A Critical History of Film Technology in Maoist China
: 1949-1979

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis is the first critical history, from the perspective of global technological transfer, of film technology in the Maoist China from the foundation of People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 to the beginning of economic reform in 1979. This research is innovative in two aspects. First, in Chinese film studies, film technology has been an untapped research area that enables us to rethink the cinema in socialist China beyond the conventional analytic perspectives of film aesthetics and industrial research. This research offers an overview of how film technology has laid the material foundation for the establishment of the socialist film enterprise in the PRC. Second, because film technologies were invented and developed in the capitalist West, most earlier historical research on film technology focuses on the West. This research examines the ignored film technology in China, which is a socialist state. The technologies were imported and acquired from the West through international trade exchange or circulation of scientific knowledge. It asks how we can account for the history of use of technology in the PRC. It shows that the function of film technology under socialism is different from capitalist countries, which mainly use film technology to raise films’ commercial appeal and to generate profit. Instead, the use of film technology became a key link in the Chinese film industry to promote socialist political propaganda and pedagogy.

The research combines the research methods of film historiography from film studies and the methodology of focusing on the use of technology from the history of technology. Using this interdisciplinary approach, instead of seeing film technologies as new inventions or innovations, this thesis looks at the global diffusion of film technology and the use of film technology in China during the socialist period. It argues that, although most technical apparatuses and processes adopted in China were imports, the Chinese uses of these technologies were adapted to meet the domestic socio-political requirements of film production and nationwide film distribution. To support this argument, this research focuses on the history of the adoption of four kinds of film technology. First, the history of film stocks reveals how China attempted to realise the goal of self-reliance in its photosensitive material industry, but the prioritisation of film production meant the importing of foreign film stocks continued. Second, the history of the dye-transfer process manifests that China used a colour film printing technique which was outdated in the West to aesthetically highlight the political aesthetics of the Cultural Revolution. Third, the case of widescreen film formats indicates although these new screen technologies were widely used in filmmaking in the West, in the PRC, they were used as reputational film technologies to emphasise technological and cultural power in urban cinema construction in the PRC. Fourth, the history of rural film projection equipment manifests how the trend for equipment to get improvements in projectability and portability was in response to the top-down ideological demand for nationwide popularisation of film as a tool of pedagogy and entertainment in rural areas.

Date of Award1 Mar 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorChris Berry (Supervisor) & David Edgerton (Supervisor)

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