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Shelly Kraicer
1896: A year after brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere make their first films in Paris, the first movie screening in China (an "electric shadowplay" in Chinese) is presented by a Spaniard at Shanghai's Xu Garden Tea House.

1905: Filmgoing becomes so fashionable that imported movies cannot meet demand. The first film produced in China, "Conquering Jun Mountain" (featuring an excerpt of the Peking Opera), is shot by Ren Fengtai, proprietor of Beijing's Fengtai Photo Studio.

1910s: Early Chinese movie production includes short films and filmed stage plays and operas. An American, Benjamin Brodsky, establishes the Asia Film Co., China's first movie studio. Four other short-lived studios follow.

1913: The Asia Film Co. shoots the first Chinese short feature, "The Difficult Couple."

1920s: Commercial cinema flourishes in Shanghai; the most popular genres are fantasy, martial arts and traditional opera. Political fragmentation results in relatively little state interference in the film industry.

1921: The first Chinese feature-length film, "Yan Ruisheng" -- based on a sensational murder case -- is directed by Ren Pengnian. (pictured)

1926: The number of movie theaters in China reaches 106, with an aggregate seating capacity of 68,000.

Influenced by American cartoons they saw in Shanghai in 1923, the four Wan brothers produce the first Chinese animated film, "Uproar in an Art Studio."

1930s: The Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist government consolidates control of China's cultural and intellectual life. Censors ban Cantonese-language films, fantasy subjects that encourage "superstition" and Hollywood movies that feature humiliating portrayals of China and Chinese people.

1930-37: The first Golden Age sees the Shanghai-based film industry produce prestige features for middle-class audiences, led by the Mingxing (founded in 1922), Tianyi (1925) and Lianhua (1930) studios.

1933-34: Leading progressive directors Sun Yu, Bu Wancang, Cai Chusheng and Wu Yonggang make wenyipian -- literary, melodramatic art films -- with patriotic themes implicitly opposing the Japanese occupation of northeastern China that began in 1931. The films highlight social inequities in urban centers (Sun's "Little Toys") and oppose the oppression of women ("New Women"). Chinese Communist Party (CPC) members, led by screenwriters Xia Yan and Tian Han, gain prominent positions within the film industry.

1935: Cai Chusheng's "Song of the Fisherman" is the first Chinese film to win an international award, claiming a prize at the Moscow Film Festival.

1937: Sound comes relatively late to the Shanghai film industry. The first group of sound films, released initially in 1931, includes two acknowledged classics: the screwball comedy "Crossroads" and the pre-neorealist social melodrama "Street Angel."

1937-41: During the Orphan Island period of Shanghai cinema, the city's isolated international status allows some filmmakers to make movies with patriotic themes (though most are escapist entertainments). Many filmmakers flee to Hong Kong, providing a foundation for the colony's movie industry.

1941-45: During World War II, Chinese film production is largely split among pro-Japanese propaganda movies made in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, commercial occupation cinema made in Shanghai, patriotic anti-Japanese films made in the KMT stronghold of Chongqing, and documentary and propaganda movies made in Yanan, the CPC's base.

1945-49: A postwar film boom leads to Shanghai's brief second Golden Age. Despite KMT censorship, progressive movies such as "Orphan on the Street" and "Crows and Sparrows" are made in 1949.

1949-52: Consolidation of the Shanghai film industry under government control sees the establishment of the major state film studios -- Shanghai Film Studio and the Beijing Film Studio, both founded in 1949 -- which operate under a production quota system. The Central Film Bureau, established in 1946, controls all aspects of Chinese movie production, distribution and exhibition, and privately owned studios disappear.

1950s-60s: Under politicized film production, genres such as socialist utopianism and socialist realism flourish.

1950: American films are almost completely banned from exhibition in China, and movies from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe fill the gap.

The Beijing Film Academy, still the nation's leading film school, is founded, as is the Shanghai-based Popular Movie magazine.

1959: The China Film Archive is established in Beijing.

1961-63: Following the disastrous failure of the Great Leap Forward, the policies of hard-line leaders including Mao Zedong are reversed, and there is a brief opening of relative freedom in cinema oversight. Liberal films like Xie Tieli's 1963 drama "Early Spring in February" emerge, only to be criticized later.

1966-72: During the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Chinese film production practically ceases. Eight "revolutionary model operas," including two ballets, are the only Chinese movies made and shown.

1973-76: Domestic film production gradually resumes. Foreign movies exhibited in China include titles from the Soviet Union, Albania and India.

1978: After Mao's death in 1976, a reform era begins in earnest. Films such as leading Third Generation director Xie Jin's political melodramas explore, within limits, past excesses of CPC rule.

1982: The Fifth Generation of Chinese directors (including Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Yimou), prevented by the Cultural Revolution from gaining post-secondary education, graduates from the Beijing Film Academy.

1985: Chen's "Yellow Earth" causes a sensation at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, kicking off China's era of foreign festival success.

1985-87: In a rapidly modernizing society, the Fourth Generation of Chinese filmmakers advances a critical reexamination of traditional culture. Key works include Zhang Nuanxing's "Sacrificed Youth," Xie Fei's "A Girl From Hunan" and Wu Tianming's "Old Well."

1985-89: The Fifth Generation's avant-garde movement begins. Radical films break with tradition and challenge standard revolutionary accounts of Chinese history.

1988-99: Major festival awards for Chinese filmmakers include Zhang Yimou's Golden Bear for "Red Sorghum" at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival; Zhang's Golden Lion for "The Story of Qiu Ju" at the 1992 Venice International Film Festival, at which Gong Li also wins best-actress honors; Chen Kaige's Palme d'Or for "Farewell My Concubine" at the 1993 Festival de Cannes, and Zhang's Golden Lion for "Not One Less" in Venice in 1999. "Sorghum" and "Less" are exhibited in China, and "Farewell" is initially banned from theaters but allowed to screen later.

1990: China's Sixth Generation directors emerge in the aftermath of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square movement. Dark, cynical visions of Chinese urban culture, not exhibitable in China, find success on the international festival circuit. The state studios continue to produce "mainstream films" favored by the government, including biographies of revolutionary heroes, model cadres and revolutionary and anti-Japanese war epics. Those films see a steady erosion in their paying audiences, but government distribution of tickets makes boxoffice hits out of some titles.

1990-95: Gong Li , star of all of Zhang's films through 1995, emerges as the first major international film star from mainland China.

1994: The limited introduction of American blockbusters to Chinese theaters is included in the nation's 20-a-year quota for imported films. A ready market, primed by bootlegged VCDs then DVDs during late 1990s and by saturation coverage of American and European films and stars in the Chinese media, assures large audiences for many of these films.

1997: Advent of the hesuipian, or Chinese New Year blockbuster film. Feng Xiaogang has dominated the boxoffice most years since with comedies released in December and January.

2000: Transnational production begins in earnest, and the Hong Kong/Taiwan/China collaboration "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (pictured) breaks through in the North American market.

2004: The Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement between mainland China and Hong Kong significantly expands access to the mainland market for Hong Kong films.

About 212 feature films are produced in China, though only a fraction are released theatrically. The estimated value of the Chinese boxoffice is 1.5 billion yuan ($185.6 million), of which Chinese producers net 1.2 billion yuan ($148.5 million). Zhang's "Hero" becomes the first Chinese film to top the U.S. boxoffice.

2005: China's annual Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival includes Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau films for the first time and adds a best foreign film category. This month will see the release of Chen's "The Promise," at $35 million the most expensive film produced in China to date.

Shelly Kraicer is the editor of Chinese Cinema Digest
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