Ruan Lingyu (1910–1935) performed in twenty-nine films in Shanghai during the “golden age of Chinese cinema.” She was one of the most famous actresses in the history of the silent screen, but the news of her suicide at age twenty-four brought to the spotlight enduring financial struggles and a love life publicized by the intruding eye of the tabloid press.

Ruan Lingyu was a famous actress of the silent screen during the “golden age of Chinese cinema.” She appeared in twenty–nine films before committing suicide at age twenty-four.

One of the most famous actresses of the silent screen, Ruan Lingyu was wildly popular in China during her lifetime, and posthumously became well-known throughout the rest of the world. She appeared in twenty-nine films in Shanghai during the 1920s and 1930s, the “golden age of Chinese cinema.” Historian Frederick Wakeman Jr. has written about how films and their stars affected audiences during that period: “It is difficult to exaggerate the centrality of cinema to Shanghai’s mass culture. Movie actors and actresses were national celebrities and popular idols” (Wakeman 1995, 11). Ruan Lingyu was a goddess among deities in these entertainment circles after her rise to stardom from humble origins.

After her working-class father’s death when Ruan Lingyu was six years old, her mother worked as a maidservant in a wealthy Shanghai household to support her family. At sixteen Ruan Lingyu started to earn her own income as an actress for Ming Xing Film Company. Her first film with the studio was released in 1927, after which she made four more films with that studio. Then she made six films with Da Zhonghua-Baihe Film Company before she changed studios again in order to headline films for Luo Mingyou and his Lianhua Film Company. Ruan Lingyu starred in her most impressive and influential films at Lianhua, including Spring Dream in the Old Capital (Gudu Chunmeng, directed by Sun Yu, 1930), Three Modern Women (Sange Modeng Nuxing, directed by Bu Wancang, 1933), Small Toys (Xiao Wanyi, directed by Sun Yu, 1933), and The Goddess (Shennu, directed by Wu Yonggang, 1934).

Ruan Lingyu’s films ranged from costume dramas to contemporary melodramas, and many of her films dealt with political issues of the day. For example, in New Woman (Xin nüxing, directed by Cai Chusheng, 1934) massive navy destroyers filmed in the harbor at Shanghai bring an immediate association with the theme of anti-imperialism. But Ruan Lingyu’s emotional performances are often thought to stand out the most. In New Woman Ruan’s character pleads, “I want to live!” as doctors try to revive her after a suicide attempt. In Small Toys Ruan plays a village woman named Ye who loses her home to warlords in the early 1920s and her daughter (played by Li Lili) to the Japanese during the 28 January 1931 Incident. At the end of the film, with no living immediate family members, the long-suffering and partially insane Ye addresses the camera/audience directly, screaming: “Resist!” And in The Goddess, in which Ruan is a single mother who turns to prostitution in order to raise her son, each scene emotes an intense pathos from an actress at the height of her prowess.

On a night in 1935 Ruan Lingyu attended a party with her employers and colleagues from Lianhua Film Company. During this gathering, immortalized in Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan’s postmodern biopic Centre Stage (1992), staring Maggie Cheung as Ruan Lingyu, the actress had more on her mind than the evening’s festivities. After enduring financial struggle, a love life publicized by the intruding eye of the tabloid press, and—where speculation regarding motive has yet to cease—a career spent portraying forlorn characters, the twenty-four-year-old actress committed suicide.

Further Reading

Chang, Michael. (1999). The good, the bad, and the beautiful: Movie actresses and public discourses in Shanghai, 1920s-1930s. In Y. Zhang (Ed.), Cinema and urban culture in Shanghai, 1922-1943 (pp. 128–159). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Meyer, R. J. (2005). Ruan Ling-yu: The goddess of Shanghai. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Pickowicz, P. (1991). The theme of spiritual pollution in Chinese films of the 1930s. Modern China, 17(1), 38–75.

Wakeman, F., Jr. (1995). Policing Shanghai, 1927–1937. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhang Yingjin. (2004). Chinese national cinema. London: Routledge.

Zhen Zhang. (2006). An amorous history of the silver screen: Shanghai cinema, 1896–1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Source: Wicks, James. (2009). RUAN Lingyu. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1907–1908. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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