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China on Film

Travel back in time to a lost China with this collection of extraordinary, rare and beautiful travelogues, newsreels and home movies from the first half of the 20th century.

See bustling, cosmopolitan Shanghai in 1901. Wander the streets around the Qianmen, Beijing, in 1910. Cruise Hangzhou's picturesque canals in 1925. Visit China's great cities - Hong Kong, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Kashgar, Kunming, Suzhou, Tianjin - before concrete expressways and steel-and-glass towers transformed their skylines. And discover rural China almost untouched by modernity, as farmhands bend their backs in paddy fields.

In an odyssey embracing the exotic and the everyday, these remarkable films - many of them never published before - will guide you through thousands of miles of Chinese landscape and 50 years of history.

This is a unique and exceptional visual history of China - captured by a wealth of different filmmakers, from professionals to intrepid tourists, colonial-era ex-pats and Christian missionaries.

Western filmmakers were visiting China years before any Chinese native first used a film camera. Yes, this is a China seen through Western eyes, reflecting European attitudes and expectations. But even so, it's a rare and fascinating record of a people and a country since changed almost beyond recognition.

"GENUINE CHINESE FILMS taken by our Photographic Staff now operating in China.... secured at great expense and much risk to our Photographers."

from the Warwick Films catalogue, 1902

triangle triangle
China on Film

Recommended

View China on Film – an introduction
China on Film – an introduction
Watch for free 5 mins

China on Film – an introduction 2014

BFI curator Edward Anderson, director Xie Fei (Black Snow) and journalist Peng Wenlan explore the BFI's China on Film collection.

5 mins United Kingdom

View Visit to China
Visit to China
Watch for free

Visit to China 1938

This stunning colour film features the only known pre-war footage of Seoul as well as Beijing, the Great Wall, the Marco Polo Bridge and many other famous landmarks.

30 mins United Kingdom

View A Stilted City. Chungking. China
A Stilted City. Chungking. China
Watch for free 1 mins

A Stilted City. Chungking. China 1930

Life among the limpet-like buildings clinging to the steep banks of the Yangtze in southwest China.

1 mins United Kingdom

View Hangzhou and a Trip to the Baochu Pagoda
Hangzhou and a Trip to the Baochu Pagoda
Watch for free 4 mins

Hangzhou and a Trip to the Baochu Pagoda 1930

The remarkable Baochu pagoda dominates this film about a visit to the West Lake at Hangzhou.

4 mins United Kingdom

View Modern China
Modern China
Watch for free 8 mins

Modern China 1910

Extraordinary and rare views of life and landscape in Beijing during the late Qing dynasty.

8 mins United Kingdom

View An Oriental Venice
An Oriental Venice
Watch for free 2 mins

An Oriental Venice 1925

Enjoy a cruise along the ancient canals of Zhejiang Province in eastern China with this gorgeous stencil-coloured travelogue

2 mins United Kingdom

View Modern China
Modern China
Watch for free 8 mins

Modern China 1910

Extraordinary and rare views of life and landscape in Beijing during the late Qing dynasty.

8 mins United Kingdom

View My Oriental Friends, From Penang to Peking
My Oriental Friends, From Penang to Peking
Watch for free 17 mins

My Oriental Friends, From Penang to Peking 1923

This unique and beautiful tour of Southeast Asia and China is a treasure trove of picturesque views of Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.

17 mins United Kingdom Director. Selwyn Driver

View Visit to Great Wall and Temple of Heaven, Peking c.1934
Visit to Great Wall and Temple of Heaven, Peking c.1934
Watch for free 4 mins

Visit to Great Wall and Temple of Heaven, Peking c.1934 1934

You can’t see it from space after all, so you’ll get a better view in this amateur film from the 1930s, with Beijing’s Temple of Heaven thrown in too.

4 mins United Kingdom

View Beijing - Coal Hill Street Scenes and the Forbidden City
Beijing - Coal Hill Street Scenes and the Forbidden City
Watch for free 15 mins

Beijing - Coal Hill Street Scenes and the Forbidden City 1938

This delightful colour film features Beijing's Forbidden City, the Summer and Winter palaces as well as parks, processions, a drama school and a Chinese picnic.

15 mins United Kingdom

View Summer Palace Beijing and Tsientsin
Summer Palace Beijing and Tsientsin
Watch for free 4 mins

Summer Palace Beijing and Tsientsin 1929

Dancing bears and camels feature in views of Beijing's Summer Palace in the late 1920s filmed by an expat couple who are later seen enjoying a traditional Chinese meal.

4 mins United Kingdom

View Visit to Beijing and the Forbidden City
Visit to Beijing and the Forbidden City
Watch for free 1 mins

Visit to Beijing and the Forbidden City 1929

Beijing's Forbidden City is the star attraction in this film from the late 1920s, featuring historic buildings, the Lion's Gate and an early panorama across the city.

1 mins United Kingdom

View Peking and Its Surroundings
Peking and Its Surroundings
Watch for free

Peking and Its Surroundings 1910

The austere beauty of the Great Wall of China's rugged mountain passes, in a travelogue tracing a caravan of camels' journey to Beijing.

