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In this essay, I will try to describe the picture persona of Ruan Lingyu, during her carrer at Lianhua.

Ruan Lingyu’s suicide became a topic of debates in the press soon after she died. Journalists accused the backwardness of the society. The rumors against Ruan Lingyu in the media were, as Lu Xun himself put it, maybe even more to blame. We can also investigate the professional career of Ruan Lingyu in a period of development of the star system in Shanghai. Explanation can be numerous and the goal here is not to explore all of them. I will take into account one hypothesis: what makes a movie star is a particular, ambiguous connection between her real identity and her picture persona. When a star commits suicide, one can ask: Who kills whom? Did the star Ruan Lingyu kill the woman? Did the movie persona kill the real person? The star, the movie persona is built up through images, and to explore these questions, I suggest we turn to the images.

Let’s first look at the way the Lianhua film company built a movie persona for Ruan Lingyu. Only nine out of the eighteen films produced by Lianhua with Ruan Lingyu have survived. I based my analysis on these but I also used the scripts and images of films not extant anymore (see Ruan Lingyu’s filmography). In analyzing and watching films and film scripts, I tried to highlight some recurrent aspects of her characters, which is what I call her “movie persona”. In general, Ruan’s persona is not a “type” character (young or old woman, poor or rich, etc.), it is rather a « fate persona »: whatever her social background or her age, the persona encounters tragedy in her life. The tragic dimension of the persona is dominant. Cinematographically, Ruan Lingyu is the heir of melodramas actresses like Lilian Gish. She express through all her body the sorrow, pain, grief provoked by life.

movie persona. These are all exposed in film clips on the Common People website. Three aspects of this tragic persona are recurrent.

1. The Mother

See Video playlist: The Loving Mother and The Tragic Mother

Ruan Lingyu’s persona is that of a loving mother but who always lose her children, whether they died or they get separated.

Motherhood then is the solitude of a woman who rises up her child alone. It is, first and foremost the pain of being separated from your flesh and blood.

2. A Woman object of gaze and desire

see Video playlist : Gaze and Commodification

Men like to look at her. But what is, in the first films, a gaze of admiration or desire changes. With films and time, the sordid aspect of this gaze will become more visible. The woman becomes a commodity, a prey for men: the gaze causes tragedies: exploitation, treachery, rape. This is true in many Chinese films from that period but in Ruan Lingyu’s film it is absolutely recurrent. Her characters encounter in the films situations she may have herself encountered: a poor woman is seduced by a well to do young man but his parents reject her; a woman has to work hard to bring money to a lazy, exploitative man.

3. Paroxystic moment:

See Visual playlist : Paroxysm

In every films that remain of Ruan Lingyu, tragedy of life leads to one or several moment of extreme violence that are expressed through the body language. This violence is most of the time directed by her against herself, as if she was the only recipient of the social violence that she endures. Even when she kills her pimp in The Goddess, it is clear, from the captions, that she knows she is condemning herself. There is definitely a paroxystic dimension in Ruan Lingyu’s movie persona that will unfortunately be also part of her real life.

These three dimensions provide a very coherent picture persona: that of a lonely mother, exploited by men, doomed to a tragic fate. One can recognize, again, the melodramatic bias, as Ruan Lingyu started her career at a time where melodramas where very successful. But while younger actresses, at Lianhua, developed different type of movie persona (see Visual Itinerary on Chen Yanyan, Li Lili and Wang Renmei), Ruan Lingyu’s persona was set for good as the tragic persona.
One aspect of Ruan Lingyu’s persona, which is really fascinating, is how images seemed to be both imaginary constructions and also replay of her real life. This goes as far as how she died on screen, literally, the same way she will die few months later, in the movie New Woman. Of course, this also tells us something about the fate and status of women in Shanghai as Ruan Lingyu’s story is unfortunately not uncommon. But I wonder if her suicide did not also raised in the spectator’s mind the belief that movie images had become part of the real world and could have, like magical tools, efficiency on the real world.

Last update Wednesday 27 May 2015 by G. Foliot