Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Ruan Lingyu: Star of Chinese Cinema
Cristina Colet

Last modified: 2010-04-19


On March 8, 1935, the Chinese silent cinema diva Ruan Lingyu died at the age of 25. During her short career she played many roles: peasant, mother, wife, modern girl, factory worker, and many others. The theme of these roles is sacrifice and connected her to the women of her time.

To be an actress in China during the 1920s was difficult.  Acting was not considered a prestigious job and an imperial law (1772) forbade to women to practice it. A second-generation actress, Ruan Lingyu had natural talent but no formal training.  While she displayed pathos when acting, her sober style and restrained movements highlighted the trials faced by Chinese women.  Yingjin Zhang asserts (1996) that there were four types of women portrayed in cinema at that time.  The first was the woman who embodied Confucian virtues and was xianqi liangmu, a devoted wife and loving mother.  The second type was the woman who dreamed, whose thoughts were ruled by love and sensuality.  The third type was the woman who wanted emancipation.  She followed fashion, wanted to become a movie star, and was interested in self-fulfillment; she was modeng nüxing.  The final type was the woman who was politically committed and fought for her country, modeng gou’ er.  During her career Ruan Lingyu was a loving mother (in Shennü, 1934) who sacrificed herself to allow her child to have a better future.  She also was a modeng nüxing modeng gou’ er, who was entrapped between her bourgeois condition and the national cause (in Xinnüxing, 1934)  She was a chivalrous heroine (in nüxia genre, 1929) and a devoted wife who sacrificed herself for family (Xiang xue hai, 1934, Lianai yu yiwu, 1931).  The movie Xin nüxing was criticized by the media and by the KMT (the government).  A scandal was created, which remains today, involving Ruan Lingyu.  She was accused by her first common-law husband of bigamy.  Lingyu was arraigned, but she didn’t bear witness in trial, because she attempted suicide on March 7 and died on March 8, 1935. The press that had earlier depicted her as a dangerous woman, after her death dedicated many articles to her private life and crowned her queen of melodrama. During her last performance, her funeral, 300,000 people flocked into the streets of Shanghai to pay their last respects.  Her funeral was compared to Valentino’s funeral. Her last words to the world were, “Ren yan ke wei,” gossip is fearful.

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