Skip to content

The 1980s: The Origins or Pre-History of Chinese Independent Cinema

WANG Xiaolu, Sabrina Qiong YU

Chinese independent cinema did not ‘pop out of a rock’. In the past two decades, however, our studies of Chinese independent cinema have mostly been presented in the form of ‘dynastic histories’. Independent cinema has been described as a cultural phenomenon that suddenly emerged in the 1990s. Occasionally, there are some scattered accounts of the history of Chinese independent cinema being gradually nurtured, or writings about individual filmmakers who grew up and made films across the 1980s and the 1990s, but there are relatively few systematic studies, and the emphasis is more on a certain kind of rupture than on examining the continuity of history.

The accepted starting point for Chinese independent cinema is 1990. Although there is an element of expediency in the setting of this opening year, it holds a broad consensus. We tend to use Mama (妈妈), Zhang Yuan’s (张元) fictional film made in 1990, as the starting point for Chinese independent fictional films, and Wu Wenguang’s (吴文光) Bumming in Beijing (流浪北京), completed in 1990, as the starting point for Chinese independent documentaries. Since their production years were both 1990, and 1990 is a round number that divides the 1980s and the 1990s, which is easy to remember, people are happy to use it as a boundary marker to divide Chinese independent films from those produced previously under the traditional film system.

Also, since 1989 is such an important year in contemporary Chinese history, we tend to think that it seems logical that the influence of 1989 lagged a year behind, coinciding with the emergence of independent cinema, a nascent thing with a more determined cultural attitude, in 1990. As a result, 1990 is considered as the birth year of independent cinema in China. Although there were occasional voices of doubt, they did not form systematic writing. 1990 has therefore come to exist in more discourses as a consensus marker of a temporal boundary.

It is not the purpose of this issue to question 1990 as the starting point. We believe that the emergence of independent cinema must be a process of quantitative to qualitative change, regardless of the criteria used to define it. What we are concerned with is how Chinese independent cinema has come into being step by step, from the perspectives of social changes, economic development, cultural innovation, and personal spiritual evolution. The aim of this issue is to explore the conditions that allowed Chinese independent films (including documentaries and fiction films, but with more emphasis on documentaries) to rise to the surface of history. Such an exploration is the kind of work that should be done in film history research, but Chinese-language scholarship has often been in a very delicate situation; independent cinema has never really become a hotspot in mainstream scholarship, and independent film studies has long been marginalised in China. In recent years, in particular, scholars have been eager to erase the term ‘independent cinema’, which has been used within the system for many years, from their current discourse, not to mention elaborating on and investigating the pre-history of independent cinema. In English-language scholarship, the discussion of Chinese independent cinema also usually begins with the ‘New Documentary Movement’ in the early 1990s.

Occasionally, some filmmakers and researchers responded to this question. For example, for early independent filmmakers, Western intellectual and cinematic resources formed the cultural background for their filmmaking, but the works of local predecessors were also important inspirations for them. Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) once said that he was stimulated and influenced by Yellow Earth (黄土地,dir. Chen Kaige 陈凯歌, 1984) before he had the passion to make films (2011). But these are usually fragmentary narratives. Cui Weiping (崔卫平) (2003) believes that the origins of independent productions can be traced back to the folk avant-garde poets of the 1970s; Hao Jian (郝建) have spoken formally or informally about the Sixth Generation as a product of the 1980s. In his review of Chinese independent documentary filmmaking since the 1990s, Ken Sato (佐藤贤) (2007) cites Yu Jian (于坚) and Wu Wenguang as examples of the influence of the independent spirit presented in the new poetry of the late 1970s and 1980s, (e.g. Misty Poetry, Third Generation Poetry), on later independent documentaries. However, these views do not seem to have been widely debated or carefully expounded.

