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ZHOU, Chenshu. 2021. Cinema Off Screen: Moviegoing in Socialist China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Xiaoning Lu
p. 69-70

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1Chenshu Zhou’s Cinema Off Screen: Moviegoing in Socialist China is a theoretically innovative and empirically grounded book that takes as its central focus the history, experience, and memory of moviegoing in socialist China. Since the publication of Jay Leyda’s Dianying: Electric Shadows, an Account of Films and the Film Audience in China in 1972, research on cinema in socialist China has been dominated by critical analyses of narrative, aesthetic, and performative configurations onscreen, in order to understand the complex relationship between politics and art (Clark 1987; Wang 2014; Chan 2019; Lu 2020). Cinema Off Screen shifts our attention away from the film world on screen to film exhibition and moviegoing that were embedded in the everyday life of ordinary Chinese people from 1949 to the early 1990s. It thus forms part of a growing body of scholarly work in the field of new cinema history that seeks to move beyond text-based film history to reveal instead the social history of moviegoing, and everyday peoples’ experiences of cinema. Notably, Zhou’s study also pushes the boundaries of critical practice in this field. Through her ingenious engagement with the concept of “interface” in new media and communication studies, Zhou reframes film exhibition as “a system of interfaces.” Consequently, it reconceptualises reception as “a more general state of interfacing in the presence of films” (p. 13). This analytical shift results in a refreshingly informed account of moviegoing in socialist China, which brings the oft-neglected “off screen” or non-filmic interfaces such as the exhibition environment and the screening apparatus into the critical purview.

2More than a conceptual tool, “interface” provides an organisational framework to structure the messy and fragmented history and memory of film exhibition and moviegoing into six chapters dedicated to a particular set of “off screen” interfacing dynamics. The first three chapters investigate how the various film exhibition interfaces were institutionalised through a combination of top-down and bottom-up initiatives. Chapter One discusses the spatial configuration of film exhibition in the newly established socialist state. It shows how the film exhibition network was expanded from sinicized cinemas to mixed-function workers’ clubs and rural exhibition sites set up by mobile projection teams. Zhou interprets these exhibition outlets as “public interfaces that mediated socialist ideals of mass access and mass culture” (p. 50-1), crucial for developing propaganda space in China. Chapter Two examines how the projectionist undertook arduous journeys to bring films to audiences in remote areas and how his/her labouring body attracted the spectator’s gaze. The author argues that the visible body of the projectionist, insofar as it personified socialist values, “became an interface of ideology constantly foregrounded for attention and celebration” (p. 57). The next chapter takes particular interest in the projectionist’s role as the mediator of cinematic experience. Focusing on the projectionist’s use of non-cinematic media technologies, for instance, projecting slides before film screening and delivering live lectures amidst screening, it proposes to understand film exhibition as a multimedia institution of audiovisual education in which the medium of film is decentred.

3The following three chapters examine the interfacing between the spectatorial body and the viewing environment. In particular, they present a multifaceted picture of Chinese moviegoers’ encounters with open-air cinema (lutian dianying 露天電影), a prominent mode of film exhibition in socialist China. Chapter Four gives serious consideration to 看熱鬧 (kan renao), an everyday phrase that Chinese audiences often use to highlight the lively, bustling, and exciting atmosphere surrounding open-air screenings. To foreground this unique aspect of cinematic experience, Zhou coins a critical term, “atmospheric spectatorship” (p. 105), to describe a mode of cinematic experience characterised by the embodied presence in an open, porous, and unpredictable exhibition environment. Chapter Five highlights the physical discomforts that ordinary Chinese were willing to endure during the moviegoing process, such as standing through open-air screenings despite the freezing temperature. Zhou argues that such discomfort was sublimated via a revolutionary structure of feelings as the audience’s active and rational choice, which consequently shaped their memories of socialist moviegoing. The last chapter discusses physical and tactile interactions between audiences and the film screen. Interesting vignettes about improvised, creative, unrestrained, and undisciplined engagement with the screening apparatus abound. Who would forget those spirited kids who slung mud at the screen to mark a villainous character, and consequently brought on their mothers the trouble of washing, drying, ironing, and folding the screen?

4Zhou should be applauded for her effective use of an eclectic variety of primary sources. In addition to utilising government documents, popular film magazines, and trade journals, her attentive engagement with fictional accounts of moviegoing in short films as well as audience testimonials drawn from memoirs and interviews generates novel research questions about moviegoing, a long-neglected aspect of Chinese cinema. Individual profiles containing biographical highlights of 60 interviewees from different generations and geographical regions in China are included in a most welcome and engaging appendix.

5Written with clarity and eloquence, Cinema Off Screen highlights moviegoing as an important part of the social texture of China under socialism. The audience’s cinematic experience can by no means be reduced to an experience of films, let alone passive reception of political indoctrination. In addition to shedding new light on the social history of China, Zhou’s book represents a valuable and successful example of a decolonial approach to film theories. It shows that Chinese socialist cinema provides fertile ground for scholars to question and revise normative film theories, many of which take the experience of Western theatregoing movie audiences as their starting point.

6In short, Cinema Off Screen is a well-researched, engaging, and thought-provoking addition to the scholarship. It will appeal to scholars and students in film and media studies and China studies.

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CHAN, Jessica Ka Yee. 2019. Chinese Revolutionary Cinema: Propaganda, Aesthetics and Internationalism 1949-1966. London: I.B. Tauris.

CLARK, Paul. 1987. Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

LEYDA, Jay. 1972. Dianying: Electric Shadows, an Account of Films and the Film Audience in China. Cambridge: MIT Press.

LU, Xiaoning. 2020. Moulding the Socialist Subject: Cinema and Chinese Modernity, 1949-1966. Leiden: Brill.

WANG, Zhuoyi. 2014. Revolutionary Cycles in Chinese Cinema, 1951-1979. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

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Bibliographical reference

Xiaoning Lu, “ZHOU, Chenshu. 2021. Cinema Off Screen: Moviegoing in Socialist China. Berkeley: University of California Press.”China Perspectives, 2022/04 | 2022, 69-70.

Electronic reference

Xiaoning Lu, “ZHOU, Chenshu. 2021. Cinema Off Screen: Moviegoing in Socialist China. Berkeley: University of California Press.”China Perspectives [Online], 2022/04 | 2022, Online since 22 December 2022, connection on 01 April 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Xiaoning Lu

Xiaoning Lu is Reader in modern Chinese culture and language at SOAS, University of London. Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, SOAS University of London, 10 Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG, United Kingdom (

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