Last Updated on January 17, 2023 by China Underground
Rediscovering Classic Chinese Cinema: A Guide to Viewing the Best Old Chinese Movies on YouTube
We have compiled a selection of the greatest Chinese films spanning a few decades, from 1927 to 1949. The first list consists of motion pictures produced in the Republic of China (1912-1949). The films were made during a difficult period in modern Chinese history. China was the battlefield of a brutal Japanese invasion, civil conflicts, and natural calamities.
Related articles: history of the Chinese cinema
There are many benefits to watching old Chinese movies. For one, they offer a window into the culture and history of China. These films reflect the values, beliefs, struggles and customs of their period, and provide valuable insights into the country’s past. In addition, old Chinese movies are often artistically and technically impressive, showcasing the talents of some of the greatest directors, actors, and filmmakers in the industry. Many of these films shaped the growth of the Chinese cinema industry and are still cherished by fans worldwide.
Pre-Communist China Movies (1934-1949)
Romance of the West Chamber (1927) by Hou Yao, first part
Chinese cinema pioneer Hou Yao (侯曜, 1903–1942) worked as a director, screenwriter, and film theorist. He directed the silent Chinese cinema drama Romance of the Western Chamber in 1927. The film is an adaptation of Wang Shifu’s famous Chinese theatrical masterpiece Romance of the West Chamber.
The Big Road (1934) by Sun Yu
Sun Yu (孙瑜, March 21, 1900 – July 11, 1990) was a major leftist film director active in the 1930s in Shanghai. Sun Yu’s 1934 Chinese film The Big Road, commonly known as The Highway, stars Jin Yan and Li Lili. The plot revolves around a group of workmen who are building a roadway to be used in the fight against the Japanese. It’s one of Sun Yu’s most successful works.
Plunder of Peach and Plum (1934) by Yuan Muzhi
Yuan Muzhi (袁牧之, 1909-1978) was a performer and director who gained enormous popularity as an actor earning the moniker “man with a thousand faces.” The film was directed and starred in by Yuan Muzhi. This 1934 film recounts the trials and tribulations of a group of college graduates who are eager to transform China despite the corruption and injustice of the period. Also known as “The Graduation Fate.”
The goddess (1934) by Wu Yonggang
During the 1930s, Wu Yonggang (吴永刚, 1907–1982) was a well-known Chinese cinema director. With the Lianhua Film Company in the 1930s, in Chongqing during the war, and on the mainland following the communist revolution in 1949, Wu had a long and successful career. The Goddess, Wu’s first film as a filmmaker, is currently his most well-known work. A 1934 Shanghai B&W film about a young prostitute attempting to send her child to school. This film is widely recognized as a pre-war Chinese film masterpiece. The story revolves around a young prostitute trying to give her infant child a good start in life while coping with prejudice and the attention of a pimp.
Queen of Sports (1934) by Sun Yu
Lin Ying, a young sprinter, enrolls at a sports institution in Shanghai. As she becomes a sports superstar, she begins to mingle with the upper class and eventually loses sight of the genuine meaning of athletics.
National Customs (1935) by Zhu Shi-Lin, Lo Ming-Yau
In 1930, two rural sisters, the sober Zhang Lan (Ruan Lingyu) and the rambunctious Zhang Tao graduate from secondary school where their mother, Zhang Jie, is the principal. They both admire their cousin Zuo, but their ambitions do not include marriage. When they both attend university in Shanghai and are exposed to modern metropolitan living and a rapidly changing society, their lives are radically transformed. The film also depicts the birth of Chiang Kai-shek‘s New Life Movement. The film was created to appease the Nationalist Party, which had accused Lianhua Film Studio of presenting mostly left-wing films.
Scenes Of City Life (1935) directed by Yuan Muzhi
Yuan Muzhi directed the 1935 Chinese comedy-drama movie Scenes of City Life. It is notable for being Yuan’s first picture to direct as well as Lan Ping, who would go on to become Jiang Qing and Mao Zedong‘s fourth wife, making her cinematic debut. A poor man has feelings for a girl, but she is being chased by another man, and her father is interfering as well. It starts like a Charlie Chaplin picture, but it gradually reveals the underlying moral faults of the Westernized capitalistic city.
Waves Washing the Sand (1936) by Wu Yonggang
The plot revolves around a cop pursuing a sailor who murdered his adulterous wife and lover before dying on a remote island.
Song at Midnight (1937) by Ma-Xu Weibang
Ma-Xu Weibang (马徐维邦, 1905–1961) was a Chinese film director who worked in mainland China from the 1920s to the 1940s and later in Hong Kong. He is perhaps best known for his work in the horror genre, with Song at Midnight, which was unquestionably the most significant and directly inspired by The Phantom of the Opera, being the most significant. Song Danping, a revolutionary involved in theater activities, falls in love with Li Xiaoxia, the daughter of a wealthy landlord, but is mutilated and disfigured by the bully Tang Jun and hides on the theater’s roof, and more than ten years later, he fights to the death with his enemy Tang Jun to help Xiaoou, an actor in a similar situation as himself.
Princess Iron Fan (1941) by Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming
Wan Guchan (万古蟾, 1900-1995) and Wan Laiming (万籁鸣, 1900-1997) were two brothers who pioneered the Chinese animation industry. The Wan brothers created Princess Iron Fan during the war, and it is China’s first feature-length animation. The film was cited as a major influence on Osamu Tezuka, Japan’s finest manga artist, who began his career after seeing it as a youngster in 1943. Tripitaka, Monkey, Sandy, and Pigsy make their way to the Mountain of Flames in extremely painful heat. Monkey travels into the volcano’s core, but is forced to flee by local fire creatures.
Dream of the Red Mansions (1945) by Bu Wancang
Chinese cinema director and screenwriter Bu Wancang (卜万苍, 1900–1973), often known by his English name Richard Poh, was active between the 1920s and the 1960s. Based on the famous 18th-century Chinese novel of the same name.
The spring river flows east (1947) by Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli
Cai Chusheng (蔡楚生, 1906–1968), was a pre–Communist Chinese film director, most known for his progressive work from the 1930s. Cai Chusheng was later subjected to harsh repression and died during the Cultural Revolution. Chinese actor and director Zheng Junli (郑君里, 1911 – 1969), achieved fame during the heyday of Chinese cinema. The occupying Japanese army takes over the village of an impoverished family. Zhongliang, one of the sons, abandons his wife and little boy to join the Chinese Army’s medic squad. Zhangmin, the other son, goes into hiding to protect his family. The emphasis moves from the brothers’ parents and Zhongliang’s wife and children to Zhongliang’s newfound life of luxury in a nearby town. The struggle of Zhongliang’s mother, his wife, Sufan, and their kid, Kongeson, is juxtaposed with Zhongliang’s advancement in a thriving corporation.
Spring in a Small Town (1948) by Fei Mu
Fei Mu (1906 — 1951) is regarded as one of China’s greatest directors. Spring in a Small Town is a 1948 Chinese film that is recognized for having great empathy for women and portraying that in his films. Following the Sino-Japanese War, the film chronicles the story of a once-rich Dai family, who lives in a damaged family property in a tiny village in Jiangsu Province. Yuwen accomplishes nothing after eight years of marriage to Liyan, who was previously wealthy but is now a ghost of his former self as a result of a lengthy, devastating war. A surprise visit from Liyan’s buddy Zhang energizes the family, but it also awakens dangerously suppressed longings and resentments.