Before I begin telling the story of Ruan Lingyu, it’s important to note that I fell in love with her in her films first, before I knew anything about her; it would be my hope that you did the same. But, knowing how few people watch silent films, let alone international ones, I will be content if you become so fascinated with the woman that you must see her act.
Ruan Lingyu was born Ruan Fenggeng in Shanghai on April 26, 1910, to a poor migrant family from Canton. By the time she was six, her father had passed away. Not long after that they moved away from Shanghai when her mother got work as a housemaid in the home of the wealthy Zhang family. By the age of 16 Ruan dropped out of school — and moved in with the Zhang’s son, Damin.
Like scenes straight out of The Peach Girl, there was very strong opposition by Zhang’s family to such cohabitation, resulting in Zhang being financially cut-off from his family and the firing of Ruan’s mother.
This, along with spoiled Zhang’s gambling problem, left 16 year old Ruan working to support the entire household.
In 1926, Ruan spots a “film actors needed” ad for Star Movie Studios. Becoming an actress was a rather remarkable choice at the time.
Prior to 1920, only a few short movies had been made in Shanghai & Hong Kong — and all the performers were male, including the female roles. This had less to do with a desire to follow Shakespearean theatre traditions than it did with the cultural expectations of women.
Proper Chinese women were modest; they would never dream of displaying or promoting themselves publicly.
Such willingness & desire to have themselves projected onto film screens for the public to see made such women indecent — in fact, actresses were even called prostitutes.
But with the help of Zhang HuiChong, Damin’s elder brother, Ruan went for an interview and audition at Star Movie Studios. (Zhang HuiChong, himself a star in swordplay films for the Commercial Press in the early 20’s, married Xu Sue/Wu Suxin, a rather famous actress working at the Great China Film Studios, and together they created the short-lived United Film Studios — sometimes referred to as the HuiChong Film Company — from 1924-1927.) Sixteen year old Ruan was hired.
Her diligence & beauty outshone her lack of acting experience and she was cast in 1927’s A Couple in Name Only (aka The Nominal Couple), directed by Bu Wancang (aka Wancang Bu &/or Richard Poh) before joining MingXing Studio & creating her stage name, Ruan Lingyu.
She made a few films at MingXing, but it wasn’t until she left MingXing and joined Da Zhonghua Baihe Film Company (which quickly merged with other companies to become the Lianhua Film Company) that she found real success and Shanghai stardom in A Dream in the Old Capital (aka Reminiscence Of Peking, 1929).
By this time Ruan and Damin were having problems. Due to his affairs, gambling & general irresponsibility, they had parted several times and Ruan supposedly tried to commit suicide at some time between 1927 and 1928. By the end of 1928, their relationship crisis seems to be over and XiaoYu, a daughter, is adopted. However, Damin continues to gamble and live off Ruan’s money.
Ruan continues to make films for Lianhua and her popularity grows. Gary Morris, at Bright Lights Film Journal, has this to say about Ruan’s days at Lianhua:
[She] would find her greatest successes in a series of intense female-centered melodramas, many of them engaged with such pressing social issues as poverty, class conflict, prostitution, illegitimacy, women’s rights, suicide, and occasionally a political film that grew out of anxieties around Japan’s invasion of Shanghai.
During the Japanese invasion of 1932, Ruan & Damin fled to Hong Kong. Once the situation became stable, the actress returned to Shanghai alone where two important events occurred.
First, the actress became involved in her first leftist inspired film, Three Modern Women. This film would launch her to another peak of her career, earning her second place on the 1933 list of the Top Ten stars in a Movie Queen, a contest run by local publications.
Second, with Damin still in Hong Kong, Ruan would meet wealthy merchant Tang Jishan, the “King of the Tea,” at a party; by March of 1933 Ruan had moved into Tang’s home.
On April 9th, Zhang returned from Hong Kong, prepared to make a fuss with the press regarding his romance with Ruan. Clearly motivated by money, he sells out a few days later, signing an agreement stating that in return for not bothering her again, Ruan would provide him with 100 yuan per month for the next two years. This leaves Tang and Ruan free to announce their engagement on August 8th of 1933.
In 1934 Ruan stars in Cai Chusheng’s A New Woman, considered by many to be her best film. But the press takes issue with the film.
In the film, Ruan’s heroine has been forsaken by her husband and, failing to make a living from writing, was forced to become a prostitute to raise her child — and then to commit suicide. It wasn’t so much the ethics or morals of the plot which angered the press. Rather it was the film’s inspiration — the life & death of writer & actress Ai Xia who took her own life in 1934, shortly after starring in her own scripted film, A Modern Woman. It was the film’s accusation that the suicide had been a result of the negative publicity which upset the press, especially the Journalists’ Union, which considered the film a negative portrayal of their trade. Even though the film was very well received by audiences (sending Ruan’s fame soaring), the film was edited to tone down the ‘blaming of the press’ parts and the studio was forced to issue and apology. But the press was still not happy…
At this time Damin, despite his signed agreement, returns. Perhaps his gambling debts forced his hand, or maybe he just was greedy, but in any case, he returns to extort more money from the even more popular (and wealthy) actress. This infuriated Tang who, despite insider suggestion that it upset Ruan, brought Damin into court on December 27, 1934.
This resulted in a media frenzy.
Despite public adoration of Ruan, the press feeds off the former couple’s previous living arrangements. Not so much focused on the scandalous nature or unmarried cohabitation, but arguing that such a living arrangement between “the moderns” was a sort of common law marriage — and one not dissolved by the signed agreement. Tang & Ruan are accused of fanghai hunyin jiating zui, the equivalent of an attack on family values & marriage in general.
Complicating matters, Damin’s family, with its old traditions & history of imperial officers, outranked Tang’s “new money” and simple “merchant” status. Tang’s history of divorces and affairs before marrying Ruan didn’t win him any points either. Not that Damin hadn’t been a louse; but he was a louse from an established, traditional, respected, wealthy family.
But no matter what the men did, it was Ruan who endured great scrutiny and even loses pubic favor in the sordid scandal. She is summoned to appear in court on March 9th, but sometime during the night of March 7th, after writing several letters, she commits suicide — with a overdose of sleeping pills just like her role in A New Woman.
Ruan Lingyu was found dead on March 8, 1935 — International Women’s Day. The day her film, A New Woman, was due to be screened as a fundraiser for a woman’s educational center.
Stay tunned for part two, to be posted Friday; there’s a whole lot more to Ruan’s story!