Wang Xiaolu (one of the authors of this article) has made some effort on this front. For example, in his study of director Mi Jiashan (米家山), he argues, ‘Mi Jiashan’s film experience, together with the efforts of other Fifth Generation directors, formed a wave of film democratisation that belonged to the 1980s. And this wave is the pre-history of the Sixth Generation independent film movement of the 1990s. There is a deep connection between them.’ (2019, p.34) In his essay ‘The Subjectivity Emerges: Twenty Years of Independent Documentary Films in China’, published in 2010, Wang also tries to link the independence in ‘independent film’ with the independence in ‘the virtue of independence’ of the intellectuals of late Qing Dynasty. He argues that Chinese independent cinema is the development and continuation of the cultural movement pursued by those late Qing intellectuals:

The 1980s in China was called the New Age of Enlightenment, exhibiting a clear attempt to continue the historical process that began around May 4th and was later interrupted. The goal of enlightenment is to eliminate immature dependence and establish an independent personality. In 1901, Liang Qichao (梁启超) said, ‘The reason why China has not become an independent country is that its people lack the virtue of independence.’ The lack of independent virtue is also a fundamental shortcoming of Chinese cinema. An important indicator of the development of Chinese cinema is the subjectivity of the director, and the auteurist study of Chinese cinema must be based on the context above in order to reach the most appropriate understanding. … In fact, the rise of Chinese documentary films in the 1980s was marked by a clear awareness on the part of those involved that the development of documentary film was taking place on the extended line of China’s century-old Enlightenment movement. Words such as ‘little man’ and ‘ordinariness’ are key words in the 1980s. Although the concept of ‘superman’ in Nietzsche’s philosophy was introduced, that also emphasised the initiative of the individual. This trend of thought continued and blossomed into the new documentary movement of the 1990s. Instead of always looking up to the state and the collective, the little man was able to speak his own words, even if they were limited. This basic right was already a source of great joy (2010, p.78).

In addition, at a symposium on documentary films in late May in 2002, some filmmakers and scholars argued that the New Documentary Movement did not start from the late 1980s, but from the early 1980s. Lü Xinyu (吕新雨) (2003) rejects this argument and insists that it cannot be earlier than the late 1980s. She has specific definitions of the New Documentary Movement, emphasising that it is an independent documentary movement characterised by bottom-up acts with personal will. However, there were documentary filmmaking activities in the early to mid-1980s that fit this definition but do not seem to have entered her research horizon and academic discourse. Within the scope of Lü’s definition, there is nothing wrong with taking the late 1980s and 1990 as time points, but we also need to value the view that the 1980s and the 1990s cannot be isolated. Cultural change happens little by little, not overnight.

A greater emphasis on rupture in previous studies is in fact understandable. From the perspective of academic research, in the early days of a new film phenomenon, we put more emphasis on its heterogeneity in relation to previous films, hoping to sketch out its novelty. But after many years have passed, when the lens of history pulls back, we can often see more connections between what came before and after, and the inevitable affinities between them. So, the emphasis is now less on rupture and more on continuity, an important idea in this special issue, which aims to explore the depth of history and make the study of Chinese independent cinema more comprehensive and closer to historical facts. The emergence of Chinese independent cinema is, to some extent, a coincidence within the inevitable. From the selection of material, production, to individual artistic positioning and the gradual rise of the filmmakers’ subjectivity, it all began in the 1980s or even earlier. It is rooted in the 1980s, and is an important product under the influence of the emancipation of social thoughts and avant-garde literature and art movements since the end of the Cultural Revolution. This is, of course, only a general judgement, and through this special issue we attempt to explore and expand on this judgement and answer a series of questions.

How did the intellectual liberation experienced by independent filmmakers occur during the years when they were building themselves up? How did the philosophical, intellectual, and cultural environment of the 1980s enable them to complete their cultural and artistic preparation, and how did it constitute the resources for their subsequent filmmaking? How did the waves and achievements of other cultural and artistic fields in the 1980s influence filmmaking then and afterwards? Were various independent elements already present in films and actions of filmmakers in the 1980s before the emergence of Chinese independent cinema? How did the economic development, technological advances and social changes brought about by the reform and opening up contribute to independent filmmaking outside the system? What role did the increasing interaction between China and the West play in the formation and development of Chinese independent cinema from the 1980s to the 1990s? We look at intellectual connections and aesthetic legacies between the 1980s and the 1990s in order to trace the origins or pre-history of independent cinema.

While scholarly interpretation is important, those who lived it are in a better position to uncover the cultural significance of the relevant history from their own experiences, providing rich and informative details and first-hand research data for future studies. The use of personal histories in the study of the history of independent cinema is an important principle in the composition of this issue.

