Movies are a popular form of recreation in China, as they were during an earlier period in the West. The alternative amusement is an evening of TV, if you have a set or your neighborhood center has one. Reading or playing ball (ping-pong, volleyball, basketball, or soccer-type football), sitting and talking, walking -- these are remaining choices.
One can always do more work (rural people in their private plots, young men building wedding furniture, women knitting for their families). Except for the farmer, these second jobs are still largely for domestic, not commercial, purposes, and they lack the home-improvement orientation of many Western hobbyists. Philately is just being encouraged again; the major recreational hobby here is classical painting.
So movies are important to the Chinese. The regular movie houses are much like those found anywhere else, except that they lack both heat and air conditioning. Outdoor movies have a character of their own.
Some factories and universities provide films for their people. These may be shown in auditoriums or in an outside amphitheater, where the token for admission may be the same used for entry to the bathhouse -- price 5f (3 cents) or 10f at the gate.
Twice a week normally, but also for special showings such as Children's Day (June 1), students, faculty, staff, and nearby residents stream to the Wuhan University movie as night falls. They carry a small stool or chair (a normal possession of any householder) and other necessities dictated by the weather: gloves and hand-warmers in winter, umbrellas and boots in spring, and fans and mosquito repellent in summer. Rain or snow the show goes on, to the great amusement of visiting Chinese from other, newe institutions with more modern facilities but far less prestige.
Vendors with ice sticks, peanuts, or seeds at 5f a serving flourish on the periphery. Early birds get the choice locations, so the audience arrives well before dark, equipped with books and newspapers.
Regular movie houses abound, though their outward appearance varies. In twisting streets of the old cities, one can encounter Chinese-style buildings with curving, tiled roofs. Where newer places have been built, the style is middle-American museum, i.e., stonelike, concrete Grecian pillars and wide, shallow front steps. Set on paved courtyards 25 to 50 feet from the street, they are inevitably surrounded by tall iron fences and gates.
Four, sometimes five showings a day meet the needs of the 1,200 or so customers. People's days off vary, and afternoons or mornings are as popular as evenings. Movie houses have no ticket takers; the audience streams through the doors into reserved seats. Buying movie tickets in advance is common throughout the world, rare in the United States.
How, a movie house employer was asked, do you keep out freeloaders? "That's easy," came the reply. "A seat will only hold one person." Caught, the offender is not only ousted, he is lectured on social responsibility and fined.
If a popular film is showing -- and listings appear in local newspapers and on notice boards, even billboards, beside the gates -- all the 1,200-some seats will be sold out at each screening. If a documentary or an unpopular feature is offered, or in the case of second or third showings, the house may be half empty. In such cases, the management makes special offerings to factories and schools. These institutions bring their people in buses or trucks, which jam the roadway beside the gate or line the courtyard. Each driver, of course, receives one of the tickets.
Admission varies according to the film, the technology, the seat, and the locale. New films may cost as much as $4.15. Double- screen or wide-screen presentations cost twice the normal charges, which, here in China's fifth-largest city, run from 15f (10cents) for front and side seats, to 20f (14 cents) for back rows to 25f (17 cents) for the choice middle seats in Rows 13 to 30. In smaller cities of this and adjacent provinces the prices are 5f (3 cents) lower, but up the Yangtze River in Yichang, site of a major dam, we might wonder about boomtown prices -- there, all seats are 5f higher than here.
In commenting on movies, Chinese will speak of five kinds. Features are popular, especially with young people, who may go several times a week. The four walls of a well- populated residential dormitory may encourage such action. Animated cartoons, educational and science films, and documentaries are three other types. The last two are the least popular -- teachers organize their students to go see them.
Opera films make a separate category, perhaps because one has to like Chinese opera to go. The enjoyment is not spontaneous, particularly for young Chinese. Although stage effects (a beautiful girl chainging into a snake, for instance) are better on film than in the flesh, the operas are in dialect, which is incomprehensible from region to region, while feature films with perhaps new, unexpected stories are in standard Chinese.
Movie houses, generally called cinemas in Chinese English, are state enterprises like large factories and stores in China. Although the managers select most of their own offerings, receipts go to the state and salaries are paid by the government. The same is true for movie studios and actors, who actually rate a higher salary scale than do professors or government functionaries. (One operatic luminary of the '50s was paid three times more than Mao-Tse-tung.)
China has over a dozen movie studios, including one run by the People's Liberation Army (PLA, the collective name for the three branches of the armed forces). In addition to training films, the PLA makes features involving its long history in the civil war, its wartime exploits, and its rural "social' work helping farmers.
Several famous studios are in Shanghai and Peking, and one is in Old Xian (Sian). Several provincial capitals, including Urumchi, in Senjiang (Sinkiang), have their own companies. That such a remote city would is surprising, until one stops to think that what would appeal in that culturally different Muslim area which we call Chinese Turkestan is as different from somewhat more sophisticated Shanghai as Riyadh is from Prague.