The phenomenon of film was introduced to China in 1896, but the Chinese did not shoot their first film, Ding jun shan ( Dingjun Mountain ) until 1905. What followed in the next couple of decades, termed the "First Generation," was film approached from an operatic stage perspective, with fixed-camera shooting, step-by-step descriptions of ordinary plots, and dominance of story over the performances of actors and actresses. Although by the end of the period (late 1920s) about one hundred directors were making films, two dominated (Zhang Shichuan [1890–1954] and Zheng Zhengqiu [1889–1935]), with a few others such as Ren Pengnian, Dan Duyü, Cheng Bugao, Bu Wanchang, Li Pingqian, Hong Shen, Yang Xiaozhong, Shao Zuiweng, and Sun Yu also in the limelight.

These filmmakers made the biggest contributions with the first short feature Nan fu nan qi ( Husband and Wife in Misfortune , 1913), directed by Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan; first full-length feature, Yan ruisheng (1921), directed by Ren Pengnian; first sword-fight film, Huo shao hong lian si ( Burning of the Red Lotus Temple , 1928), directed by Zhang Shichuan; and first sound feature, Ge nü hong mudan ( The Sing-Song Girl , 1931), directed by Zhang Shichuan. These works were created under difficult circumstances, with simple and crude equipment and without training and experience.

Family-oriented films that drew on the lives of urban residents in the lower social strata were popular until the late 1920s, when audiences tired of their unrealistic, shallow plots. Most dealt with love affairs, marriages, household situations, and ethical issues. Gradually, they were supplemented with films that exposed the grim and pressing issues facing China; the first of these were Sun Yu's Ye cao xian hua ( Wild Flower , 1930) and Gu du chun meng ( Spring Dream in an Ancient Capital , 1930). Others followed, such as Zheng Zhengqiu's Zi mei hua ( Twin Sisters , 1934) and Wu Yonggang's Shen nü ( The Goddess, 1934), both depicting the plight of suffering women, and those that resulted when the Left-wing Writers' League took an interest in film in 1931, such as Cheng Bugao's Kuang liu ( Torrent , 1933), and Chun can ( Spring Silkworms , 1933), and Cai Chusheng's Yu guang qü ( The Life of Fishermen , 1934). The latter three films dealt with the bitter lives of peasants.

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