Cui Weiping’s nearly 50,000-word Chinese essay ‘The Birth of a Documentary’ is not exactly an examination of the production history of Bumming in Beijing, but rather uses what is generally considered to be the first independent documentary film as a prelude, to sort out its diverse origins. It tells separate stories of avant-garde poetry, unofficial publications, reportage literature, and experimental theatre in the 1980s, yet subtly presents the inextricable links between the various literature and art fields. More precisely, it is a review of a facet of the spiritual history of the generation to which Cui belongs. The essay is naturally too long by the standards of a periodical, but we feel that this length corresponds to the breadth and depth of the pre-spiritual history of independent cinema in the 1980s. The rich historical details and the vivid portrayal of the spiritual atmosphere and cultural waves of the time provided in this essay are helpful for our understanding of the causes and consequences of the emergence of independent cinema.

Also based on personal experience, Chris Berry recalls his own experience working for China Film Export and Import Corporation in the mid-1980s and proposes a series of preconditions for the emergence of Chinese independent cinema in terms of social transformation, economic reform, public psychology, the film industry, and Western influence. Guo Xizhi (郭熙志), as a director who has been making documentaries inside and outside the system since the early 1990s, analyses several sources of Chinese independent documentaries in the 1980s, such as the zeitgeist of ‘Facing the World’, the influence and practice of domestic and foreign television stations, and the teaching of documentaries at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute. The three authors’ exploration of the origins of Chinese independent cinema overlaps in many ways, and makes clear the elements that nurtured independent cinema in the 1980s.

As mentioned earlier, we did not intend to question 1990 as an expedient and important watershed in Chinese film culture, but in combing through the pre-history of independent cinema, our authors have made some very unique discoveries. They collectively seek to verify some previously ambiguous arguments and find that what was once the consensus year for the start of independent cinema—1990—is far from a solid watershed. It is almost certain that the history of independent documentary film-making and completed works needs to be extended backwards, while the year of the start of feature-length independent fiction films has not been shaken.

In ‘Ending or Starting—Researching the Fragments of the Pre-history of Chinese Independent Cinema’, Cao Kai (曹恺) suggests replacing research on filmmakers and their films with research on their filmmaking process when tracing the history of independent film. He argues that from the perspective of working process, Wen Puli’s (温普林) documentary The Great Earthquake (大地震) whose filming began in 1987, can be regarded as the historical beginning of independent cinema; from the perspective of completed works, Hao Zhiqiang’s (郝智强) experimental animation Wind (风), which was completed in late 1988, should be the first independent video work. Similarly, Wang Xiaolu, in ‘Nujiang (怒江) and the Origin of Chinese Independent Documentary’, argues that we should attach more emphasis to early independent documentation activities, e.g. Wen Pulin starting filming the creative process of experimental theatres organised by himself in late 1984, and proposes that the earliest origin of independent documentary in China was a series of works, rather than a single one. But if one has to identify the earliest completed independent documentary, it would be Lü Le’s (吕乐) Nujiang: A Lost Canyon (怒江——一条丢失的峡谷), completed on 9 June 1989, rather than Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing, completed in 1990. In her article, Cui Weiping is even more explicit in stating that the beginning of Chinese independent film should be in late 1984, when Wen Pulin filmed the theatre rehearsal of Uncle’s Dream with a rented camera.

The identification of the first Chinese independent film is by no means an easy task, and is inevitably controversial. Our aim is not to debate which one is the first, but to restore as much of the historical picture as possible, bring to light the facts that were previously obscured or rarely spoken about, and thus stimulate future researchers to explore this history in more depth and in more dimensions.

The other two essays included in ‘Articles’ section do not directly discuss the 1980s, but provide a retrospective look at the early history of Chinese independent cinema. Hao Jian’s article examines in detail the Sixth Generation filmmakers who have been seen as the earliest independent filmmakers in China, although they are distinctly different from independent filmmakers who emerged later in a larger number. In addition to analysing their work, the essay focuses on the intellectual resources and artistic nourishment that the Sixth Generation directors drew from the 1980s, in which they grew up, and refers to them as the products of the 1980s. Mitchell van Vuren’s article looks back at the history of Chinese independent cinema since it first began to be selected for international festivals. Although it explores the interaction and influence between Chinese independent cinema and the Rotterdam International Film Festival in the 1990s, this history begins in the 1980s, when Fifth Generation director Chen Kaige (陈凯歌) first went to Rotterdam with his King of The Children (孩子王, 1987).

