China's film policy now
Cheng Jihua and Chen Mei interviewed

by Claire Aguilar and Chris Berry

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 51-53
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

Cheng Jihua is the Secretary of the Chinese Filmmakers' Association and Professor at the Beijing Film Academy. China's leading film historian, he has written the two volume History of the Development of Chinese Film. [Editor's note: This history has yet to be translated from the Chinese.] Madame Chen Mei edits the journal World Cinema. Professor Cheng's work was banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and he was imprisoned eight years in solitary confinement. Madame Chen was sent down to the countryside during the same period. Claire Aguilar and Chris Berry conducted this interview at the end of the Chinese scholars' recent visit to teach at UCLA, and UCLA professor Teshome Gabriel also participated in the discussion.

Q: Is there any equivalent of the avant-garde or experimental cinema in China?

A: No.

Chinese cinema is largely unknown in the West, but it contains many qualities that make it one of the most significant film cultures in the world. The average Chinese goes to the movies 27 times a year, film remains the most popular mass medium in China, and China produces well over 100 feature films every year. Perhaps one reason for the neglect of this massive industry is that Chinese films have not been available to U.S. audiences to the same extent that European or Japanese films have. Also, since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, cinema was established to be simultaneously educational and entertaining. As a result, the structure of the film industry in China constitutes a totally different paradigm from that of Western cinema. Going into this interview, we hoped to obtain information that would constitute a useful framework for those attempting to understand this alternative paradigm. However, this venture became more complex than we had expected.

As long as our communication remained on a factual level, Cheng and Chen were extremely willing and able to supply information of a concrete nature, such as discussing conditions of production and reception. However, when we asked about other areas, we began to run into some interesting difficulties. The exchange which heads this interview is such an example. Here, to the question of whether or not an avant-garde exists in China, Cheng and Chen answered with a simple negative; their brevity made diagnosing the issue difficult. Maybe Cheng and Chen did know the connotation of filmic and political alternative practice that the avant-garde carries for us, but found it politically inconvenient to discuss such an issue with us. Maybe, because they encounter no avant-garde in China, they had no way of understanding the further implications of our question. Or maybe they just thought we were naive to ask such a thing. Such elusive areas produced a certain tension in the interview. We indicate this because we found the elusive aspects as significant as the concrete information that our other questions elicited.

In our attempt to provide a framework for approaching Chinese cinema, we asked a series of questions on basic conditions of production and reception. We started out asking what the experience of going to see a movie in China was like. Cheng and Chen immediately set up a comparison between China and the West.

"For one thing, the theater is always full of people in China We went to see FANNY AND ALEXANDER a couple of weeks ago, and we must have been almost the only people there. That would happen in China only if it were a really lousy movie."

"In China you usually get your ticket in advance. Units such as schools and factories try to buy up blocks of tickets beforehand, especially if they know it's a good movie. In fact, if it's a good movie, you must get your tickets in advance, even though they run screenings from eight in the morning to very late at night. Whole families do attend, but films are most popular with young people in the cities. For one thing, in a society with limited personal privacy, cinemas offer the ideal location for romance."

"Inside, they have food and drink just like here — chocolate, candies, soda. No popcorn, though. In the auditorium there are 'No Smoking' and 'Don't Litter' signs, and before the movie begins they project a sign that tells the audience to keep quiet because the movie is about to start. And before you ask — no, we don't play the national anthem before or after the movie."

In addition to describing the social experience of movie going, Cheng and Chen outlined China's general distribution situation. We could see why moviegoing is still mass entertainment in China.

"The average price of a ticket is only $0.14. Prices are higher in the cities, around $0.25; cheaper in the rural areas, around $0.05."

This differentiation in ticket prices results from the China Film Distribution and Projection Corporation's policy that the cities should support the development of film in rural areas.

"This policy also leads to putting profits from the cities to use in the backward areas and using profits from 35mm distribution to help support 16mm and Super-8. 16mm and Super-8 are only used in out-of-the-way areas; there's no money to be made out of these formats. 35mm is the rule in China. That's why it must support these other two forms."

All distribution proceeds through the state-owned China Film Distribution and Projection Corporation. In 1949 China had only 596 movie houses. Now it has at least 150,000 projection units, including mobile teams which operate mostly in the rural areas.

