web analytics

“Gossip Is A Fearful Thing” (The Death Of Ruan Lingyu)

By , 7 August, 2009, 4 Comments

(This is part two of the story of Ruan Lingyu; if you missed part one, see The Life Of Ruan Lingyu.)

The Legendary & Tragic Film Star Ruan Lingyu

The Legendary & Tragic Film Star Ruan Lingyu

Ruan Lingyu committed suicide on March 8, 1935, International Women’s Day, and the resulting public adoration was a spectacle that rivals, perhaps even surpasses, the recent passing of Michael Jackson.

Ruan Lingyu's Funeral

Ruan Lingyu's Funeral

More than 100,000 mourners were drawn to the WanGuo funeral parlor; the funeral procession on March 14, 1935, reached over three miles long — and three women committed suicide during it; estimates of the number of people who crowded street-side to watch her last journey through Shanghai were more than three hundred thousand every magazine in Shanghai published memorial issues in her honor; the front page of the New York Times pronounced it “the most spectacular funeral of the century.”

While Ruan was adored, Tang, her lover, was openly cursed & blamed for her death. Star Movie Studios openly declared they’d have no part in any mourning ceremony held by Tang Jishan, saying he was “a criminal who did harm to the whole movie world, being the direct cause of Ruan’s suicide.” This news, along with other speculation & insults, was covered by the press — the very same press who had hounded her during the scandal. The very same press which, unable to accept or learn from the accusations of actress and writer Ai Xia’s death portrayed by Ruan in A New Woman. Irony at it’s best worst.

Even after some Ruan’s last “tender” letters were published, letters in which Ruan asks Tang to take care of her mother & her daughter, neither the press nor the movie world recognized him as Ruan’s beloved; he is the man who murdered her with immorality.

(According to this site, translated by Google, Tang did tamper with the letters; but it’s still rather clear that Tang was the lover Ruan wanted, no matter what the press believed or printed.)

Ruan In The Goddess (1934)

Ruan In The Goddess (1934)

Clearly her lovers weren’t very kind to her, but it wasn’t their betrayals and unkindness which were too much for Ruan to bear.

It was a culture, a time & place, which regulated women, holding them to standards that men did not need to worry about, rendering her far less powerful than her popularity would seem to indicate. This simultaneously placed her at the mercy of the media which exploited her gender & situation, her public adoration & private sorrows, sensationalizing their way to sales.

In one of the letters written just before she took her own life, Ruan writes in grief-stricken self-defense of her actions, saying that while she’s aware that she’s taking a risk — that some may take her suicide as an evidence of some guilt — she’d rather die than to continue to face the slander & scandal.

In her suicide note, she wrote, “Gossip is a fearful thing.”

Still From Love & Duty

Still From Love & Duty

Lu Xun (Lu Hsün; Zhou Shuren), a prominent writer at the time, took that phrase, “Gossip is a fearful thing,” and made it the title of an article denouncing the media’s exploitation of Ruan.

Of the media and Xun’s article, however, Stefania Stafutti has some pointed things to say.

In The Perception of Privacy: The Case of Ruan Lingyu (published in the International Journal of Afro-Asiatic Studies) Stafutti wrote:

Only the (male oriented) society control over human beings is questioned together with the dramatic fear of loosing one’s own face, but nothing is said on the individual right of carrying on one’s private life with no external interferences. Even if once more referring in general terms to “the feudal society of old China” the Min bao is the only journal which stigmatizes the backwardness of the film-goers, who simply like twisting the knife in the wound: the perception of privacy is strictly connected with people’s perception on what is to be “hidden” and what is to be “protected”. With his article published under the pen name Mu Hui on Tai bai, which title “Gossip is a fearful thing” is picked up from one of Ruan’s letters, left behind after her suicide, Lu Xun goes to the core of the problem. As Eileeen J. Cheng points out in a recent article Lu Xun is fascinated by dead women, especially those who are somehow victimized by the society At the same time their choice of dieing is seen as having a cathartic and rather ambiguous function. The blame put on the wild circulation of details on Ruan’s personal life expresses Lu Xun strong objection against the circulation of exploitative images of women but, at the same time, strips the women of their gender issues, to sit them on a throne of purity which radically prevents them from enjoying or inducing any idea of pleasure As a matter of fact, Lu Xun stigmatizes much more the voyeuristic attitude of the readers and of the film goers than the total lack of scruple of the sensationalistic press. Being Lu Xun perfectly conscious of the enormous power of the press, who would rather expect him being more indulgent with the common readers. He goes much farer than Min bao, almost attributing to the readers a sort of cannibalization of their victims (a topic dear to Lu Xun!): “[Ruan Lingyu and Ai Xia] deaths are like but adding a few grains of salt to the boundless ocean; even though it fills bland mouths with some flavour, after a while everything is still bland, bland, bland”. Lu Xun’s utter repugnance for the mass miserable appetites cannot simply be regarded as an “ascetic” gaze towards the female world.

It is true, however, that the press kept a full-press on Ruan & her death.

Ruan Lingyu On Public Display In Her Coffin

Ruan Lingyu On Public Display In Her Coffin

Stafutti writes of it as a “voyeuristic attitude, even transgressing into the kitsch,” as the media described in great detail her corpse, how it was dressed, how her hair was styled, and “about the hopeless Zhang Damin, who wiping two blood drops from Ruans’s mouth seems to have stated that they have to be considered her last gift to him.”

The media even missed the irony of reporting on Ruan’s mother crying to the press that they were to blame for her daughter’s death, saying, “It’s all because of you. You killed her. You will reckon with me.”

It would be easy to follow suit here and, nearly 75 years later, discuss Ruan in terms of public out-cry & press persecution, comparing her death to the deaths of Marilyn Monroe & Princess Diana, and similar press feeding fenzy of today… But I’d like to let Ruan’s life and choices speak for her, via a lovely legacy of films.

Her acting is brilliant — and plentiful. By the time she was 25, with a career lasting less than 10 years she made nearly three times that many films… 29 films in 9 years. Amazing films too, from the ones I’ve seen. And the ones I’ve read about. (I must see them all!)

In them she explored female advancement & exploitation; a rigid patriarchial & feudal system built on class, which maltreated (if not out-right abused) women and men alike, yet was perpetuated by both genders; and a warm naiveté which, even should innocence be lost (and find itself punished for its supposed immorality), could outlast & outshine the old & bleak hierarchical social structure.

Beautiful Ruan Lingyu With Little Dog

Beautiful Ruan Lingyu With Little Dog

And frankly, she’s just breathtaking to watch.

For her suffering heroines, beauty & acting ability, Ruan was compared, even during her own lifetime, to Garbo; but I think Ruan Lingyu and her luminous acting stands on its own, without (even such grand) comparison.

Why she is not as remembered, idolized, and enshrined in death like so many other movie stars and film legends (including those whose lives and work were far less impressive) is incomprehensible to me. Most of us don’t even know of her.

But I carry the torch, Ruan; I do.

Related Posts
4 Responses {+}
  • Some Like it Vintage.com

    Wow, what a fascinating story. I had heard about Ruan and have even seen a few clips of her movies, but never realized the stress she was under. Well written and fascinating, thank you!

  • TJ

    I just stumbled onto this site doing a google search for something completely different… and wow what a great job you did telling the story of Ruan. I am going to try to find some of her movies now.

    What a tragic end for her though.. I wonder what ever happened with Tang… did the public forget about him and he was able to lead a rather peaceful life after a while?

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Thanks for appreciating my research & dedication to the lovely Lingyu 🙂

    I don’t know what happened to Tang… I’ve been trying to find something about Ruan’s daughter; but so far, no luck. (I suspect I may need to learn Chinese to do so – yikes! – but I keep looking…)

  • The Life Of Ruan Lingyu - Here's Looking Like You, Kid

    […] tunned for part two, to be posted Friday; there’s a whole lot more to Ruan’s […]

Leave a Reply