France

View Shanghai: Water Transport
Shanghai: Water Transport
Watch for free 1 mins

Shanghai: Water Transport 1933

A beautifully photographed trip back to the Shanghai of the 1930s, with views of the Bund's busy harbourside.

1 mins Great Britain

View A City of Chaos
A City of Chaos
Watch for free 1 mins

A City of Chaos 1927

Scenes of panic on the streets of Shanghai as Chinese citizens seek protection from Communist and Kuomintang violence behind Allied barricades.

1 mins United Kingdom

View Riverside Scenes China
Riverside Scenes China
Watch for free 2 mins

Riverside Scenes China 1922

Four exquisite panoramic views of the Bund in Shanghai show life on the Huangpu River.

2 mins United Kingdom

View High Jinks
High Jinks
Watch for free 1 mins

High Jinks 1929

All the fun of the fair: lovely, lively record of 'Shanghai's Coney Island'.

1 mins United Kingdom

View Nankin Road, Shanghai
Nankin Road, Shanghai
Watch for free 2 mins

Nankin Road, Shanghai 1901

An extraordinary window on to the cosmopolitan heart of Shanghai - Nanjing Road - over a hundred years ago.

2 mins United Kingdom

View A Chinese Boat Trip and Views of Shanghai
A Chinese Boat Trip and Views of Shanghai
Watch for free 8 mins

A Chinese Boat Trip and Views of Shanghai 1934

The famous waterfront of 1930s Shanghai is the star of this tantalising film which captures the bustling street life of China's most cosmopolitain city.

8 mins United Kingdom

View Rice Cultivation New Territories 1938/9
Rice Cultivation New Territories 1938/9
Watch for free 5 mins

Rice Cultivation New Territories 1938/9 1938

A study of Chinese peasant labour in the paddy fields of the New Territories, north of Hong Kong Island.

5 mins United Kingdom

View Dragon Boat Racing Hong Kong c.1937
Dragon Boat Racing Hong Kong c.1937
Watch for free 4 mins

Dragon Boat Racing Hong Kong c.1937 1937

Get close to the action with this high-octane footage of a traditional Chinese water sport.

4 mins United Kingdom

View Hong Kong c.1938
Hong Kong c.1938
Watch for free 8 mins

Hong Kong c.1938 1938

The daily grind for Hong Kong dockers and farmers, captured by an amateur filmmaker.

8 mins United Kingdom

View Coronation Hong Kong 1937
Coronation Hong Kong 1937
Watch for free 6 mins

Coronation Hong Kong 1937 1937

Street carnivals and military processions – a home movie record of Hong Kong’s celebrations as George VI is crowned.

6 mins United Kingdom

View A Gate of China
A Gate of China
Watch for free 9 mins

A Gate of China 1927

Staggering views of 1920s Hong Kong capture the contradictory cocktail of East meets West on this outpost island.

9 mins United Kingdom

View Hong Kong East Meets West
Hong Kong East Meets West
Watch for free 18 mins

Hong Kong East Meets West 1940

This intimate study of Hong Kong explores the life and landscape of the former British colony in exquisite detail.

18 mins United Kingdom

View Mongolia
Mongolia
Watch for free

Mongolia 1935

Mongolian men show off their prowess in wrestling, archery and horse racing, known as the “three manly games”.

28 mins United Kingdom Director. Charles Bell

View Among the Tribes in South-West China
Among the Tribes in South-West China
Watch for free

Among the Tribes in South-West China 1948

This alluring travelogue follows a missionary on his colourful journey into the ethnically diverse mountains of Yunnan, south west China.

21 mins United Kingdom

View An Oriental Venice
An Oriental Venice
Watch for free 2 mins

An Oriental Venice 1925

Enjoy a cruise along the ancient canals of Zhejiang Province in eastern China with this gorgeous stencil-coloured travelogue

2 mins United Kingdom

View Naval Life in China
Naval Life in China
Watch for free 2 mins

Naval Life in China 1908

The waterways of Imperial China are bursting with life in this French travelogue made in the final years of the Qing Dynasty.

2 mins France

View A Stilted City. Chungking. China
A Stilted City. Chungking. China
Watch for free 1 mins

A Stilted City. Chungking. China 1930

Life among the limpet-like buildings clinging to the steep banks of the Yangtze in southwest China.

1 mins United Kingdom

View Rice Cultivation in the Si-kiang Delta, South China
Rice Cultivation in the Si-kiang Delta, South China
Watch for free 4 mins

Rice Cultivation in the Si-kiang Delta, South China 1937

An exceptionally detailed look at the process of rice cultivation, from planting to harvesting to pounding, in the Xi Jiang Delta, Guangdong Province.

4 mins United Kingdom

View Homework and Street Scenes in China
Homework and Street Scenes in China
Watch for free 7 mins

Homework and Street Scenes in China 1908

Intimate vignettes of crafters, beggars and labourers in the workshops, on the streets and eating in the outdoor kitchens of imperial China.

7 mins France

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