Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ruan Lingyu: A Decade Of Film & Even More Years Of Tragedy

Ruan Lingyu (also known/billed as Ruan Ling-Yu, Lingyu Ruan, Lily Yuan, & Lily Yuen) is the Chinese silent film star whose works are not very well known here in the US; I myself have TCM to thank for making her acquaintance -- first via The Peach Girl (aka Peach Blossom Weeps Tears of Blood, 1931; I'll be reviewing it soon!) & then The Goddess (1934).

Born Ruan Fenggeng in Shanghai on April 26, 1910, Ruan experienced the difficult life of a child of a poor migrant family from Canton. Her father died by the time she was six, and her mother moved away from Shanghai the following year to work as a housemaid in the home of the wealthy Zhang family. While she sent Ruan to school, by the age of 16 the young girl dropped out -- and moved in with the Zhang's son, Damin.


There was very strong opposition by Zhang's family to this tongiu (the romantic cohabitational love of 'the moderns' who eschewed arranged & even agreed upon marriages). This opposition resulted not only in Zhang not getting any financial support from his family, but in getting Ruan's mother fired as well; she moved in with the young couple. This, along with Damin's gambling & general irresponsibility, meant that Ruan must work to support the household.

In 1926, at the age of 16, Ruan spots an ad for "film actors needed" at Star Movie Studios. With the help of Zhang HuiChong, Damin's elder brother who had starred in swordplay films for the Commercial Press in the early 20's, Ruan went for an interview and audition. (Zhang HuiChong got married to 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.)

Ruan's diligence & beauty outshone her lack of education 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).

At this time she entered MingXing Studio & created her stage name, Ruan Lingyu. Becoming an actress was a rather remarkable choice at the time.

Prior to 1920, only a few short movies had been made in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and, much like Shakespearean works, all the performers were male, including the female roles.

Public opinion lumped actresses in with prostitutes, actually calling them prostitutes; in their defense, prostitution was one of only two options for women who wanted to work, and as proper modest Chinese women would never boast or promote themselves in public, the willingness to project themselves onto screens for everyone to see put them in the same category as the other indecent women.

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 Lianhua Film Company) that she found real success and Shanghai stardom. That film was A Dream in the Old Capital (aka Reminiscence Of Peking, 1929).

It is said that around this time Ruan adopted her daughter, XiaoYu; yet she and Damin have already parted from each other three times -- and between 1927 and 1928 Ruan is said to have tried to commit suicide. By the end of 1928, their relationship crisis seems to be over, but Damin continues to gamble and live off Ruan's earnings.


Ruan continues to make films for Lianhua and her popularity grows. According to TCM, in Bright Lights Film Journal Gary Morris says that at Lianhua, Ruan "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."

In 1932, during the invasion of Japanese towards Shanghai, Ruan & Damin fled to Hong Kong. As soon as the situation became stable Ruan returned to Shanghai and involved in her first leftist inspired film, Three Modern Women, which brought her to another peak of her career, pushing her into second place on the 1933 list of the Top Ten stars in a Movie Queen contest run by local newspaper & magazines.

It was in 1932, while Damin was still in Hong Kong, that Ruan met 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. A few days later he signed an agreement saying that Ruan would provide him with 100 yuan per month for the next two years -- and in return he would not bother her again. Sort of a common law divorce.

On August 8th of 1933, Tang and Ruan announce their engagement.

Things continue to go well for Ruan. In 1934 she stars in Cai Chusheng's A New Woman, considered by many to be her best film.

However the press takes issue with the film's heroine, who, having been forsaken by her husband & 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, but the film's accusation that the suicide of the woman had been a result of the press' libelous reports. The film was edited to tone down the accusation, but as the film was inspired by the life & death of actress and writer Ai Xia, who took her own life in 1934, the accusation lingered like the taste of bile in a throat... But the film was very well received by audiences and Ruan's fame soared.

Damin, likely either deeply in gambling debt, or just wanting a larger piece of Ruan's popularity (and yuan) pie, returned to extort more money from the actress. This upset Tang who, despite insider suggestion that it made Ruan unhappy, brought Damin into court on December 27, 1934, resulting in a media frenzy.

Despite public adoration of Ruan and the more or less scandalous living arrangements between herself and Damin, the couple is seen to have a common law marriage and Tang -- along with Ruan -- are accused of fanghai hunyin jiating zui, the equivalent of an attack on family values & marriage in general.

Perhaps this was due to some acceptance of Damin & Ruan's common law marriage; but Damin's old & traditional family name with its history of imperial officers also outranked Tang's "new money" and simple "merchant" status. Of course, Tang's history of divorces and affairs probably didn't win him any points either... Not that Damin hadn't been a louse too.

But in this sordid scandal, it is Ruan who looses pubic favor and is put under great scrutiny and stress. She is summoned to appear in court on March 9th, but sometime during the night of March 7th she wrote several letters & then committed suicide.

She was found dead on March 8, 1935.

It was International Women's Day.

More than 100,000 mourners were drawn to the WanGuo funeral parlour, her funeral procession, on March 14, 1935, reached over three miles long -- and three women committed suicide during it. It was estimated that more than three hundred thousand people crowded the streets of Shanghai for her last journey. The front page of the New York Times pronounced it "the most spectacular funeral of the century."

Every magazine in Shanghai ran memorial issues in her honor. Even after her death, Tang was openly insulted and cursed by the press and 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 even after some Ruan's last letters were published, described as "tender" towards Tang, in which Ruan asks Tang to take care of her mother and daughter. It matters not. In the movie world Tang is not recognized as Ruan's beloved, official husband; he is the man who murdered her with immorality.

According to this site which I am relying on Google's translation for, Tang did tamper with the letters. But it seems clear that Tang was the lover Ruan wanted.

Clearly neither of her lovers were very kind to her in many ways, and the press' field day with her choices and status as a woman, therefore less powerful and respected, was more than she could bear.

In one of the letters written before her suicide, she 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 public slander.

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

Lu Xun (Lu Hsün; Zhou Shuren), a prominent writer at the time, took that phrase 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) she writes (link added by SPS):
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.

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, 73 years later, discuss Ruan in terms of public out-cry and media portrayals, comparing them to similar gossip witch hunts of today... But I'd like to let Ruan's life and choices speak for her.

Her acting is brilliant -- and plentiful. In 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.

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 & cold hierarchical social structure.

For her suffering heroines, Ruan was compared to Garbo; but I think Ruan Lingyu and her luminous acting stands on its own.



For more on Ruan Lingyu:

Fan site with lots of images.

Ruan Ling-Yu: The goddess of Shanghai, the actress' biography, which comes with a DVD of The Goddess. (Don't miss the review of the film with photos.)

Maggie Cheung won the Silver Bear (Best Actress) award for her portrayal of Ruan in Stanley Kwan's 1992 biopic Centre Stage (aka The Actress).

More photos available here.

Last year, the house Ruan shared with her mother was opened to the public.

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2 Comments:

Blogger AndyDecker said...

Great writing. Where do you find such fascinating stuff?

4:41 PM  
Blogger Silent-Porn-Star said...

Thanks, Andy :)

In this case, I must credit TCM. Without them, we wouldn't have Sunday Silents, something I can hardly live without esp. as my budget doesn't allow for me to purchase as many films as I covet.

There's a group of us who watch together -- each from our own home, though. Then we email &/or chat afterwards. I should write about that group sometime...

Anyway, thanks for reading & commenting. It's nice to know the effort is rewarded with readers -- and that my interest in such things (and persons) is shared.

6:19 PM  

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