By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
This evening on TCM’s “Silent Sunday Nights” program, viewers on the channel will see The Goddess (1934), one of the major films featuring Ruan Lingyu, a veritable icon of Chinese cinema. Though her name may not resound to Western ears like the names of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, she is considered to this day to be one of the most talented actresses ever to appear onscreen in China. She was a massive star during her lifetime and tragically fell victim to the cruelties of the Chinese press, who drove her to suicide at the age of 24.
Ruan Lingyu was born Ruan Fenggen in Shanghai to a father who died when she was six and a housemaid mother. In order to earn money for her struggling mother, she answered a newspaper ad looking for actors, signing with the Mingxing Film Company in 1926 and appearing in her first film, A Married Couple In Name Only, the following year. Over the course of the next nine years, Ruan Lingyu (she changed her given name when she signed with Minxing Film Company) made 29 pictures–all silents–and rose to legendary status in China through picture deals with several high profile Chinese studios such as Da Zhonghua Baihe Company and Lianhua Pictures, where she filmed The Goddess in 1934. She became known as “China’s Greta Garbo,” and developed a reputation for magnificent acting talent to align with her breathtaking beauty.
Ruan Lingyu’s personal life was immensely troubled. Her marriage to Zhang Damin, the son of her mother’s employer, ended in a split due to the gambling habit that had resulted in Zhang’s being disowned by his family. Shortly after leaving Zhang Damin, Ruan began an affair with tea tycoon Tang Jishan and Zhang formally sued Ruan for damages, an event that was quickly picked up by reporters who set out to make her life a living hell for the sake of publicity.
The public pressure on Ruan began to intensify after the completion of the film New Women, which harshly criticizes the Shanghai tabloids. Based on the life of Ai Xia, another Chinese actress who had committed suicide in 1934, the film bears a very eerie resemblance to what would ultimately happen to Ruan herself just one month after the film’s release. A massive cut was required by the director Cai Chusheng to appease the press, and the tabloids took the opportunity to step up their vendetta against the young Ruan Lingyu, who was living what they considered to be a tabloid-rich life and who had just come out with a movie that spoke ill of their industry.
Adding to the tabloids’ enormous public pressure on her was Ruan’s unraveling life with Tang Jishan. Unable to see a way out of a painful life, Ruan Lingyu took an overdose of barbiturates on March 8, 1935 at the age of 24. Her famous suicide note (which may have been fabricated by Tang Jishan after her death) read “Gossip is a fearful thing.” Ruan’s funeral was attended by over 100,000 people, and several women were said to have committed suicide themselves during the procession.
The story of Ruan Lingyu is one of the saddest to come out of world cinema. And unfortunately, when one looks at tabloids today, very little has changed since Ruan Lingyu’s unfortunate demise. The tabloids today are still wreaking havoc on young stars, with little to no regard for their privacy or well-being. And in the United States, the mention of Ruan Lingyu as an example of the cruelty of the tabloids is met with a blank stare. Her name is all but forgotten here, a fate not worthy of her extreme talent and the maturity she exudes onscreen. Watching Ruan Lingyu onscreen, her portrayals of the strong and complex characters in The Goddess and New Women, it is easy to forget that she made her last film at the age of 24.
I had the pleasure of seeing a Ruan Lingyu film entitled Little Toys at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2 years ago, which is where I was first introduced to Ruan’s enigmatic charm. I was immediately taken by her, and was glad to hear that though her filmography is so sparsely seen in the United States, China still reveres her as one of the most legendary icons to ever come out of Chinese cinema. In China, her legacy lives on in a manner that befits her.
See you next time!