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Way Down East, “Way Down West”: Hollywood Cinema and the Rise of Conservatism in 1920s China

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This article investigates the distribution and consumption of Way Down East (directed by D. W. Griffith, 1920) in Chinese cities in the 1920s in an attempt to explore the impact of foreign films on early Chinese filmmaking in particular and on Chinese society in general. Griffith’s Way Down East highlights a young woman’s trials and tribulations caused by male tyranny and deception. Such films by D. W. Griffith struck a chord in China in the 1920s, when the concerns of women and the loss of family values after the May Fourth movement found expression in film. The embracing of Way Down East in China, particularly among progressive intellectuals, indicates the existence of an anti-May Fourth conservatism. Chinese intellectuals were inspired by Way Down East to deny Chinese women’s subjectivity as new women who could control their own destinies; such a denial thereby rejected romantic love as a means of women’s emancipation and enlightenment. The intellectual class’s jettisoning of the rhetoric of “free love” and free marriage and re-emphasizing family values in the 1920s were conducive to the Nationalist Party’s conservative agenda to discipline individuals and Chinese society in the late 1920s and 1930s. Therefore, the “partification” of China during the Nanjing Decade (1927–37) was a direct outgrowth of a conservative consensus that followed upon May Fourth.


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