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May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2


Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s: A Cultural History of an Asian Metropolis

By Paul G. Pickowicz
Distinguished Professor of History and Chinese Studies
UC San Diego Modern Chinese History Endowed Chair


In the 1990s I began teaching an undergraduate course called The Cultural History of Twentieth Century China (HIEA 133). It is my favorite course, one I wish I could teach every year. The course examines the sorrows and joys of the great metropolis of Shanghai as it exploded on the world scene in the 1920s and 1930s. In order to understand the social, political, economic, and cultural dynamics of this fascinating international city, I asked students to read the great novels and short stories produced in the 1920s and 1930s by its high- and low-brow writers, people like Lu Xun, Yu Dafu, Mao Dun, Zhang Henshui, and the famous woman author Ding Ling.

More interesting, the course was perhaps the first in the United States to screen large numbers of feature films made in Shanghai during the 1920s and 1930s. Many of these were films I first encountered and then acquired while doing research at the Film Archive of China in Beijing. Shanghai was, of course, the Hollywood of China in the early twentieth century. Altogether students in the course got to see 13 films produced between 1921 and 1935. This was the Golden Age of silent filmmaking in China. “Talkies” took over the Chinese industry by 1935, but I have always been more impressed by the raw visual power of the silent pictures.

Exposed to both fiction and film, students could contrast the novels of the great writers to the movies of such world class directors as Sun Yu, Wu Yonggang, and Cai Chusheng. Students could compare the complicated characters in the major novels to the colorful personalities played by the brilliant silent screen actresses Ruan Lingyu and Li Lili. I also asked students to read major scholarly works on Shanghai, including Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, Hanchao Lu’s Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century, and some of my own writings on early Chinese filmmaking, especially “The Theme of Spiritual Pollution in Chinese Films of the 1930s” and “Melodramatic Representation and the ‘May Fourth’ Tradition of Chinese Cinema.”

As much as I enjoyed this course, I always felt something was missing. Then in the late 1990s I got the idea of asking students to do more than view movies. I wanted them to make movies. Why? By making movies one better understands the difficult decisions faced by filmmakers when they try to interpret, represent, and recreate the essence of social life on screen. I formed film groups consisting of approximately 10 students. I asked them to make 20 minute films in the style of Shanghai movies of the 1920s and 1930s: black and white, silent, and complete with appropriate music backgrounds and Chinese language subtitles. In terms of social themes and aesthetics, the films had to resonate with movies made in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s.

This, I thought, would give students a much better sense of the modes of representation (melodrama, comedy, etc.) deployed by pioneering Shanghai filmmakers. It would give students a better feeling for the sorts of narrative and aesthetic styles preferred by Shanghai film audiences. I asked the various film groups to work in secret. Only I would know how the various projects were evolving. Students did all their own acting, directing, filming, screenwriting, and publicity. They made their own costumes. In the early days they used videotape technology. Now they use digital technology. The idea was to do everything themselves as a collective and spend no money.

The very first time I taught the course, I was astounded by the quality of the work in progress. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine such creativity by students who had never before touched a camera and who did not even know each other before the start of the course. The students came from all majors: engineering, history, international studies, economics, computer science, and math. They had only ten weeks to initiate and complete their films. I believe this is the only Chinese history course in the United States that has a filmmaking component.

From the outset in the 1990s I thought that I should find a way to recognize the creativity of the students in this course. That is when I came up with the idea of the Golden Chopsticks Award Ceremony. Instead of a conventional final exam, why not stage a film gala on the weekend before finals week? Each film could have its “world premiere” on a big screen in a large campus auditorium. Faculty judges from various departments could determine Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Picture, and so forth. Winners would be presented with “real” golden chopsticks.

Once again, I was flabbergasted. Never did I imagine the level of student interest in this activity. It was supposed to be a spoof of the Oscars. But over the years students became increasingly serious about this spectacle. They began creating movie posters to publicize their films (just as filmmakers in Shanghai did in the 1920s and 1930s). They started to “promote” their films. They began to show up at Golden Chopsticks wearing elaborate and often sensational “period costumes” that featured the sort of glamorous high-collar qipao dresses worn by stylish Chinese women in the 1920s. Some came in the tattered attire of peasant migrants or factory workers, while others wore the clothes favored by the gangsters and urban toughs who patrolled the mean streets of Shanghai.

On June 7, 2008 we held the most recent incarnation of Golden Chopsticks. Robinson Auditorium at IR/PS could barely hold all the students, friends, parents, faculty and alumni who came to enjoy the “premiere” of four new films: “Tragedy of the Jade Sisters,” “Melody of Tears,” “Adrift,” and “Lost Spring.” Alumni of the course, including some who were enrolled in the early days of the experiment, came from as far away as San Francisco and Los Angeles to attend. Singer/songwriter Brenda Xu, a UCSD graduate who took the course in 2001, brought her band and played live music. Faculty judges included Joseph Esherick, Weijing Lu and Patrick Patterson from History, Li Huai and Kuiyi Shen from Visual Arts, and Qin Hong and Chen Pei-chia from Chinese Studies. The alumni magazine came up with the idea of providing its readers with on-line access to images from this year’s Golden Chopsticks, and, most important, tantalizing clips from the student films themselves. Two highly talented photographers, Jia Gu (a recent UCSD graduate) and David Chang (a second-year PhD student in Chinese history), provided the excellent still photos of Golden Chopsticks.

My TA, first year Chinese history PhD student Maggie Greene, did a splendid job. Maggie had heard about this course when she was still an undergraduate at Mary Washington University in Virginia and very much wanted to be a part of it once she arrived at UCSD. How had word of the course spread to far away Virginia? Maggie’s undergraduate mentor at Mary Washington, Professor Susan Fernsebner, is a graduate of UCSD’s PhD program in modern Chinese history and had served as my TA in the course in the 1990s when I began experimenting with the filmmaking component!

I am immensely proud of the students who took this demanding and time consuming course. In addition to the movie making, each student wrote 13 critical essays, took three quizzes and a midterm exam. During the final phase of the filmmaking process, some were getting only two hours of sleep a night. I was amazed by the rich diversity of the students. Many are foreign-born, with family origins linked to Vietnam, the People’s Republic of China, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Knowledge of Chinese is recommended for this class because many of the rare silent films viewed by students have Chinese subtitles only. I estimate that approximately 85% of the students knew Chinese. The few who did not know Chinese were persistent, even passionate, and found a way to do well.

The ultimate purpose of the course is to familiarize students with the problems and controversies that dominate the history of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Those who view the clips of the films made in spring 2008 will quite literally “see” these issues on screen: cultural tensions involving clashes between tradition and modernity, class polarization, new gender roles, family conflict, economic dislocation, migration, and foreign threats.

In fall 2007 I was invited to gives lectures at two universities in Shanghai. During that visit I mentioned the structure of my “Shanghai” course to colleagues who live and work in Shanghai. After my return to America, I maintained e-mail contact with my Shanghai colleagues. They kept asking me about the progress of my course. I sent them the syllabus. But they wanted to know more. The aspect of the course that intrigued them the most was the filmmaking component. They insisted that no China-based cultural historian of “old Shanghai” has ever taught a course with a filmmaking component. One energized colleague invited me to come to Shanghai to teach the course. What a great idea. I think I will do it.


Golden Chopsticks Image Gallery

"And the Golden Chopsticks Go To..."

Golden Chopsticks Silent Film Clips