Zhang Shichuan

My Masquerade post is here.

Zhang Shichuan (né Zhang Weitong) (1 January 1889 or 1890–8 July 1953 or 1954) was born in Ningbo’s Beilun District, Zhejiang Province. His dad, Zhang Heju, was a silkworm dealer.

Zhang was forced to leave school at sixteen when his dad passed away. He went to live with his maternal uncle, comprador Jing Runsan, in Shanghai. Owing to his uncle’s business, Zhang got a job at the American company Huayang. He studied English at night.

In 1913, Yashell and Suffert, Americans who’d taken over the Asia Film Company, asked Zhang to be their consultant. Though he hadn’t any filmmaking experience, he gamely rose to the challenge.

Zhang enlisted the help of famed playwright Zheng Zhengqiu, with whom he founded the new film company Xinmin. That same year, they produced China’s first feature, The Difficult Couple.

WWI forced Xinmin into bankruptcy, and Zhang’s aunt, newly widowed, asked him to run their family’s New World amusement park.

Zhang didn’t stay away from filmmaking for long. In 1916, when American films came to Shanghai, he founded the Huanxian company.

His new venture quickly closed, and he returned to running the amusement park. That didn’t last long either, as the park sold in 1920.

In 1922, Zhang, his old partner Zheng, and three other people founded Mingxing. From the jump, he and Zheng had quite disparate aims. Zhang wanted to make money from movies, while Zheng saw film as a catalyst for moral improvement and social reform.

Zhang (left) and Zheng (right)

Despite their juxtaposing views on the purpose of film, Mingxing films were very popular through the Twenties. Mingxing became China’s largest film company. After the 1931 invasion of Manchuria and 1932 Battle of Shanghai, Mingxing brought leftist screenwriters on board to keep up with the times.

Troubles increased when Japan occupied Shanghai (barring foreign concessions) in 1937. Mingxing was destroyed by bombs, though Zhang was able to rescue some equipment and material before relocating to the Guohua company.

The noose tightened in 1941, when Japan occupied the Shanghai International Settlement, previously under British and U.S. control, and melded Shanghai’s remaining film companies into China United. Zhang decided to work for them as a director and branch manager.

1930s entrance to Mingxing, known in English as Star Motion Picture Company

After the war ended, Zhang was accused of treason for cooperating with the Japanese occupiers. He was able to find work at Hong Kong’s Great China Film Company and Shanghai’s Datong Film Company, but his reputation never recovered.

Zhang directed about 150 films over the course of his long career, including China’s first talkie, Sing-Song Girl Red Peony (1931); the first martial arts film, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928); the oldest known Chinese film surviving in entirety, Laborer’s Love (1922); one of China’s first box office smashes, Orphan Rescues Grandfather (1923); and China’s first feature, The Difficult Couple (1913).

Xuan Jinglin

Xuan Jinglin (née Tian Jinlin) (1907–22 January 1992) was born in Shanghai. Her father sold newspapers, and her mother was a homemaker. She was one of five children and the youngest of three sisters.

Sources differ as to the extent and origins of the family’s poverty, and the level of Xuan’s education. This isn’t helped by contradictory statements Xuan herself made on these subjects.

Some accounts say she received very little education and was barely literate, while others claim she was taught at home and had an English tutor. As for the poverty, some say the family were always poor, and others claim the troubles only started after her dad’s death.

At age fifteen, Xuan had a disastrous, scandalous relationship with an older man who turned out to already have a wife. Every time she turned to her mother for advice, she advised Xuan to break things off.

Accounts differ on whether her mother sold her to a brothel at this age, or if Xuan herself ran away from home with the help of a sympathetic aunt. She upped her age by one year when she presented herself at the Nanjing brothel, and reinvented herself as Sai Zhaozhun.

After two weeks of getting up to twenty customers a day, Xuan refused an offer from the head of the local tax service. She returned to Shanghai, where she continued brothel prostitution.

Eventually, she bought a house and started operating out of that. One of her customers turned out to be her former sweetheart Wang, who convinced her to quit prostituting.

Destiny called in 1925, when Zhang Shichuan, one of the founding fathers of Chinese cinema, cast her for a small role in The Last Noble Heart. He remembered seeing her in an amusement park many years ago, and put out an order to track her down.

Xuan claimed he bought her out of the brothel for 2,000 yuan, though this again contradicts the other account claiming she’d already voluntarily quit prostituting. At any rate, the director was deeply impressed with her acting, and signed her to a contract.

Zheng Zhengqiu, the other founding father of Chinese cinema, created the stage name Xuan Jinglin based on her nom de prostitution and a Shanghaiese transliteration of Lillian Gish’s name.

Xuan settled down with Mr. Wang, who worked as a bank clerk. After The Mistress’s Young Fan (1928), she temporarily left acting to devote herself to family life. Everyone around them approved of the relationship this time, except her parents-in-law.

Mr. Wang was pressured into breaking up with her yet again, this time forever.

In 1931, she returned to the screen. Though Asia remained silent much longer than the West, China was nevertheless experimenting with sound. All their sound films were shot in Putonghua (Mandarin). This required Xuan to learn a new language and unlearn her strong Suzhou accent.

Xuan went on to great success during this second wind of her career, after the long, hard effort to perfect her Mandarin. A 1935 illness forced her away from the screen again, and then WWII precluded anyone from moviemaking.

Her eponymous Xuan Jinglin Road Company toured China during the war, giving musical performances. In 1949, she returned to the screen, one of very few Shanghaiese actors permitted to keep acting after Mao’s takeover. Unlike many others, she never compromised herself under the Japanese occupation.

Her films were sporadic after her return to the screen. Her final one was in 1964.