Spring Silkworms depicts the plight of Chinese silkworm farmers against the backdrop of imperialist incursion and a weakened rural economy. Living in a village in Zhejiang province, Old Tongbao and his family go into debt acquiring a large quantity of mulberry leaves to ensure the healthy growth of their silkworms. When they finally succeed in having the best cocoon harvest in the village, cheap Japanese synthetic silks flood the Chinese market, drastically driving down silk prices and throwing Old Tongbao’s family further into debt.
In a 1933 symposium on the silent film adaptation of Mao Dun’s celebrated short story ‘Spring Silkworms’ (Chuncan, 1932), a group of filmmakers, scriptwriters, dramatists and film critics associated with the 1930s leftist movement in Shanghai gathered to review the film and discuss its contributions to Chinese cinema. The director Cheng Bugao (1898–1966) used the term ‘literature-film’ (wenxue dianying) to refer to his work, and evoked the considerable responsibility of promoting the New Art Film (Xin wenyi dianying) in relation to New Literature (Xin wenxue).1 The relation between literature and film is further foregrounded by Xia Yan (1900– 1995), whose script for the adaptation initiates the practice of the ‘cinematic literary script’ (dianying wenxue juben), making Spring Silkworms (henceforth Silkworms) the first Chinese film to be adapted from a work of fiction and shot according to a complete shooting script. Although this seminal role is often alluded to in subsequent Chinese film history, the absence of close critical engagement with the film after the 1933 symposium remains conspicuous and problematic for understanding its formal contributions. In fact, a deeper examination of the initial reception reveals much more ambivalent attitudes toward Silkworms, despite the celebratory language that nominally proclaimed a victory for leftist participation in Shanghai’s filmmaking industry.
Central to the debates were questions of medium specificity (literature vs. film), performance and the dramatic text, as well as the relation between the film’s perceived realism and its appropriation of the ‘educational’ (jiaoyu dianying) and ‘documentary’ (jilu dianying) film genres. The ideological and rhetorical unity of cinematic ‘achievement’ notwithstanding, the symposium participants’ detailed comments on the film are overwhelmingly critical and express markedly divergent evaluations of the successes and failures of Silkworms. This lack of consensus among the Silkworms’ core group of supporters offers an important historical context for our contemporary evaluation of the film, and raises a number of interesting questions: Why did the symposium participants react so differently to the film when they were not only in agreement about the ideological significance of the original literary work, but also in their shared political agenda of transforming the film medium from mere entertainment to one that can ‘educate’ and ‘move’ the masses? Why, if all of them acknowledged the adaptation as having faithfully reproduced the powerful realism of the original short story, did they complain of its ‘dull’ quality and lack of emotional affect? How did a film that so unequivocally carried out its representational and didactic aims, in accordance with the aspirations of the left-wing film critics and practitioners, come under scrutiny in what ultimately amounted to a narrative of disappointment and failure?2
This essay will engage with the above questions by investigating Silkworms’ treatment of the very issues that divided the symposium group – namely, the negotiation between different media, assumptions of a ubiquitous dramatic text that transcends and therefore must be captured by these mediums, and the representational logic that informs the film’s documentary and pedagogical aspirations. In taking this approach, the intertitles and other verbal representations in the film will be taken as a site where issues of medium specificity, dramatic performance and representational modes converge and elucidate the sources of the reviewers’ discontent. Despite being largely overlooked (the intertitles were never directly mentioned by any of the symposium participants, and only twice, indirectly, for their use of animation [katong]), their elaborate design and unique presentation not only destabilise the textual/ visual dichotomy attributed to the mediums of fiction and film, but work to supply orality to the latter, which, in and of itself, is silent. In sum, the intertitles enact processes of remediation and intermediality between literature and film, in which both mediums become more than themselves and, as a result, unsettled the coherence of the leftist cinematic vision.
The 1933 silent film was produced by the Shanghai-based Star (Mingxing) Film Company, the earliest indigenous Chinese film company established in 1920. It was also the first film company to start collaborating with Shanghai-based leftist intellectuals in 1932, the year of the first Japanese bombing of Shanghai. The symposium on Silkworms took place some time between a pre-release screening, held at National Grand Theatre (Zhongyang daxiyuan) on 1 September, and the official opening night at Starlight Theatre (Xinguang daxiyuan) on 8 October. Aside from Xia Yan and Cheng Bugao, also in attendance were eight other active film writers and practitioners, such as Zheng Boqi (1895–1979), Yang Hansheng (1902–1993), A Ying (1900–1977), and others. The discussion was transcribed and published on 8 October, in a supplement to the Morning Post (Chen Bao) called ‘Daily Film’ (Meiri dianying), which was edited by Yao Sufeng (1906–1974), another participant in the symposium. The publication of the symposium transcript on the same day as the film release was obviously strategic, in terms of both advertising the film and dictating its popular reception. Although the publicity proved effective – Silkworms opened to a full house on 8 October, the film closed after just five days in the theatres, suggesting its failure at the box office.
During the symposium discussion, the terms ‘literature-film’ (wenxue dianying), ‘educational film’ (jiaoyu dianying), and ‘documentary film’ (jilu dianying) were evoked repeatedly in analysing Silkworms’ merits and demerits. A brief introduction appended to the published transcript applauds the transformative impact of the film, specifically in its repudiation of theatrical (xiju de) exaggeration and its use of realism, consistent with Mao Dun’s original work.3 However, the comments in the transcript are far less congratulatory. In fact, Xia Yan’s preservation of the elaborate procedures of silk farming in the film script, and the film’s faithful reproduction of these procedures on screen became a point of critique for many symposium participants. Yang Hansheng, a politically active leftist filmmaker and author, takes issue with the heavy use of technical language for silkworm farming in the intertitles and the lengthiness of their corresponding shots. In response, Xia Yan, using the pseudonym Cai Shusheng to avoid censorship by the Kuomintang government, defends this approach by referring to Mao Dun’s use of technical language and emphasising the need to employ ‘documentary’ filming methods in order to ‘educate’ the audience and retain the authenticity found in the original text. In this exchange, Xia implies that the social reality of a village industry in crisis necessitated the lengthy documentation of the labour of silkworm farming. By attributing this need to the original short story, Xia does not simply justify the use of technical language but, more importantly, establishes a link between the documentary mode of filmmaking and the discourse of national struggle. A comparison of the original short story and the script reveals that the marriage between national discourse and the pedagogical function of the documentary mode was the scriptwriter’s own implement, officiated by the prelude he created for the film.