A Farewell to a Great Ac­tress

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Cui Hao Edited by Roberta Raine

In the world of Chi­nese dra­matic theatre, the play en­ti­tled

Ruan Lingyu, based on the life of the fa­mous film star Ruan Lingyu (1910–1935), is known far and wide.

In the world of Chi­nese dra­matic theatre, the play en­ti­tled Ruan Lingyu, based on the life of the fa­mous film star Ruan Lingyu (1910–1935), is known far and wide. Peo­ple in China knew the late beauty from the stage but also lamented her dif­fi­cult life when she was off the stage. An in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple have for­got­ten the true Ruan Lingyu but still re­mem­ber the one that was fre­quently in­ter­preted on the stage.

In 1933, land near the Bund in Shang­hai was dread­fully ex­pen­sive, in­clud­ing the area known as Yuqing­fang in Hongkou District, where Ruan Lingyu lived at the time. One day, a re­porter look­ing for her asked a po­lice­man for her ad­dress; the po­lice­man will­ingly of­fered to take the re­porter to her res­i­dence with a smile. At the en­trance to the house, a fe­male ser­vant opened the door, giv­ing the re­porter a glimpse of the host­ess in­side. She was dressed in a black silk cheongsam, which brought out her fair skin. With bright and kind eyes, flow­ing hair and high-heeled shoes that matched her silk stock­ings, she looked el­e­gant and gra­cious. The lady was Ruan Lingyu, the film star well known in Shang­hai and all of China.

Dur­ing the in­ter­view, the re­porter asked Ruan about her daily life. “In ad­di­tion to film­ing, the only thing that amuses me is read­ing. I par­tic­u­larly like Lin Yu­tang’s Lunyu, which was pub­lished re­cently,” Ruan Lingyu replied. “On Sun­days, I of­ten go to the dance hall or play sev­eral rounds of golf, but I rarely play maque. It is a gross over­state­ment to say that I love to play maque the most and that I play it day and night.” What she re­ferred to as maque was ac­tu­ally mahjong (pro­nounced ma­jiang in Man­darin), while Lin Yu­tang’s Lunyu was a bi­monthly mag­a­zine founded in Septem­ber 1932, and means “analects.’’

A Poor Back­ground

Ruan Lingyu was born into a poor fam­ily. Her fa­ther was a worker at the Bri­tishowned Asi­atic Petroleum Com­pany in Pudong, but he died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis due to be­ing over­work when she was only six years old. The young Ruan Lingyu had to help her mother, who served as a house­maid, to scrape up enough money to sur­vive. Fi­nan­cial hard­ship and her mother’s hard work made a deep im­pres­sion on Ruan Lingyu and made her be­come sen­si­tive, frag­ile, pes­simistic and anx­ious.

Al­though the days were hard, Ruan’s mother knew the im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion in guar­an­tee­ing a bright fu­ture. Hat­ing to see her tal­ented daugh­ter fol­low her foot­steps, she saved up and tried to make enough money in the hopes of send­ing Ruan Lingyu to a fa­mous pri­vate school in Shang­hai called Chongde Girls School. But it was im­pos­si­ble for an or­di­nary fam­ily to af­ford the tu­ition fees of the pri­vate school at that time. By chance, Ruan’s mother learned that the man she worked for, Mas­ter Zhang, was a board mem­ber of Chongde Girls School. She im­plored him to help her daugh­ter, and Ruan Lingyu got the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend Chongde Girls School at half price.

At the age of 16, Ruan be­came ac­quainted with Zhang Damin, the fourth son of the rich fam­ily Ruan’s mother worked for. The frag­ile girl was moved by Zhang Damin’s ar­dent pur­suit, but their re­la­tion­ship met in­tense op­po­si­tion from Zhang’s fam­ily. Ruan Lingyu and her mother were chased away from the Zhang res­i­dence and Zhang Damin se­cretly in­stalled the two help­less women in com­pounds in the Hongqing­fang neigh­bour­hood on North Sichuan Road. Not long af­ter that, Ruan Lingyu and Zhang Damin be­gan to live to­gether and at that time, Ruan left school for good.

How­ever, Zhang Damin was not the right guy for her, as he spent his days drink­ing and had to ask his fam­ily for money to sup­port his prof­li­gate life­style. Liv­ing such a life for a long time, Ruan Lingyu was driven to be independen­t and as­pired to find a job for the sake of her mother, as well as her own fu­ture.

