Profiles: Ruan Lingyu

Ruan Lingyu

Ruan Lingyu

Short Bio
Considered one of the finest, most talented, and most beautiful actresses in China during the silent era, Ruan Lingyu made 29 films that we know of today, though only 8 are still extant. Her career spanned less than 10 years, yet she is still consider the icon of Chinese silent cinema. Often the heroine–playing strong, independent and modern women–,her life story is just as tragic as her most memorable roles. Constantly hounded by the press and with her private life in ruin, she committed suicide on March 8, 1935 at the mere age of 24. Literally hundreds of thousands of people mourned at her wake, with a funeral procession 5 kilometers long.

Stanley Kwan directed a film tribute to her, Yuen Ling-yuk / Center Stage, starring Maggie Cheung as Lingyu.

Ruan Lingyu

Ruan Lingyu

Selected Filmography

Bu Wancang – Yi jian mei / A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931) as Hu Zhuli (Julia)
Jin Yan stars as Hu Luting, a military academy graduate now under General Shi’s command. His academy friend, Bai Lede, stays in Shanghai and falls in love with Luting’s sister Zhuli, played by Lingyu. Lede promises to marry her, but soon leaves to visit Luting, who has in turn fallen in love with Shi’s daughter. Lede meets the damsel, and instantly forgets about the fiance he left behind. The love triangle further complicates itself when Zhuli decides to follow her man, only to discover his unfaithfulness.

Bu Wancang – Yao hua qi xue ji / The Peach Girl (1931) as Miss Lim
The Peach Girl again pairs up Lingyu, as a poor servant girl, with Jin Yan (also a silent film superstar), as a rich landlord’s son, this time in a love story that also acts as a criticism against social discrimination and feudalism. The pairing of Lingyu and Jin Yan feels natural, not only because of their equal stardom, but also because of their resonant performances. Yes, the message is strong and powerful, but Bu’s political statements would mean nothing if not for the pair. Why the two were not paired up more often is beyond me.

Sun Yu – Xiao wanyi / Small Toys (1933) as Sister Ye
Set during Depression-Era China and the Sino-Japanese War, Small Toys follows Lingyu as Ye, a wife and mother of two who is famous for her ability to create childrens’ toys which her husband sells in the city. The war extends right into their backyard, and, struggling with poverty and a life already difficult by any standard, Ye and her family face many tragedies. Ye eventually winds up in the city, still making her toys. But in a modern world, few are still interested in her creations.

Impressive war sequences and montages. Weird though, that Lingyu plays Li Lili’s mother, despite being only 5 years her senior.

Wu Yonggang – Shen nu / The Goddess (1934) as The Goddess
Likely Lingyu’s best film and finest performance. It is impossible not to be dismayed by the loss of this actress at such a young age after seeing this movie. You should also read this review.

Cai Chusheng – Xin nü xing / New Woman (1934)
Lingyu plays a nameless woman who works as a music teacher at a small school. Her true passion, however, is writing, and she sends a manuscript of her novel to a publisher. In a world where men rule, and women are seen as fit only for the home, Lingyu’s character faces many obstacles on her way to success, which include more than a couple dirty propositions and fabricated scandals. Yet she perseveres and fights for her future, hoping to gain independence from men and from a society that undermines women.

What is most remarkable, or creepy, about this film, is not Lingyu’s steadfast and emotional portrayal of her character–the quintessential modern woman Lingyu often plays–but rather, how the film’s events (at the end) are so similar to Lingyu’s own fate. Watching the movie unfold knowing Lingyu’s own life gives the film an even more tragic feel.

Zhu Shilin – Guo feng / National Pride (1935) as Zhang Lan
Lingyu plays a more traditional woman in this film, but retains many of the characteristics of her other roles. As the older sister of a pair of siblings studying in Shanghai, Lingyu plays the voice or reason and good sense, warning her sister of the hazards of modern life and the pitfalls of succumbing to its materialism. Though the film falls into didacticism (even resorting to a lecture from the intertitles), this is Lingyu’s last role, released a year after her death, and deserves to be seen.

Ruan Lingyu

A scene with her son in The Goddess