These films represent for me not just the dawn of Chinese cinema, but also the visualization of my own cultural roots…. Rea’s sensitive reading of these films is a fascinating and insightful look into this unique cultural touchstone.

– Ang Lee, Academy Award-winning director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain



Chinese Film Classics, 1922–1949

By Christopher Rea
Columbia University Press, 2021
ISBN: 9780231188135 (paperback), 9780231188128 (hardcover), 9780231547673 (ebook)
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About the Book

Chinese Film Classics, 1922–1949 is an essential guide to the first golden age of Chinese cinema. Offering detailed introductions to fourteen films, this study highlights the creative achievements of Chinese filmmakers in the decades leading up to 1949, when the Communists won the civil war and began nationalizing cultural industries.

Christopher Rea reveals the uniqueness and complexity of Republican China’s cinematic masterworks, from the comedies and melodramas of the silent era to talkies and musicals of the 1930s and 1940s. Each chapter appraises the artistry of a single film, highlighting its outstanding formal elements, from cinematography to editing to sound design. Examples include the slapstick gags of Laborer’s Love (1922), Ruan Lingyu’s star turn in Goddess (1934), Zhou Xuan’s mesmerizing performance in Street Angels (1937), Eileen Chang’s urbane comedy of manners Long Live the Missus! (1947), the wartime epic Spring River Flows East (1947), and Fei Mu’s acclaimed work of cinematic lyricism, Spring in a Small Town (1948). Rea shares new insights and archival discoveries about famous films, while explaining their significance in relation to politics, society, and global cinema. Lavishly illustrated and featuring extensive guides to further viewings and readings, Chinese Film Classics, 1922–1949 offers an accessible tour of China’s early contributions to the cinematic arts. A Chinese edition is forthcoming.


List of Figures


  1. Laborer’s Love (Laogong zhi aiqing 勞工之愛情) (Zhang Shichuan, director, 1922)
  2. Playthings (Xiao wanyi 小玩意) (Sun Yu, director, 1933)
  3. Sports Queen (Tiyu huanghou 體育皇后) (Sun Yu, director, 1934)
  4. Goddess (Shennü 神女) (Wu Yonggang, director, 1934)
  5. The Great Road (Dalu 大路) (Sun Yu, director, 1934)
  6. New Women (Xin nüxing 新女性) (Cai Chusheng, director, 1935)


  1. Song at Midnight (Yeban gesheng 夜半歌聲) (Ma-Xu Weibang, director, 1937)
  2. Street Angels (Malu tianshi 馬路天使) (Yuan Muzhi, director, 1937)
  3. Hua Mu Lan (Mulan congjun 木蘭從軍) (Richard Poh, director, 1939)
  4. Long Live the Missus! (Taitai wansui 太太萬歲) (Sang Hu, director, 1947)
  5. Spring River Flows East (Yi jiang chunshui xiang dong liu 一江春水向東流) (Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli, directors, 1947)
  6. Spring in a Small Town (Xiaocheng zhi chun 小城之春) (Fei Mu, director, 1948)
  7. Wanderings of Three-Hairs the Orphan (Sanmao liulang ji 三毛流浪記) (Zhao Ming and Yan Gong, directors, 1949)
  8. Crows and Sparrows (Wuya yu maque 烏鴉與麻雀) (Zheng Junli, director, 1949)

Appendix 1. Other Significant Extant Chinese Films, 1927–1949
Appendix 2. Selective Name List of Film Personnel

Book trailers

How to watch the films

All of the films discussed in the book are available with English subtitles on the Films page of

About the author

Christopher Rea photo

Christopher Rea is Professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, as well as former Associate Head of Department and former Director of the UBC Centre for Chinese Research. He is the author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (2015), which the Association for Asian Studies awarded the 2017 Joseph Levenson Book Prize (post-1900 China)  (Chinese edition). His other books include China’s Chaplin: Comic Stories and Farces by Xu Zhuodai  (Cornell, 2018), (with Bruce RuskThe Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection (Columbia, 2017), (with Nicolai Volland) The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia, 1900-65 (UBC Press, 2015), China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015), and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2010).

His most recent book, co-authored with Thomas S. Mullaney, is Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters to You (and the World) (Chicago, 2022). Editions are available or forthcoming in Chinese, JapaneseKoreanPolish, and Thai. Project website.

His translations of over thirty Chinese films can be found on the Modern Chinese Cultural Studies YouTube channel.