In the 1980s, I became extremely interested in the use of visual sources in the study of modern Chinese history. Very little was known about the history of feature filmmaking in China. After spending a year at the Film Archive of China in 1982–1983, I became convinced that Chinese-made films provide unique insights into the social, cultural, and political history of China—information about popular culture that can not be found in traditional print sources. My main interest was in the 1920s and early 1930s, the high tide of the silent film industry in Shanghai, the Hollywood of China. No source is a mirror reflection of contemporary reality. But I felt strongly that the body language, makeup, hairstyles, costumes, and performances of such brilliant silent era screen idols as Ruan Lingyu taught me a lot about the subtle nuances of gender relations, class interactions, urban–rural divides, and the impact of global culture. Soon, I began writing about what I was learning from these captivating film sources.
In the early 1990s, I thought it made sense to introduce this film material into my undergraduate course on twentieth-century China. Students liked this approach and truly appreciated viewing rare silent era gems. My initial challenge was to get them out of the habit of just sitting back and enjoying the films. I wanted students to learn how to function as historians of Asia. I urged them to try to dissect these sources by treating them as historical documents. How are films different from other types of sources, including newspapers and government files?
Editor’s Note: This collection of essays was put together by Joseph W. Ho, Assistant Professor of History at Albion College. Each author of this essay collection was asked to answer the question “how each of your media activities will enhance student understanding of Chinese history and not just be something fun for students to do.” Their responses appear as sidebars in their respective essays.