It is the intention of the ‘Interview’ section in this issue to allow the oral accounts of filmmakers/witnesses and the discourses of researchers to mirror each other. Among five interviews included (in both English and Chinese), four are from the oral history project of the Chinese Independent Film Archive (CIFA), and one is a Chinese interview published several years ago, for which we have made an English version.

One name that came up frequently during the process of editing this issue is Wen Pulin. As a contemporary artist who has been active since the 1980s, Wen’s name is rarely mentioned in the independent film circle, but his The Great Earthquake is coincidentally identified by the three authors of this issue (Cui Weiping, Cao Kai, and Wang Xiaolu) as one of the important beginnings of Chinese independent cinema. We therefore decided to publish the full interview that Wang Xiaolu, one of the executive editors of this issue, conducted with Wen in May 2021. In the interview, Wen not only recalls in detail the origin and process of making The Great Earthquake, but also describes the cultural ecology and spiritual status of the earliest vagrant (mangliu 盲流) artists in the 1980s. Wu Wenguang, the director of Bumming in Beijing, long considered as the first independent Chinese documentary, has had numerous interviews published in books and online. Here we have excerpted a small part of an interview with Sabrina Qiong Yu, one of the executive editors of this issue, in which Wu recalls and reflects on his own life and spiritual journey in the 1980s.

Shi Jian (时间), who has worked on documentary filmmaking since the late 1980s, is considered to be one of the participants and initiators of the documentary movement of the 1990s. The excerpted interview focuses on his retrospective on university education and institutional documentary filmmaking in the 1980s, the making of Tiananmen (a documentary series) starting in 1988, and his narration of proposing the ‘New Documentary Movement’ in 1991. In an interview with Lydia Dan Wu (吴丹), Guo Jing (郭净), former director of the Yunnan Provincial Museum and co-founder of Yunfest, an independent film festival, suggests that from the early 1980s to 1990, there was a ‘pre-independent documentary phase’ in China, namely ethnographic films, and that the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences played an important role in the emergence of this new kind of documentary. Guo argues that ethnographic films are not independent documentaries, but are extremely closely related to them, and should be looked at and studied as another tradition and thread.

Zhen Zhang (张真) is a researcher of independent film, but she is also a poet who began writing modern poetry in the late 1970s and witnessed the new poetry movement that spread across the nation in the 1980s. In a conversation with Zhou Zan (周瓒)and Sun Yi (伊索尔) in 2008, Zhang recalls the culture fever of the 1980s, from underground communities and publications to university poetry events and large-scale public poetry readings, as well as her subsequent experiences and feelings about leaving China to become a ‘poet in exile’. The interview also touches on various foreign influences on avant-garde literature and art movements in China at the time, the relationship between poetry and film, and so on. Reading Zhang’s interview alongside Cui Weiping’s article, it is unsurprising that the passionate and vibrant intellectual and cultural atmosphere of the 1980s emerged as a source for independent cinema, and the role of female artists and scholars in this historical process is notable.

The films discussed in the four film reviews by Lin Feng (冯琳), Xiang Fan (樊响), Sabrina Qiong Yu and Wen Hua (温华) respectively in this issue are all from the 1980s—Maple (枫,1980), The Savage Land (原野,1981), Hibiscus Town (芙蓉镇,1986), Special Operating Room (特别手术室,1988), and The Trouble Shooters (顽主, 1988). These films had either been banned for a period of time or were quite controversial at the time, and the reason for this was usually that they touched on taboo topics or challenged the dominant discourse or way of expression of the time. The selection of such films for review is in part an attempt to answer the question raised above: were various independent elements already seen in the films of the 1980s before Chinese independent cinema appeared? These films, which provoked controversies back then but made the breakthrough in different ways, not only interpret the legacy of the 1980s in terms of spirit and aesthetics, but their quality of bold exploration and independent thinking is also a precious source for later independent films.

