Ruan Lingyu’s life was the topic of many books, films, TV series in China and Hong Kong. It is difficult, however, to distinguish between facts and myth. Few sources are still available from the time she was alive and most of the documents we have are second hands material that may not be entirely reliable. This biography is a very simple biography based on the few facts we are sure of. The topic of our project was not to examine Ruan Lingyu’s real life. For those interested to know more about the actress, please check the bibliography.
Birth & education
Ruan Lingyu was born Ruan Fenggen in Shanghai on April 26, 1910, in the southern part of the Hongkou district. Her family was from Cantonese origins, the father was a worker at the Asia oil factory, a company implanted in Pudong. The family was very modest, the living conditions difficult. Ruan Fenggen caught a typhoid fever when she was a baby and her older sister died in 1911, age three. Few years later, in 1915, Ruan Fenggen’s father died of tuberculosis, leaving behind him the mother and child alone.
The mother had to work to survive and this is how she became a servant in a well-to-do Cantonese family, the Zhang. For a while, both the mother and the daughter lived at the Zhang’s mansion, Ruan Fenggen helping her mother in her daily task. However, in 1918, Ruan’s mother, He Aying, probably eager to give her daughter a better future, was able to send her in a private school, the Chongde girl’s school (Can: Shung Tak Girls High School). It was a missionary school founded by Cantonese rich families. Ruan Fenggen discovered there an entirely new world. The school was probably providing both traditional and western education. Sports, dance and performance were part of the training. To hide her modest origins, she changed her name, and was then known as Ruan Yuying. At the Chongde school, she became good friend with two girls from good literati background Tan Ruizhen and Liang Biru. Ruan Lingyu studied at the Chongde School for eight years and she was closed to graduation when she suddenly left school for good in 1926 and started her career as an actress. What happened is not certain. From what can be gathered, she met around that time one of the son of the Zhang’s, Zhang Damin. Then, her mother was chased away from the Zhang’s and Damin installed the two women in a home and started to live with them, as if he and Ruan were married. Did he rape her, like some later revealed, forcing Ruan and her mother into an unwanted relationship? Did the young master only take advantage of Ruan’s naivety? Did this young man from a well-to-do background attract her? Whatever happened, the two lived more or less together, with Ruan’s mother, between 1926 and 1933 but never got married.
The young girl started her movie career and took the name of Ruan Lingyu that same year, in 1926. It is said that she read an advertisement in a Shanghai newspaper from Mingxing Film Company: the company was looking for good-looking girls for there next production, Couple in Name (Guaming fuqi). Ruan Lingyu was hired with a 40$/month salary and she stayed at Mingxing two years, staging in a total of five films (see Ruan Lingyu filmography). In 1928, she went to the Da Zhonghua-Baihe Company. It was right at the time were martial art films were booming in Shanghai and Ruan Lingyu performed in few of them. But she was not yet a big star. Her private life was difficult. She even tried to commit suicide a first time by the end of 1928. Zhang Damin was mistreating her. He was a gambler who would take all the money to go out gambling. Unable to keep a job, he was a dead weight on Ruan Lingyu’s shoulders. The young woman tried however to make the best out of it. She adopted a little girl, Little Jade (Xiaoyu) and, around the same time, her movie career took a new turn.
By the end of 1929, Ruan Lingyu accepted to perform in a movie produced by a new company, the Huabei. The director was Sun Yu, the producers were Huabei’s boss, Luo Mingyou, and one of his colleague and friend, the film director Li Minwei, owner of the Minxin Film Company. The team went to Beijing for three months, at the coldest moment of the year, between January and March 1930. Then they all relocated to Shanghai. Finally, by the summer, the movie Spring Dream in an Old Capital (Gudu chunmeng) was released in Nanjing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and later Beijing. The film was a success. Even more, the company was aiming to become to become one of the main film companies in China. The name of Huabei was changed into Lianhua Film Company. The company needed its own stars. This was a chance for Ruan Lingyu who suddenly became the leading actress of the company. She performed in the three first films of the company, in 1930; she has the leading role again in four films in 1931. From that moment on, she became the main actress of the Company and one of Shanghai’s movie star. As her career developed, her talent flourished. She played mainly in melodramas, but after 1932, with the development of leftists, socially oriented films, she also performed in some of these productions, such as Three Modern Woman by Bu Wancang. As she was considered to be the guarantee of a success for Lianhua, the Company put her in lots of films and Ruan Lingyu professional life was very busy.
However, the young woman private life was less and less happy. In 1933, Ruan Lingyu decides to break up with Zhang Damin and she asks a lawyer to prepare a secret contract. It stipulated that Ruan Lingyu agreed to pay $100/month during two years to Zhang Damin, “in memory of the past”. Her freedom had a heavy price.
This could have been the end of a miserable moment in her life, had she not met the Cantonese tea merchant Tang Jishan. Tang was found of movie actresses. He was just ending a relationship with a famous film star of the 1920’s, Zhang Zhiyun, when he met Ruan Lingyu. By May 1934, Ruan, her mother and daughter, moved with Tang Jishan in a new mansion, in the French Settlment, at Qinyuan cun. The year 1934, the last year of Ruan Lingyu’s life, was very intense. She performed in some of her most successful films: The Goddess (Shennü), by Wu Yonggang, New Women (Xin Nüxing), by Cai Chusheng. One can see, by watching these movies, how Ruan Lingyu’s talent had blossomed. But the young woman, entirely committed into her work – she was on set without any interruption during nine months – was more and more vulnerable in her private life. And just at that time, a media scandal hit her.
Zhang Damin, despite the secret agreement, kept harassing the actress and Tang Jishan, on the other hand, was more and more displeased with this bothersome ex-lover. When Zhang accused Ruan Lingyu of having stolen him some belongings, Tang sued him but lost the trial. Zhang turned again to Ruan to ask her more money: he wanted her to pay him the $500 left and an extra of $50 monthly. To push her to accept, and also to make some money, he sold to the newspaper the story of his life with Ruan Lingyu. The trio – Ruan, Tang and Zhang – became the focus of the medias. This happened just when the movie New Women was out and the journalists, unhappy about the image of their corporation given in the film, were happy enough to find a weak target to attack Lianhua Company through its main actress. Ruan Lingyu was criticized for her private life; her behavior was described as damageable to the society. Ruan Lingyu tried to give her version of the story in an interview. Things became even worst when Zhang attacked Ruan and Tang, charging them with the crime of adultery.
The trial was supposed to start March 9, 1935. It was a highly mediatic event, two days before the trial, there were already people waiting in front of the Court to be able to get in. At that time, Ruan Lingyu was working in the filming of Guofeng (Soul of China). Her relationship with Tang was stormy, as she had learnt that Tang was married and was probably having an affair with another woman. She was sick of the media rumors. During the night before the trial, March 8, the young woman took three bottles of sleeping pills (barbisodium sorbital). She died the next day in the hospital, at 6.30pm, on Woman’s day.
The death of Ruan Lingyu’s was a commotion. It is said that 25000 people paid a last respect to her corpse at the Funeral House, while there may have been over 100 000 people at her funeral, on March 14. Soon after she died, the newspapers were full of rumors and stories. Two letters by the actress published in the newspapers, accusing Zhang Damin for her death, were soon considered fakes written by Tang Jishan. Two others letters written by the actress were soon found, they accused Tang Jishan of being partly responsible of Ruan Lingyu’s suicide. The story of the actress and her lovers became the theme of stage play and songs. Few months after her death, she had already become a myth.
Last update Wednesday 27 May 2015 by G. Foliot