"At the moment, all the major changes in distribution are happening in the rural areas. Chinese peasants have made a lot of progress and many of them these days have a higher income than the average blue-collar worker. Also, people have changed their film viewing habits. Formerly, films were shown in the open air, and everybody would either bring a stool or stand and watch the movie. Now they want movie houses, comfortable seats and 35mm prints, not 16mm or Super8. Since 1980, we've built many rural 800-1,000-seat theaters, often better ones than in the city. We built 2,000 new movie houses in 1980 and 1981; 3,660 in 1982."

We wanted to know how Chinese viewers identified the type of movie they'd choose to see. For example, Westerners speak of movies in terms of stars and directors: "It's a Clint Eastwood movie" or "I just can't stand Herzog movies." Cheng and Chen confirmed that people also followed stars in China, and that viewers would go to see films on the strength of a certain actor or director's involvement.

We also wanted to know what status the screenwriter had in the mind of the public. Cheng and Chen said that screenplays received far greater popular attention in China than in the West. Indeed, various specialty journals just publish unproduced screenplays, seeing this as a literary form in its own right, and these journals are for mass publication with a general readership. The credits of Chinese films, which generally present items in order of importance, list the screenwriter first and the director second. In fact, during their visit to UCLA, Cheng and Chen showed particular interest in screenplays of classic Hollywood films, gathering those that they could to take back to China for further research.

At this point in the interview, we ran into another communication gap:

Q: Who is considered to be the author of the film or the equivalent of the author of a novel? In the West, the director is usually considered to be the "enunciative agency." Who is in China — the director? the studio? the screenwriter?

A: The film belongs to the director.

Q: In all the Chinese films we've seen, the scenarist's name comes first, then the director's.

 A: It's just listed like that. The order is just a traditional arrangement. Sometimes, in Western films, the credit for the film director doesn't come for a long time and then, WHAM, it appears. But in China, when they do the credits, they always do it the standard way. That way there aren't any problems.

Continuing drawing parallels with the Hollywood system, we inquired about whether a star system existed in China:

A: When you talk about a star system there has to be something else to go with the title. Not only does your reputation rise, but so does your pay. In China it doesn't make sense to call it a "star system." In China some popular actors and actresses are welcomed by the audience but they gain only fame, nothing material. Their income remains the same although they get some privileges. By Western standards, it's nothing at all.

Q: I hear that there's a lot of paraphernalia, little things people can buy like photo sets...

A: They [the actors] don't make any profit out of that!

Q: No, but do those sort of things exist, and if so what sort of things?

A: Well, we have card calendars that look like playing cards, with a photograph in front and a month or year's calendar on the back. There are also posters, etc.

We also asked about genres. Did Chinese viewers think of movies in terms of melodramas, thrillers and so on? In their reply, Cheng and Chen suggested that like Western audiences Chinese audiences also grouped films around production categories, but that we must distinguish between the types of categories used in the West and in China.

"Some people in the industry talk about films in terms of their subject matter, and so does the general public. Genre terminology has gained some popularity, but it's only used consistently by researchers. For example, the film HAPPY BACHELORS, which we brought with us, may be a comedy, but everybody in China calls it 'a film about workers'."

Subject matter categories such as "films about workers" also shape the annual plan for the Chinese film industry.

"The various studio heads get together in Beijing each year with someone from the Film Bureau. They usually have more ideas than can be filmed within each category. A lot of lively discussion goes on until they arrive at some sort of final plan. The Film Bureau particularly tries to make up for deficiencies in any particular subject matter area. The studio heads want a commercial success, for that will affect their reputation, their ability to get good directors and actors, and of course, money."

At this point, we feel that it would be useful to describe Cheng and Chen's brief outline of the administrative structure of film in China. To the best of our knowledge, their discussion here constitutes the only detailed explanation of this administrative framework available in English.

"The top echelon consists of the Film Bureau of the Ministry of Culture. This body lays out a yearly plan, approves projects initiated by the film studios, and approves the distribution of completed films. Each province has a film administration branch, namely the Film Desk in the Provincial Bureau of Culture. Only Shanghai, the major film center, has its own Film Bureau."

"Nationally, four corporations operate directly under the Film Bureau of the Ministry of Culture with both administrative and business functions. These are the All-China Film Distribution and Projection Corporation, the China Film Export and Import Corporation, and the China Film Equipment Corporation. With regard to the fourth corporation, we had no production of film equipment in China prior to the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Now we manufacture nearly everything in China."

