A Farewell to a Great Actress
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