The last section of this issue is ‘Stars (Xing Xing) Exhibition: Photographs and Art Work’. A few of our authors and the interviewees have talked about the ‘Stars Art Group’ (星星画社) and ‘Stars Art Exhibition’ (星星美展). Wen Pulin says: ‘In my mind, if we trace back the origins, the Stars Art Exhibition in 1979 should be the start of China’s contemporary art, or the earliest precursor of the great earthquake.’ Chris Berry believes that avant-garde artists of the 1980s provided an example for later independent filmmakers to follow, and that the emergence of independent modes of art production can be traced back to 1979, when ‘a group of artists had staged the Stars Art Exhibition on the railings outside the China Art Gallery. Although the police closed them down, they had shown that artists could operate outside the system.’ Cui Weiping’s and Cao Kai’s essays also refer to the iconic significance of the emergence of the Stars Art Group. We have therefore decided to conclude this issue with an exhibition of photographs and paintings of the Stars Art Group, where the spirit of independence and freedom first burst out after the Cultural Revolution. Thanks to the curation of Yan Li (严力), the member of the Stars Art Group, Norman A. Spencer and his wife Peng Xiaojian (彭筱剑). This small exhibition and the short essays Yan and Spencer each wrote for it continue the efforts of their book, Things Are Symbols of Themselves (2005), to bring the discussion of Chinese culture in the 1980s back to its origins—the Stars Art Group and Today (今天). But we also believe, as the articles in this issue show, that these origins are not fixed, and there are more than one.

The participants of this journal issue have joined their efforts to explore the pre-history or origins of Chinese independent cinema, provided a wealth of historical details and offered new perspectives and discoveries. The historical conditions that allowed Chinese independent cinema to emerge were diverse and gradually took shape in the 1980s. The names of those artists who appear in Bumming in Beijing also appear in Wen Pulin and Zhen Zhang’s respective recollection of their life in the 1980s, in Cui Weiping’s sketch of the spiritual history of the 1980s, and in Cao Kai’s discussion of the ‘85 Art Movement’. This tells us that the emergence of independent cinema was not an isolated or overnight phenomenon, and also that the exploration of its pre-history/origins should not be limited to the field of cinema. It should be examined in the context of the socio-economic changes, ideological and cultural progress, and avant-garde art movements of the entire era. Those earliest filmmakers before the 1990s were able to make films independently, either through the use of institutional resources or by chance. The appearance of these filmmaking activities or works was the harbinger of the time, and we can use them to examine the interaction between Chinese cinema and the times. These discoveries convey the significance of film history, as well as of anthropological and social development in China. In other words, we can observe the conditions under which artists had the possibility to think freely, the era in which they were given the space to think independently, and the opportunity to translate this into independent filmmaking.


[1] For example, see Hao Jian’s article in this issue titled ‘Sixth Generation Filmmakers: Confused Nomenclature, Artistic Nourishment, and the Death Complex’.

[2] In the interview with Wen Pulin included in this issue, he makes a correction to the year when the shooting started: ‘According to Zhang Mingwei’s memory, it should be 1988. My memory is a bit fuzzy; I always thought it was 1987.’

[3] Wen Pulin has once said that he learned about the earliest free spirit from the Stars Art Group and admired them greatly. He was encouraged at the time by Qu Leilei, a member of the Stars Art Group, to begin his painting career. See Wen Pulin, ‘Just in Time’, in Wen Pulin’s Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art of the 1980s, published by Soka Art Center, 2008, p.4.



Cui Weiping, ‘Growth space of independent documentary filmmaking in mainland China’, The 21st Century, No. 77, 2003.

Jia Zhangke, ‘I was inspired by the Yellow Earth to become a filmmaker’, 2011, Phoenix TV news, available at, accessed on 25 July 2021.

Ken Sato, ‘In retrospect: China’s documentary “movement”’, Modern Thoughts, Tokyo, 2007, No. 10.

Lü Xinyu, Documenting China, SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003, p. 335.

Wang Xiaolu, ‘The subjectivity emerges: 20 Years of independent documentary films in China’, Film Art, Issue 6, 2010, p.78.

Wang Xiaolu, ‘Mijiashan’s eighties: a prequel to independent cinema’, in The Will of The Cinema, Sichuan People’s Publishing House, 2019, p. 34.