Why Do Chinese Filmmakers Love Melons? And Other Questions from a New Digital Archive of Early Cinema


Christopher Rea, University of British Columbia 

How did the early decades of Chinese cinema differ from anywhere else in the world? How can we make meaningful distinctions ‒ or connections ‒ between the cinematic languages of different film industries? Take melons. Why do they roll through Chinese cinema history, from early days to the twenty-first century? And how does their meaning in Chinese films like Laborer’s Love (1922) or Rickshaw Boy (1982), differ from, say, North American films like Melvin van Peebles’ Watermelon Man (1970)? When it comes to cinematic language, can we really compare melons and melons? In this presentation, Christopher Rea will share techniques for developing an original research project, using illustrative examples from a new digital humanities archive on early Chinese cinema. The Chinese Film Classics Project (chinesefilmclassics.org) is an ongoing international effort to make early Chinese cinema history more accessible to the English-speaking world. Rea will speak about his experiences building an online course while writing his book Chinese Film Classics, 1922‒1949 (2021), and how the process of creating a free digital archive of early Chinese films with English translations led to discoveries both historical and methodological, including Melon as Method. Rea will also share tips from Where Research Begins (2022) about three practical issues for any cultural history project: How to navigate an archive? How to do close readings of sources? How to evaluate the significance of your findings?  


Christopher Rea is Professor of Chinese and former Director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia. He is the creator of the Chinese Film Classics Project, whose website ChineseFilmClassics.org hosts over 30 early Chinese films translated by Dr Rea and collaborators, as well as film clips, essays, links, and a free online course on early Chinese films. The website and the course are companions to his book Chinese Film Classics, 1922‒1949 (Columbia, 2021), which covers fourteen films, and has a Chinese edition forthcoming. Full films and over 200 film clips (songs, gags, superlative scenes) are also viewable at the YouTube channel @ModernChineseCulturalStudies. Rea is also the author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015) and the co-author of Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters to You (and the World) (with Thomas Mullaney; Chicago, 2022). He is currently working on a second volume of The Book of Swindles (Columbia, 2017) and on a history of melons.