Sun Daolin and family. Sun was the heartthrob of movie-going women from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Sun Daolin’s charismatic performances made him a mainstream cinema icon in the People’s Republic of China. Although a lifelong actor, his artistry included forays into literary criticism and poetry. During the post-Mao era, an abiding commitment to cultural internationalism further cemented Sun’s status among overseas and official arts patrons alike.

A prolific and popular screen actor after World War II, Sun Daolin entered Yanjing (Yenching) University in 1938, majoring in philosophy and writing his thesis on Aristotle’s Poetics. At the same time, this son of a wealthy, Belgian-educated engineer began devoting increasing amounts of time to stage acting. After first joining the university’s drama society, Sun performed with several troupes devoted to employing the theater as a mode of social transformation as well as entertainment. His early repertoire included works by the influential playwright Cao Yu and the novelist Ba Jin, as well as European authors Nicolai Gogol and Alexandre Dumas.

After graduating in 1947, Sun Daolin began his screen acting career the next year, first appearing in the Qinghua Film Company’s The Big Reunion (1948) before taking a lead role in the well-received Crows and Sparrows (1949). This event solidified Sun’s position within the Shanghai film industry, and drew the attention of those within the nascent state-run film industry of the People’s Republic, many of whom—like Sun himself—had ties to the world of pre-1949 commercial cinema. The fact that Sun appeared in numerous films throughout the early 1950s, at a time when domestic feature production had dipped precariously, attested to his popularity with crowds, filmmakers, and cultural officials alike. In 1957 Sun was awarded a “first-place” individual award by the Ministry of Culture for his work between 1949 and 1955, recognizing him for his service to the state.

Sun Daolin’s career was predicated upon his versatility. He played a politically irresolute intellectual in March of the Democratic Youth (1950), an engineer in Female Driver (1951), and a steely-willed Communist officer in Reconnaissance across the Yangzi (1954). While reprising many of these roles in early 1960s works of socialist cinema such as A Revolutionary Family (1960) and Early Spring, February (1962), Sun also lent his voice to numerous dubbed foreign features, and served as a council member during the fourth and fifth conferences of the China Film Workers Association.

Following the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Sun returned to filmmaking as an actor, while also writing and directing several of his own screenplays. The film Zhan Tianyou (2000), a biography of the eponymous early twentieth-century Chinese railroad engineer, won him China’s highest award for a feature. Sun also continued to work as an interpreter of foreign culture for Chinese audiences, both in his voiceover work and through translations and adaptations of Western plays. At the same time, he gave extensive interviews to foreign journalists and scholars interested in China’s state film industry. Sun’s most notable overseas appearance came in 1988, when he appeared as a special guest performer in an American Conservatory Theater production of Eugene O’Neill’s Marco’s Millions, playing the role of Khubilai Khan.

Married to the famous Yue Opera (the main regional opera style of Zhejiang Province and Shanghai) artist Wang Wenjuan, Sun Daolin spent the majority of his career as a performer for mass audiences within the Chinese-speaking community. Retiring only two years before his death, his lifetime as a mainstream cultural icon was recognized by China’s highest-ranking political leaders and the international press, along with countless admirers.

Further Reading

Clark, P. (1987). Chinese cinema: Culture and politics since 1949. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Hu Jubin. (2003). Projecting a nation: Chinese national cinema before 1949. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Shen Vivian. (2005). The origins of left-wing cinema in China, 1932–1937. New York: Routledge.

Source: Johnson, Matthew. (2009). SUN Daolin. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2131–2132. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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