italy, France, and even the US. Its uncanny anticipation of Italian “neo”-realism (La Roma, città aperta 1944 and De Sica’s La Strada, 1957) has been recognized since the 1980s and accounts for the film’s rediscovery and involvement in the “Shanghai Modern” boom in the academic world. But it somehow gets ahead of the trends even inside Chinese cinema itself: as in its 10 year headstart in seeing how Gorky’s view of life entrapped in a homeless shelter (“Lower Depths”, Shanghai 1947 film production) might be transmuted to convey the psychological strains of the Chinese underclasses in 1930s Shanghai’s burgeoning “Chinatowns”, into which they had come for shelter (escape) from Depression era chaos and military displacement only to find that they had been re-trapped, or self-trapped, in the claws of a strangely archaic array of old-style enforcers, white slavers, procuresses, and tavern/cum-teahouse-keepers.

I have chosen instead to call it “Shanghai demi-noir” (perhaps Shanghai “gris”) because its sensibility bears several of the hallmarks of the “noir” atmosphere that peaked in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s (in China eventually crystallizing in Zhang Yimou’s heavily “noir” inspired Shanghai Triad, 1995: see MKP’s excellent review at Most notably and most powerfully, a kind of editorial fatalism – the players are victims of a sense of entrapment in an impersonal and criminal-oppressed (mainly) urban underworld where deception overpowers goodness, and “heroes” know better than to try, the good they might do being accidental and without moral significance. (Another take: “Fatalism”, as filmsufi points out: Most of the characters have pasts that they would like to forget and little hope for the future. In addition, the deck seems to be stacked against them, and the world is full of traps and unanticipated disasters. This leads to the narrative quest for an escape..

But “demi”-fatalist because the enmeshed – the trapped seeking escape, the films “heroes” (principals) – are vested with a certain improbable but actually quite life-like veneer of cheerful innocence, even playfulness. The love interest pair (Zhou Xuan and Zhao Dan) behave as impulsive children or perhaps spoiled kids: teasing, pouting, spatting but then quickly making up, allowing themselves to be charmed through silly vanity or as victims of dreaming, and ever bumbling (through ignorance) into real world mischief from which they yet somehow swiftly retreat and start anew never disheartened.

The subgeneric qualifier – that there is a kind of silly good-humor and innocence within the “noir” fatalalism – is both believable and appropriate for a very specifically “Shanghai” reason. As confronts us at the very head of the film, the underclass innocents whom populate the action are epitomized as showfolk-for-hire – performers of a believably marginal, modest sort who (because new to the “city” or without guild-masters to actually teach them their art) act their parts as if in uncensored “play”, or private game, rather than as professional performance. Bugler Chen’s contortions, miscues and grimaces as well as songstress Xiaohong’s endless little-girl moues are both escapes: by playing at cut-ups they forget their plight as ticket-punching entertainers of the lowest station, and because they thereby mock themselves, they make the show “fun”-ny, as then so also the film. True, they are dancing at the mouth of the wolf’s lair, but their showboat insouciance or unworldliness seems a kind of charm – at least until the very end when over-acting and childish exuberance in fact does them in.