"Film studios themselves operate on two levels: state and provincial. This distinction corresponds roughly to one between major and minor studios. Almost every province has at least one film studio. Thirteen studios make many feature films, and four stand out as the oldest and most important: The Beijing, the Changchun, the Shanghai, and the August First Film Studio. The latter is an army studio but also produces films for a general audience. In addition, the China Youth Film Studio, set up for the Beijing Film Academy staff and students, produces films for general release. Provincial level studios handle production for all types of films but with a limited output not usually exceeding one or two features a year. Therefore the provincial studios maintain their own administrative staff but tend to borrow production personnel when they need it."

"We also have specialized studios: the Central Documentary Studio, two Science and Education studios (in Beijing and Shanghai), the famous Shanghai Animation Studio, and the Shanghai Dubbing Studio. [Nearly all Chinese feature films still have their soundtracks dubbed during postproduction.] Also at the national level, we have various institutes and research organizations. Thus the China Film Makers' Association — a non-governmental, non-commercial, national association of film professionals — promotes development and research. It is based in Beijing, has twenty branch offices in various other areas, and 3,000 members. To qualify as a member one must be recognized for their film production or research by the Chinese film audience and by one's fellow professionals. Members include actors, researchers, and veteran administrators as well as production personnel. Other major bodies of this type include the China Film Archives, the China Film Technology Research Institute and the Beijing Film Academy. Established in 1950, the latter is still the only film college in China."

What we still do not understand is how power gets distributed throughout this structure. Such questions about power have always been the most difficult to get a clear answer to. For example, during the Cultural Revolution, Westerners repeatedly heard that each work unit made decisions according to democratic processes within each unit, but the official account now says that, in fact, small elite groups of "ultra-leftist" party members made decisions. In fact, Cheng and Chen initially outlined the film industry structure for us after we asked them, "Who determines if a film project gets made or not? What role does the Party or government play in this procedure?"

We tried further to clarify issues around control and power by asking specifically if the director had final cut. Cheng and Chen's reply pointed to a system in which responsibility lies not with the director but with the studio heads in each studio. When a project is offered to a director, he/she may either accept or reject it but will receive a salary whichever they choose. When the film is completed, a distribution license must be gotten from the Film Bureau in Beijing. According to Cheng and Chen,

"If a film presents irresolvable problems vis-à-vis content, then the Film Bureau will not release the film. This won't get the director into trouble, but rather the studio head, who made the decision to go ahead with the production. If the film isn't released, the studio head can't make his money back. Because of such previous considerations, very few films run into such serious problems."

Once again, this reply left us in a quandary. The precise institutional determinations of film production still remained unclear. When our interviewees discussed issues of power and administration, they did not talk specifically about the role of the Party. We understood how a production could be halted at various stages on the route to release, but we were still vague as to how a film got promoted in a positive sense. Clearly, economic factors play a major role. That thread ran throughout Cheng and Chen's remarks. Despite our awareness of post-1976 changes, we found it surprising how much they would willingly discuss the importance of commercial factors. Such a shift in emphasis seemed to herald to us a strong change in Chinese self-representation, and Cheng and Chen suggested that this new emphasis reflected a strong and growing tendency in the Chinese film world.

"For the past three or four years studios could still continue producing without financial success. Now greater stress is being placed on each studio's financial autonomy. They make about one hundred prints of each feature film, three for each province. If the studio cannot sell all the prints to the distribution company, the studio stands to take a loss. If they sell all the prints, they will probably break even. If they sell more than one hundred copies, they stand to make a profit. On the other hand, if everything goes wrong, the studio may end up having to borrow money from the state, and the state is not as willing to lend to film studios as before."

Taking these factors into account, we began to question a distinction we often depend on distinguishing between political pressure and commercial motivation. That distinction, for whatever reason, seemed now impossible to apply. We interpret the various replies Cheng and Chen gave us as indicating that economic and political determinations may operate in complex combinations in China now.

For example, when explaining some of the problems the Chinese film industry would face in the future, Cheng and Chen described a situation stemming from a complex of structural and economic factors. A commercial competition exists between film and television, one spurred on by "unit chauvinism" originating in the administrative divisions between the two industries.

"Since film is under the Ministry of Culture and television under the Ministry of Broadcasting, we have two separate industries. Relatively young in China, television is developing fast, so we see a lot of rivalry between it and the film world."

Television's ability to compete with film is enhanced by its status as a non-commercial enterprise. Films have to make their money back at the box-office, while the state funds television programs directly.

