From 1949 to 1983, the film exhibition network in the People’s Republic of China developed from fewer than six hundred movie theaters to some 162,000 film projection units, mostly mobile movie teams conducting open-air screenings in rural areas. Such an expansive media infrastructure helped the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) unite and mobilize a vast, diverse populace behind its utopian visions. In this sense, the Chinese Revolution was amedia revolution. But were the Chinese people passive recipients of state propaganda? What was the experience of cinema like at the grass roots? What did the exhibition contexts contribute to the memory and nostalgia of those who came of age in socialist China?
Parsing the senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—with which grassroots audiences engaged with cinema beyond the film, this article argues that the multisensory environment of the screening space can contribute as much to the reception of cinema as the content of the films themselves. I synthesize and theorize these extrafilmic visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory, and haptic experiences of moviegoing as “hot noise.” A key concept of Chinese popular religion, theater, and markets, “hot noise” describes the festive ambience generated through an assembly of warm bodies, a polyphony of participatory voices, and a kaleidoscope of sense impressions. As open-air cinema grew into a quintessential form of public life under Chinese socialism, its hot noise also contributed to a politics of mobilization and an economics of austerity, thereby challenging existing understandings of cinema’s relationship to the senses and to the masses.
The Hot Noise of Open-Air Cinema