I recently came across director Stanley Kwon’s biopic Center Stage (1991) starring Maggie Chung as an actress I had never heard of before. While this film left much to be desired, partly because of the unusual manner of intercutting the narrative story with behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and footage of the scenes as they are being filmed, Chung is extraordinary as the main subject, Ruan Lingyu. I had never heard of her, but doing my own research, it is clear that this person was an early superstar of the Far East who never got recognition beyond China due to her demise.
A Star Is Born
Ruan Lingyu was born on April 26, 1910, in the city of Shanghai. Ruan came from a working-class neighborhood and was forced to work as a housemaid when her father died. During this time, she met and fell in love with Zhnag Damin, whose mother Ruan worked for. In her teens, Ruan decided to be an actress and signed with the Mingxing Film Company, one of the major studios in China in the early 20th century. Her first film, A Married Couple in Name Only, was released in 1927, but along with a majority of her films, this has been lost.
In 1929, Ruan moved to the Lianhua Film Company and made her breakthrough with the film, A Dream in the Old Capital. A string of successful films followed including Wild Flowers by the Road (1930), Love and Duty (1931), Little Cuttie (1933), and New Women (1934). Ruan’s performances were acclaimed for her natural expressions and emotions never seen before in Chinese cinema. China was a late adaptee to sound films and Ruan was comparable to Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, and Mary Pickford.
The characters Ruan played ranged from prostitutes to single women of the wealthy elite. In the era she was in with other young talent and new directors, the films told about the separation of rich and poor, country versus the city and a more progressive portrayal of women alongside men. Arguably, her most famous role is The Goddess (1934) in which she plays a young mother who is forced to become a prostitute for a brutal pimp. It is a more realistic portrayal of the times but was in conflict with the Confucian belief in showing only traditional values, causing director Wu Yonggang to struggle with the censors.
Trial By Media
Tragically, Ruan would find her life in the tabloids thanks to stories about her personal life with Zhang. The couple never got married as Zhang’s mother opposed the marriage because of the strict class separation preventing it. However, Zhang fell into gambling debts and was disinherited from his family’s fortunes, so he began borrowing from Ruan to feed his addiction. In 1933, she ended the relationship, unable to tolerate his behavior any longer. She then started living with a wealthy businessman named Tang Jishan. Later, Zhang sued Ruan for desertion, which grabbed the attention of the press.
The lawsuit began a series of published stories about their personal lives and various rumors that damaged Ruan’s reputation. Zhang became jealous of her success while Tang had a history of being a womanizer. New Woman added more hostility from the press because of the movie’s critical stance against them, as it was loosely based on the story of Ai Xia, an actress and writer with left-wing views who committed suicide in 1934 over the criticism by the media. The film was lambasted and Ruan was personally attacked.
“Gossip Is A Fearful Thing”
On March 8, 1935, Ruan committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. She was only 24 years old. Before her death, Ruan wrote two letters to both Zhang and Tang, blaming their behavior as the main reason for driving her to suicide, even referencing that Tang hit her hours before her death. Her funeral was noted by The New York Times as, “the most spectacular funeral of the century,” going three miles long where at least three women committed suicide during the procession out of grief.
Both men attempted to profit and shift guilt away from them following Ruan’s suicide. Tang forged suicide notes to make it seem Ruan still loved him, with one note written to the press featuring the famous line, “gossip is a fearful thing,” blaming them as well for her death. Indeed, some Chinese leading writers condemned the media for their behavior. Zhang was able to produce and star in two movies based on his relationship with Ruan called Who’s To Blame and Wife Of A Friend in Hong Kong. Neither was successful and Zhang died alone and broke.
Legacy As China’s Great Garbo
Her legacy remains strong to Chinese cinema scholars as the first real movie star of the nation. Interest in Ruan reemerged in the 80s and 90s, especially after the release of Center Stage, and the search for her movies began. In her short career, Ruan Lingyu represented the modern Chinese woman who was advancing with the times and could portray any woman in certain situations. She went from the bottom to the top as a beautiful woman every person wanted to be around. Even after decades passed, those who were still alive and remembered Ruan continued to keep strong memories of her and the importance she had on Chinese society.
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