A woman with bobbed hair wears a form-fitting qípáo dress, holds an evening bag, and raises her hand in greeting as she alights from an airplane. This arresting image was used to advertise British American Tobacco Company cigarettes and illustrates the emergence of Shanghai’s “modern woman.” By the 1930s, the image of the Chinese woman as subservient, with bound feet balancing elaborately styled hair, had been replaced by her 20th century version: chic, mobile, modern—code at the time for Western.
A center of international trade and commerce since the mid-19th century, Shanghai was divided into separate districts for English, American, French, Russian, and Chinese communities. By the 1930s, the port city was infiltrated by Western culture and technologies. Huge department stores opened on Nanjing Road, Chinese men sported Western-style suits, and automobiles and electric trams thronged the streets. Chinese advertising promoted a Western lifestyle, with images of stylish Chinese women playing golf, listening to gramophones, and dancing together. Nightlife in Shanghai catered to the large international population, with nightclubs, restaurants, and, inevitably, movie theaters.
The first public viewing of a film in China took place in a Shanghai teahouse in 1896. Billed as “electric shadow plays from the West,” the screening was part of a roster that included magic acts and fireworks. Originally reliant on Western producers, the first Chinese-made production was the 1905 filmed swordfight based on the opera The Battle of Mount Dingjun. The national film industry slowly gained momentum, culminating in the boom years of the 1920s and 1930s. Nearly half of all films produced in China during the boom were created in Shanghai, where China’s first movie theater opened in 1908. By 1930, the city was home to 53 movie theaters, showing mainly Chinese-produced films.
Hollywood had a major influence on the Chinese film industry. Film critics of the time compared national stars Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan to Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino, respectively. Western-style serials such as The Perils of Pauline attracted large audiences, and homegrown love stories such as 1931’s The Peach Girl and fallen-women dramas such as 1934’s Shénnǚ became as popular as similar films were in the West.
In the years leading up to World War II, and especially following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, filmmakers had to tailor their subject matter to the fickle political climate. For example, if a film advocated Nationalism and opposed the Japanese, it also needed to condemn the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) government or risk the wrath of the rising Communist Party (CCP). Famed director Sun Yu, whose films were overtly Nationalist, was deemed insufficiently anti-KMT and harshly criticized by the Communists, who finally ended his film career in 1951.
Bu Wancang (1903–1974), on the other hand, survived the upheavals of the war and its aftermath, directing films into the 1960s. An original member of the Shanghai cinema scene, Bu worked for several studios before becoming a major director for Mingxing. In 1931, Bu moved to Mingxing’s rival, Lianhua, where he directed Love and Duty (1931) and The Peach Girl (1931), both with actress Ruan Lingyu. However, Bu also ran afoul of politics. His 1932 film Rendao (Humanity), depicting the great drought that had devastated Northern China the year before, was criticized by the CCP for not blaming the natural disaster on the KMT.
As the war with Japan intensified, Bu made several films with subtle patriotic themes, notably 1939’s Mulan Joins the Army, which became the most popular film produced in Shanghai during this period. A costume drama, it depicts the legend of the ancient heroine Mulan who grows up practicing martial arts. When her country is invaded, she disguises herself as a man and leads her father’s army to victory. Under the Japanese, Bu was forced to make several propaganda films for the occupiers and, after the war, was ostracized by his colleagues for collaboration. He moved to Hong Kong in 1948 and made films there until his retirement in 1963.
The two stars of A Spray of Plum Blossoms, Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yang, were as adored as their Western counterparts, Garbo and Valentino. Ruan was the most popular actress of her day, although her career was cut tragically short. She first appeared in Bu Wancang’s Husband and Wife in Name (1927) for Mingxing and later went to work at Lianhua, where she made her best-known film Shénnǚ (The Goddess). In a change of pace from her usual roles as the love interest or doomed prostitute, she plays a comedic part in A Spray of Plum Blossoms, as Jin Yan’s sister Julia, a modern girl bent on exposing her lover’s infidelity.
In 1933, Ruan appeared on the inaugural cover of Modern Screen, which was modeled after Western-style fan magazines. Although they doubtless advanced her career, such publications may also have contributed to her untimely death. Hounded by the publicity surrounding her failed relationships, she took her own life at the age of 24. In her suicide note, she wrote, “Gossip is a fearful thing.” Ruan’s funeral brought thousands of fans into the streets and inspired several copycat suicides.
A Spray of Plum Blossoms was part of the craze for all things Western that swept through Shanghai in the early 1930s. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, the film features independent female characters and female-to-male cross-dressing, a device often used in Shakespeare’s comedic plays. Sylvia, played by Lin Chuchu, is the daughter of a military general yet behaves more like a heroine from a Western serial. She spends her days galloping across a rolling, open countryside (called “Canton” in the film), which stands in for the landscapes of the American West. With long, unbound hair, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and accompanied by two uniformed handmaidens, she is a world away from Ruan Lingyu’s character, a sophisticated city girl sporting bobbed hair and qípáo dresses. Julia is the embodiment of the Shanghai “modern woman,” arriving in Canton in a borrowed biplane. Although a country girl, Sylvia is defiant, choosing her outlaw lover over an arranged match.
Shakespeare was not unknown in China, but the first complete translation of Hamlet did not appear in print until 1922, followed by Romeo and Juliet in 1924. In addition to its Western literary source, Plum Blossom’s intertitles were written in English, perhaps to attract Shanghai’s large international population to the film or to give it a Western cachet, even though few people outside Shanghai could read them. In addition, the main actors’ names are Westernized in the credits, despite the stars’ status as national treasures in China.
Plum Blossom’s strong, assertive female characters and its cross-dressing theme reappear in Bu Wancang’s subsequent film Mulan Joins the Army. Six decades later, Walt Disney Studios brought Bu’s beloved Chinese heroine to the West when it remade his most successful film as the 1998 animated feature Mulan.
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by Donald Sosin