Born into a Chinese Christian family in Nanjing in 1911, Sun Mingjing was introduced to both still photography and moving images at an early age by his parents. Sun’s mother was a pioneer in using visual aids in the classroom during her tenure as a principal of elementary schools and middle schools in Jinan and Nanjing. Sun’s father used films in his classroom at the Christian mission school that would become Jinling University (called the University of Nanking in English).
Sun Mingjing came to share his father’s obsession with film. He shot his first still photo at the age of five. During his high school years, he would often walk to the nearby auditorium at Jinling University to watch imported silent films, fiction and non-fiction.
In 1927, Sun Mingjing chose to study the science and technology of film, which were physics, chemistry and electronic engineering at Jinling since there was no film major. After the Council for Film Education (CFE) was established at Jinling in 1930, Sun (age 19) was hired as a part-time secretary, responsible for collecting documents and curating films. As a university student, Sun spent seven years learning everything there was to know about film from its chemistry to its art, before finally graduating in 1934 at the age of 23. Sun was hired immediately as a special assistant to Dr. Wei Xueren, the Dean of the College of Science and Engineering.
Wei and Sun collaborated in 1934 on the Council for Film Education’s first production, Famous Scenery in Suzhou. The debut film captured images of a Chinese city renowned for its beautiful stone bridges, pagodas, and meticulously designed gardens, but it captured another kind of beauty too, Lü Jin’ai, Sun’s future wife.
Born in August 15, 1912 in Shanxi Province, Lü came from a family with intellectual curiosity equal to that of Sun’s. One of her teachers noticed his young student’s fascination with his camera and offered to let her use it.. Since patriotic sentiment ran high at the time, Lü was determined to purchase film made in China. After finding it did not exist, she returned the camera to her English teacher, declaring that she would make China’s first film stock. Her teacher told her that she should major in chemistry.
Sun and Lü’s met in 1930 at a conference held by the Department of Physics at Jinling University. In 1935, Sun and Lü developed a shared interest in a new invention, the television. They translated M. G. Scroggie and Kent Bromley’s book Television into Chinese, often quarreling over the proper word usage in translation. By the time the Chinese translation came out in August 1935 they had decided to commit to a long-term relationship and pledged to be married.
Jinling University founded the Department of Educational Cinematography (DEC) in 1936. At the age of 26, Sun became its deputy director. DEC later became the production headquarters for all Jinling films, providing a training ground for students and other aspiring young filmmakers. DEC would make 112 films from 1934 to 1948, of which more than half were shot and edited by Sun. DEC was renamed the Motion Picture Department in 1940 and was again renamed the Audio Visual Center in 1947.
Under Sun’s direction, DEC made Solar Eclipse, China’s first film in color in 1936. Jinling founded a certificate program in electronic education, the first university level academic film program in Chinese history. Sun and Lü teamed up in offering a variety of production oriented film courses.
With the Japanese advancing, Jinling University planned to evacuate to Western China. On the eve of the Japanese invasion of Nanjing Sun and Lü were wed in the college chapel. Within a week the newlyweds, with the rest of the university, moved inland to Sichuan Province. Along the way West, Sun recorded the only film footage of an air raid and bombing by the Japanese in Chongqing, the wartime capital.
Amidst the chaos, Sun and Lü started their life as husband and wife. Sharing the same fascination with and convictions about the potential of film, their union grew stronger. Sun put Lü’s desire to make China’s own film stock at the top of his agenda, spending countless hours helping her in the lab. Finally, she had a breakthrough. Lü used the film stock to take a picture of her and their young son. Lü joined the Jinling faculty as the university moved inland, helping Sun establish majors in the study of photo chemistry and film archives. He joined major scientific expeditions organized by the several Christian universities joined together to share the same campus, faculty and facilities in exile in Chengdu.
For the war effort, Sun edited and combined short travelogues he had made depicting famous Chinese scenery into a long film titled Return My Rivers and Mountains. The film urged young men to join the army and called on the public to maintain a patriotic determination to regain lost territories. Sun also made defense films that taught people how to protect themselves against air raids and poison gas attacks.
While traveling in the poor rural areas out West, Sun made a concerted effort to bring his films to illiterate peasants through outdoor film screening.
