This article reviews the role of wenyi in Chinese cinema from the turn of the twentieth century to the breakout of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937. Wenyi/letters and arts, a loan word from the Japanese bungei, was associated with western fiction, and concepts of humanism, equality and freedom. These concepts were propagated by translators of Japanese and western literature, many of whom belonged to the Mandarin Ducks and Butterfly School and were key agents in the nascent culture industry, leaving their marks in intertwined fields, including literature and cinema. By tracing their crossover activities we find evidence of the fertility of the wenyi concept in early cinema. Furthermore, our findings show that in order to sell motion pictures, the early film industry tended to brand film as a new type of wenyi commodity, thereby mobilizing wenyi as a marketing strategy to help purvey movies to audiences with cosmopolitan aspirations. © 2012 Intellect Ltd Article.