A Silent Film God­dess

“Would you like to be an ac­tress?” asked Zhang Hui­chong, an elder brother of Zhang Damin. He was no or­di­nary per­son; Zhang was one of the founders of early Chi­nese films and played a key role in the world of Chi­nese film­mak­ing. It was his words that took Ruan Lingyu to the film in­dus­try and in­spired her to be­come an ac­tress.

In 1926, Ruan Lingyu was in­tro­duced to the Mingx­ing Film Com­pany by Zhang Hui­chong. She starred in a se­ries of films, such as Guam­ing fuqi (“a mar­ried cou­ple in name only”), Xuelei bei (“the tablet of blood and tears”), Luoyang qiao (“the Luoyang bridge”) and Baiyun ta (“white­cloud pagoda”), and be­came a mi­nor celebrity in the film in­dus­try.

At the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, the open busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment in

Shang­hai provided bet­ter soil for the de­vel­op­ment of Chi­nese films, mak­ing it the hub of Chi­nese cin­ema. At this stage, two broth­ers named Li Min­wei (1893– 1953) and Li Bei­hai (1889–1955), who started their film ca­reers in Hong Kong, brought China’s silent films into a golden era that lasted for 20 years.

Silent films are movies with no syn­chro­nised recorded sound. Apart from back­ground mu­sic, the silent films had no other sound. Al­though there were a few sub­ti­tles in­serted to help the au­di­ence un­der­stand the char­ac­ters, silent films re­quired more of ac­tors to con­vey the con­tent with ges­tures and ex­pres­sions.

“Gudu chun­meng (‘spring dream of an old cap­i­tal’) was the first film that I starred in when I joined the Lian­hua Film Com­pany. I have been in ten films now,” Ruan Lingyu ex­plained in an in­ter­view in 1933. She sug­gested that among the ten films, the one she sym­pa­thised with most was Love and Duty. Based on the novel of the same ti­tle by a Pol­ish woman who had mar­ried a Chi­nese man, the film starred the “screen cou­ple” of Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan (1910–1983) and also helped Ruan Lingyu find suc­cess as an ac­tress.

Where would she go in the film in­dus­try? When asked this ques­tion by the re­porter, Ruan Lingyu said bluntly, “Pro­fes­sion­als in­volved in film­mak­ing nowa­days do it to earn a liv­ing. No one talks about re­search­ing or study­ing this art. For ex­am­ple me, right now, I’m on my own and de­pend en­tirely on films to make a liv­ing.” Though there were many hard­ships, Ruan Lingyu worked very hard. The gor­geous lady cher­ished ev­ery per­for­mance, de­vot­ing her full-hearted en­thu­si­asm to each film and char­ac­ter.

From Ye­cao xi­an­hua (“wild flow­ers by the road”) to Xiao wanyi (“lit­tle toys”) and Nüshen (“the god­dess”), Ruan Lingyu played lead­ing roles such as a vil­lage woman, a dancer, an artist, a teacher and a writer in a se­ries of silent films. She suc­cess­fully cre­ated one im­age af­ter another of suf­fer­ing Chi­nese women, most of whom came from hum­ble back­grounds and lived mis­er­able lives, but still strug­gled to find their place in the world and re­mained kind and pure in dif­fi­cult times.

Nüshen, a 1934 silent film re­leased by the Lian­hua Film Com­pany, was one of her mas­ter­pieces, telling the tale of the mis­er­able life of a pros­ti­tute liv­ing at the bot­tom rungs of so­ci­ety. Di­rec­tor Wu Yong­gang (1907–1982) in­ter­preted ma­ter­nal love by the use of sim­ple shots and rich de­tails in his de­but work on the screen. In the film, Ruan Lingyu vividly por­trayed this com­plex char­ac­ter with her eyes, ex­pres­sions and body lan­guage. Was she a brave mother of no­ble char­ac­ter or a pros­ti­tute who was hum­ble and bore hu­mil­i­a­tion? Ruan Lingyu in­te­grated both im­ages into one with her ex­quis­ite act­ing skills, shock­ing the view­ers to the core. Her act­ing skills had reached the pin­na­cle of per­fec­tion.

A Fa­mous Ac­tress

On March 8, 1935, Ruan Lingyu swal­lowed three bot­tles of sleep­ing pills and ate a bowl of noo­dles, end­ing her young life in a dra­matic way.

