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“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.

The Life Of Ruan Lingyu

By , 4 August, 2009, 6 Comments
Silent Film Star Ruan Lingyu

Silent Film Star Ruan Lingyu

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.

Zhang Damin

Zhang 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.

Actress Ruan Lingyu

Actress Ruan Lingyu

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).

Ruan With Daughter Xiaoyu

Ruan With Daughter XiaoYu

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.

Vintage Cosmetics Poster Featuring Ruan Lingyu

Vintage Cosmetics Poster Featuring Ruan Lingyu

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.

Tang Jishan & Ruan Lingyu

Tang Jishan & Ruan Lingyu

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.

New Woman (1934) Promotional Movie Still

New Woman (1934) Promotional Movie Still

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…

Ruan On Vintage Magazine Cover

Ruan On Vintage Magazine Cover Promoting Goodbye, Shanghai

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.

Ruan Lingyu

Ruan Lingyu

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!