"Movies get shown on TV on local stations about three months after their first run. The China Film Distribution and Projection Corporation has recently become very upset about this. For example, a big fight between the film and television industry recently occurred in Guangdong Province, where a local TV station showed a film during its first theatrical run. The Distribution and Projection Corporation was so furious that it wouldn't give any movies at all to Guangdong television for quite a while after that. Another big problem happens because television wants to screen unreleased major films during the major Chinese holidays. The TV stations want the best movies they can get, but the Distribution and Projection Corporation doesn't want them to get anything at all!"

"Made-for-TV movies have been around China for quite a while, and there's a big demand for them. Until recently, the film studios didn't want to get involved in making such movies because it was not profitable. However, the situation's changed and they're getting involved and will probably do so more and more in the future. The television industry is young and lacks skilled, experienced professionals. Film studios can help out here."

According to our latest information, a special made-for-television movie unit has been established at the Beijing Film Studios.

To conclude, we not only wanted to discuss the future of the Chinese film industry but also the future of film culture in China — in the broader sense. We feel this is important because, apart from the factual information we obtained from Cheng and Chen, this interview has taught us that our ability to understand more about Chinese cinema will depend to no small extent on the Chinese film scholar's interest in understanding our cinema. In certain areas of our interview we ran into vagueness and obstacles in communication. These areas seem to indicate inaccurate expectations on both sides. But these areas also seem to promise the most for future investigation.

For example, the Chinese cinema industry seems evidently to be organized on a studio system model, and so the idea of comparing it to the Hollywood system might be productive. However, when we asked questions about authorship, genres or the star system, we got extremely vague responses. Because we think of stars primarily in terms of social criteria such as status, glamour, and fame, Cheng and Chen surprised us by denying the existence of a star system. But then they made it clear that for them a star system was only really a star system if the actors were paid enormous salaries.

 Furthermore, we had very different ideas about genres. Indeed, neither side of the discussion understood what the other understood by "genre." Partly this must be due to the fact that the Chinese were cut off from all the developments in film studies and film theory in the West, which occurred during the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Thus we asked what Western theory was translated into Chinese. Cheng and Chen explained,

"Translation and publication has been one of the aspects of Chinese film research stressed since the 1950s, at which time only a few Pudovkin articles had been translated. However, most of the material translated in the 1950s was from the USSR rather than from the West: Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Kuleshov, Vertov.

In 1956 the China Film Association set up the China Film Press. Later in the late 50s the Digest of Film Translations (renamed World Cinema in 1981) was set up. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, translations of Western works have reached new levels to make up for their lack before the 1960s. So, as well as more Pudovkin and Eisenstein, now Arnheim, Bazin, Kracauer, Sadoul, Balazs, Mitry and many others have been translated or are in the process of translation."

Maybe Metz, Bellour, Heath, Mulvey, et al lie further down the line. But if we found the Chinese a little out of touch with the main contemporary figures in the West and with the issues we think are crucial in film studies, then it is equally true that we in the West have almost no idea of what is important to film researchers in China. Not only do the Chinese lack familiarity with the issues here, but these things may have a lesser priority in China.

One thing we study, national cinemas, did not seem important to Cheng and Chen during their teaching visit here. Again, they looked at this topic from a different angle than film scholars usually do in the West. Cheng and Chen repeatedly stressed the need to search for a cinema that is in some way distinctively Chinese. Within that context, they repeatedly engaged in a highly evaluative process of judging China's film production against certain criteria. And these criteria seemed somewhat obscure to us — yet again. However, they did establish a close correlation between nationality and political morality. During one class at UCLA, they cited a pre-liberation film called SPRING IN A SMALL CITY, which some people in China were currently defending on the basis of its stylistic innovation. Cheng saw that film in a more negative light because of its focus on the romantic relations of the petit bourgeoisie at a time when the nation was torn apart by civil war. We gathered that he considered this theme inappropriate for Chinese national cinema.

We need more examples of what the Chinese consider important about film. For we need to understand Chinese cinema in terms of its place within Chinese culture and thought, as well as the valuable facts and figures that Cheng and Chen could so readily provide us with. Western film scholars are now making trips to China that may help us to fill in some of these basic gaps in our knowledge. For example, Professors Nick Browne of UCLA, Beverle Houston of USC, and Robert Rosen of the AFI and UCLA visited Beijing for the second time last Summer. Cheng and Chen will also return to UCLA. On the basis of the knowledge we have already gained and with more exchanges like this, we will gradually be able to move toward a better understanding of each other's film cultures.