The chief financiers of Sun’s films included the national bureaus of education, industry and agriculture, the Association of Educational Films, and various local agencies including school districts. The university itself only financed ten projects. The State Bureau of Education (SBE) distributed most of Sun’s films. Jinling also built a film library that was free and open to the public, and functioned partly as a film distribution unit.
Sun was a regular at the screenings of U.S. educational films and later was instrumental in translating ninety-nine U.S. educational documentary films into Chinese. Sponsored by Jinling, Sun spent a year in the United States from June 1940 to 1941, viewing and studying documentary films. After a three-month visit to the University of Minnesota’s Visual Education Department, he wrote a report summarizing UM’s achievement in January 1941, which a milestone in developing China’s film education. To share the vast amount of information he accumulated in the United States, Sun founded Film and Broadcasting, the first Chinese academic journal on film in 1942. With the advent of sound, the journal was later renamed Image and Sound. Using all his savings, together with financial aid from various organizations, Sun purchased and brought back to China the most up-to-date film equipment. This equipment later became the principal teaching inventory for the national film school in Beijing.
After the Japanese were defeated in 1945, Jinling University and Women’s College made their way back to Nanjing. Sun shot his second film about Nanjing in 1948. Perhaps to trace changes or reminisce about the past, the scenes in this film were almost the same as those that appeared in his first film before the war, including the shots of his wife. They had been young sweethearts twelve years ago. Now they had three children.
When the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, Sun and Lü chose to stay in China. In 1952, Sun Mingjing and his entire department were merged with the newly founded Beijing Film School (which later became Beijing Film Academy, the BFA). Sun was labeled a “rightist” during the political campaign of 1957-58, and prohibited from engaging in any film related activities. During the Cultural Revolution, the academy itself was shut down. After the Cultural Revolution, Sun resumed his teaching. He continued to polish his teaching manuals and lecture notes in his later years, even though he suffered from severe eyesight problems. He never published a single book, and he never made another film.
When the Acadamy reopened the first class of BFA students brushed shoulders with the old master. Included among Sun’s new students of cinematography was Zhang Yimou. As one later president of the Beijing Film Academy recalled, “Professor Sun was the pioneer of China’s educational films as well the founding father of cinematography in China. My contemporary 5th generation filmmakers benefited greatly from his teaching.” In 1991, a group of Sun’s students from the Jinling era gathered to celebrate his 80th birthday. Among them was Sun’s last Jinling student, by then the president of BFA.
Sun passed away quietly in 1992, at the age of 81. His wife followed him ten years later. Sun and Lü are survived by one daughter, Sun Jianqiu, an English professor and Shakespeare scholar, and three sons Sun Jiansan, a photographer and former professor at BFA; Sun Jianhe, a college lecturer in computer science; and Sun Jiantong, an artist. All now are retired. The oldest daughter, Sun Jianyi, was a film lab technician and passed away in 2007.
Though love letters with news and photos that Sun wrote to Lu during his long journeys of 1937 and 1939 were confiscated and destroyed in 1966 by the Red Guards, in 1982, a worker at the Beijing Film Academy storage room came across a bag with labels “Sun Mingjing’s materials.” Inside were several hundred negatives and letters. The Shandong Pictorial Press later published the letters and photos, edited by Sun Jianqiu, in 2004.
Another fortuitous re-discovery happened in 2002 with Sun’s films. The Chinese Radio, Film, and Television Gazette reported the discovery of “China’s earliest films” in 2003, causing quite a stir among filmmakers and historians in China. Articles and monographs were published and conferences held in honor of Sun’s contribution. In 2004, China Central TV sponsored a 12 episode documentary series, tracing Sun Mingjing’s film career and the historic images he left behind.
Sun made one hundred nineteen documentary films on topics ranging from travel to science, education, industry, agriculture, public affairs, ethnic and folk culture, and religious activities. More than half of Sun’s films were screened widely across China at the time of their production. Included in Sun’s oeuvre were China’s first color film Solar Eclipse (1936) and the first sound film in color, The Frontline of Democracy (1947), both of which have survived, along with Sun’s footage of the Japanese bombing of Chongqing. Sun also founded China’s first academic film program and its first film journal.
- Ying Zhu, “Sun Mingjing and Lü Jin’ai: Pioneers of Chinese Educational Films,” in Salt and Light: More Lives of Faith That Shaped Modern China, edited by Carol Lee Hamrin with Stacey Bieler (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 143-162.