Gos­sip is a fear­ful thing. For a long time, her sui­cide was at­trib­uted to the cru­elty of gos­sip. As the fa­mous writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) com­mented about Ruan Lianyu’s sui­cide in his es­say Lun renyan kewei (“on gos­sip be­ing a fear­ful thing”): “No mat­ter what a re­porter writes, it means noth­ing to a pow­er­ful per­son, be­cause one only needs to write a let­ter to the pub­lisher and de­mand a cor­rec­tion or apol­ogy. But Ruan Lingyu, a timid and frag­ile lady, had al­ready en­dured so much suf­fer­ing. This act of gos­sip was like an ex­tra layer of paint on her face that she could never get rid of.” Lu Xun used the im­age of face paint to ex­press the shame that Ruan felt af­ter this gos­sip came out. Chi­nese play­wright Cao Yu (1910–1996) sim­ply used a pen to cre­ate a clas­sic drama called Richu (“sun­rise”) to re­veal the dark­ness and ruth­less­ness of her world.

In her last let­ter to Zhang Damin, Ruan wrote: “You’ve al­ready forced me to com­mit sui­cide, but who will be­lieve me if I say this? Have you thought about the fact that I have been giv­ing you 100 yuan per month since we sep­a­rated? I’m not afraid of any ac­cu­sa­tion, but I bit­terly re­sent be­ing the vic­tim of your game. It’s too late! Had you not been ob­sessed with another woman, had you not beaten me that night and tonight, I per­haps would never do it! Af­ter I die, there will be talk that you are the

phi­lan­derer and I am a woman with­out a soul. But I will have gone. You will have to suf­fer through it your­self! Af­ter I die, I still hope you will take good care of my mother and my lit­tle girl. Please take good care of them be­cause you are the only man they can rely on.”

In another of her last let­ters, Ruan Lingyu de­plored and com­plained about her boyfriend Tang Jis­han, whom she was liv­ing with. He was a tea mer­chant and the ma­jor share­holder of the Lian­hua Film Com­pany. The in­sults at the be­gin­ning of their re­la­tion­ship por­tended the end. What peo­ple found even more tragic was that on Ruan’s deathbed, Tang Jis­han sent her to a pri­vate hos­pi­tal to pre­serve his own rep­u­ta­tion, thus de­lay­ing treat­ment. Her life thus with­ered away amidst pro­found sad­ness.

“I have been in this world for 25 years. When I look at my life, I have noth­ing to be ashamed of. I should be the plain­tiff. I am the plain­tiff. Dear all, the Ah Ruan you love is gone. In the end­less years from now on, I will sleep in rolls of film and lie in a cold box. If I can reap­pear on the screen, my smil­ing eyes and sweet smile will al­ways be my best wishes for you.” In­deed, she did sleep in rolls of film and lie in a cold box. On the dra­matic stage, Ruan Lingyu bade farewell to her au­di­ence with this tragic mono­logue.

Life, ca­reer and love, three in­dis­pen­si­ble as­pects of any cre­ative work, ap­peared in Liu Jinyun’s screen­play Ruan Lingyu, as well as on the dra­matic stage. In fact, Liu Jinyun not only por­trayed the leg­endary life of Ruan Lingyu and her three in­ter­twined and mys­te­ri­ous re­la­tion­ships, but also in­te­grated his own re­spect for the artist and his own think­ing into the drama.

“She once had small­pox. If the dis­ease had left her with a pock­marked face, she would per­haps have en­joyed a long life of peace and com­fort. But it never hap­pened.” Th­ese heart-wrench­ing lines were spo­ken by a drama mas­ter named Mu Tian­pei, who was Ruan’s teacher, as he stood on the stage with Ruan’s adopted daugh­ter, Lit­tle Yu, to one side. The girl felt bit­terly puz­zled, won­der­ing why her mother ended her life in that way and if this is what the world was re­ally like.

On the stage, Liu Jinyun com­bined cruel re­al­ity with glo­ri­ous ideals to form a new im­age of Ruan Lingyu. The drama­tist used Ruan’s bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ences to ex­press his in­ner call­ing for artists of virtue and tal­ent, and the ex­pec­ta­tion of a fair cin­e­matic en­vi­ron­ment. “Drama is al­ways a search for mean­ing and a way that makes mean­ing be­come mean­ing­ful to oth­ers,” said Liu. His ideal was achieved by pre­sent­ing this vivid work of art on the dra­matic stage. It is no won­der his 1994 play Ruan Lingyu was so well re­ceived and won the “Best Works Award” two years later. Liu Jinyun ad­mit­ted that he felt sur­prised at first, be­cause the play “doesn’t re­flect the is­sues of mod­ern-day so­ci­ety.” Later, how­ever, he learned that the rea­son for the prize was that the work does truth­fully re­flect so­cial re­al­ity, as the theme is en­dur­ing and pos­i­tive.

