Tragic Beauty: The Story of Ruan Lingyu

The beautiful Ruan Lingyu, known as China’s Greta Garbo, is still revered as one of the preeminent actresses of Chinese cinema.

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!

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8 responses to “Tragic Beauty: The Story of Ruan Lingyu

  1. Thank you, Lara. Such a sad story, but glad to learn more about this lovely star. As you say, not much has changed. I feel so sorry for these young celebrities who are constantly torn apart by tabloids or TV. I was watching a show this weekend where women were mercilessly ripping apart other women for not being impossibly perfect looking and swore I would not watch this show again.

  2. I have seen The Goddess two times and as you I was immediately attracted to this young actress. In The Goddess she seems so beautiful, so fragile. Twenty nine films before age 24 seems impossible, but I am supposing like the USA the early silents were cranked out quickly. Her every movement, her every look of joy or sadness is mesmerizing. For someone to take their own life at age 24 is astounding, She must have truly felt adrift and alone and hopeless. Yes, like she was not playing a role but her real life.

  3. I recorded but haven’t yet watched The Goddess. This is fascinating backstory, Lara, and makes me want to learn more about Ruan Llingyu and her films. I doubt whether many of those who seek and achieve stardom while very young have any idea what they’re in for when it comes to the ravenous, devouring media.

  4. I am wondering if she was the star of another Chinese silent I saw sometime back. I am trying to find synopsis of some of her movies, some entries on IMDB have them, others do not. There are a few Youtube videos.

  5. What was the movie about?

  6. Oh, I wish. Silent. Girl/woman was married? Treated very poorly, in the country and robbed and violated? Only remember a bit, I was intrigued but too late to watch. I don’t see how many Chinese silents are on TCM, so just wondering. Very difficult life for this character, and recall a child. I realize a few years apart, but this actress reminds me a bit of Louise Brooks who could tell it all in a look or closeup of her face. No melodramatic gestures.

  7. The film I barely recall could have been set in any number of difficult times in China, although not a historian and don’t know dates. Fleeing to the countryside, political unrest, robbers/highway men???

  8. Hmm, sounds like every movie Ruan Lingyu ever made! Interesting Louise Brooks connection, there are definitely some similarities there…

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