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Abstract

This dissertation studies the representation of the ancient (gu) in Shanghai cinema up to 1941 when Shanghai fell under total Japanese occupation. I trace the development of the genre of ancient costume films (guzhuang pian) and analyze the material and formal aspects of the construction of the ancient (zhuang gu) in cinema. Arguing against the stereotypical prejudice against ancient costume films as the “countercurrents” of modernity, I understand cinema’s engagement with the ancient past as a modern form of enchantment, both for the creators and consumers of a perceptually realistic ancient world. The project explores two production cycles of the genre in light of changing political and social contexts: the first is in the late 1920s before censorship intervened the market-oriented film industry; the second period is from 1937 to 1941 when the Shanghai film industry retreated to the French and International Concessions after the outbreak of the War of Resistance Against Japan. I demonstrate a wide range of modern factors behind the emergence of the genre, and its multilayered function in the nation-building and national defense efforts. Looking at the fabrication of ancient costumes and the incorporation of historical sites in the 1920s, as well as the construction of film sets and the employment of sound in the late 1930s, this dissertation identifies major changes in formal features and ideological concerns of representing the past and shows their connections to broader historical environments. If enchantment initially derives from the magic power of cinema in conjuring up a past world that transcends the boundary between the ancient and modern, between reality and fantasy, the wartime expression of enchantment highlights the reassuring effect of tradition in creating a sense of continuity and belonging in face of turbulence and crisis. My research seeks to address two interrelated questions: how does tradition participate in shaping China’s path to modernity and what new experiences of and relations to the past does cinema generate. The goal of this project is to break away from a progressive account of early Chinese cinema that privileged modern subject matters and features as its inquiry, and to uncover the entangled aspects of ancient and modern from the perspective of a new medium form.

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