An Iron Plum Blos­som

The en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try is like a big vat of dye. If you are an in­no­cent plum blos­som, you will be dyed; but if you are a piece of iron, you will come out with­out any change. But Ruan Lingyu wanted to be both, an iron plum blos­som.

Blos­som Prize for her suc­cess­ful por­trayal of char­ac­ter Ruan Lingyu in the play Ruan Lingyu. This hon­our was of spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance for the new ac­tress. her per­for­mance even re­ceived praise from the fa­mous per­form­ing artist Yu Shizhi (1927–2013), who said that Xu took the au­di­ence into the life of Ruan Lingyu. Liu’s stage play Ruan Lingyu, di­rected by Lin Zhao­hua and Ren Ming, made its de­but in 1994 and left a glam­orous fe­male im­age on the stage of the Beijing Peo­ple’s Art Theatre. “Ev­ery small move­ment was care­fully de­signed and ex­pressed it­self in an ‘ef­fort­less’ way,” Liu Jinyun stated.

Xu Fan once said: “I later learned that di­rec­tor Lin Zhao­hua and Liu Jinyun did not come up with the idea of pro­duc­ing a stage play un­til they watched the film. I found Ruan Lingyu in the film in­de­scrib­ably charm­ing. I had not seen such a charm­ing lady on the stage for many years. It was her charm­ing char­ac­ter that ap­pealed to me. The hero­ines in most plays are like the Iron Man, de­void of charm­ing fea­tures.”

The film Xu Fan men­tioned was the 1992 film Ruan Lingyu, di­rected by Stan­ley Kwan and star­ring Mag­gie Che­ung. When asked about the per­sonal char­ac­ter of Ruan Lingyu, Mag­gie Che­ung replied, “Ruan Lingyu had an in­de­scrib­able charm in her bones.”

In 2013, the play Ruan Lingyu was re­made by the Beijing Peo­ple’s Art Theatre, still star­ring Xu Fan in the role of Ruan Lingyu, 19 years af­ter the birth of the 1994 ver­sion. “I never ex­pected the play to be re­made. With my own life ex­pe­ri­ences, I feel dif­fer­ent this time. At Ruan’s age, I had not reached the place she was in or taken up fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. I was still young. But now, ev­ery­thing is per­fect ex­cept for my age. For­tu­nately, the stage play is not too de­mand­ing in terms of age.” Xu Fan thus re­sumed her pre­des­tined re­la­tion­ship with Ruan Lingyu.”

Look­ing back at her per­for­mances in those days, Xu Fan said: “I was too eager and per­formed too much. I was still young at that time. Since Ruan had al­most all she de­sired, I couldn’t fig­ure out why she com­mit­ted sui­cide. So I played the role dra­mat­i­cally with a crit­i­cal at­ti­tude.” As for the re­make, Xu re­quired her­self to be “mild rather than dra­matic.” She added, “I have a new un­der­stand­ing of the char­ac­ter af­ter 19 years, and I hope it is kind of a sub­tle feel­ing, leav­ing more space for the au­di­ence.”

In ad­di­tion to the great per­for­mances by ac­tors, Ruan Lingyun was bold and di­verse in its struc­ture and ex­pres­sion. It broke the tra­di­tional lim­its of time and space, nar­rat­ing the story and por­tray­ing char­ac­ters in a con­ver­sa­tional style and in flash­backs. This kind of skill al­lowed the play to jump be­tween scenes, cre­at­ing a mon­tage ef­fect. The en­tire stage was de­signed like a film stu­dio and the scenes al­ter­nated with the chang­ing of time and space. Fea­tur­ing re­al­ity in­ter­wo­ven with fan­tasy, the au­di­ence mem­bers felt as if they were in a ro­man­tic but mourn­ful dream.

From be­ing the gos­sip celebrity on ev­ery­one’s lips to the sym­bol and tes­ti­mony of the silent film era in China, the fa­mous Ruan Lingyu brought mean­ing to oth­ers through her work and her life.

In the drama Ruan­lingyu from 2013, Ruan Lingyu and Tang Wen­shan played by Xu Fan and Pu Cunxin

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