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Death of a Woman, Birth of a Movie Star - Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935)

Ruan_Lingyu_smallThis presentation is based on a seminar given in  Heidelberg, at the Sinologische Institut, between October 2009 and January 2010. It also serves as a support for a presentation given at the "Visualizing Global Asia at the Turn of the 20th Century" MIT conference in April 2010. In this presentation, I will present the challenges faced while teaching the seminar as well as the first result of the study.

The course was both a methodological experimentation and a case study. Methodologically it was an attempt to propose a historical narrative based on images, whether animated or not. I applied in a teaching environment the ideas that guided the project of Common People and Artist, meaning that I built my narrative on images that will serve not as mere illustration but as the source, as well as the object, of my discourse. The challenge is to find ways to work as historian with images, ie to work with them as archival material (with all the issues raised by their usage) but also to consider them as a complex social construction that calls for an understanding of their production context as well as their circulation and viewing context. The other challenge is to produce a historical narrative where images can find a place of their own: how, if images are a part of a narrative do they have to be introduced, used and shown?

I examine and test my hypothesis through a case study that allows me to use images - photography and films. The case study is that of Ruan Lingyu's movie career and tragic suicide. I examine Ruan Lingyu's life and career through the prism of images; further, I try to establish the critical role played by the media, and mainly visual media, in her death as well as in her raise to stardom: my hypothesis is that the media contributed to build a visual persona that took over Ruan Lingyu's "real" identity and, in some way, lead her to commit suicide. The main sources used are Lianhua's featured films and Lianhua's magazine (Lianhua Huabao); other movie pictorials and magazines and entertainment magazines like Ling Long and Liangyou are also be used. I present here four essays that summarize the seminar. All the essays come with a visual narrative of photos and film clips that can be looked at together or separately from the written text.

Born in 1910, Ruan Lingyu became a famous movie actress, if not a star in the early 1930's, when she entered the Lianhua Film Company, one of the three major film companies of the 1930's Shanghai. She is associated to some of the biggest successes of the time as she played in movies like Memory of the old capital (Gudu chunmeng), Three Modern Women (San ge modeng nüxing), The Goddess (Shennü), New Women (Xin Nüxing) (see Essay One for a longer biography).

The Lianhua Film Company built, through her roles and media exposure, a real "picture persona" that I will study by analyzing photos, articles and movies with the actress (see Essay Two: The Picture Persona).

Ruan Lingyu's private life, however, despite her success was not a happy one. Her social status was ambiguous, as well as her status as a modern woman. In a second part, I examine images of Ruan Lingyu that circulated at the time. The purpose here is to understand how the woman was seen, described by the media and how these images had an impact on the public persona she became - in the eyes of others but maybe also in her own (Essay Three: the construction of a media persona).

In a third phase, I study Ruan Lingyu's suicide. The purpose is not to give an explanation of the act itself, but to show how in some ways the one who killed herself was more the picture or the public personality than the woman Ruan Lingyu. I show for instance how suicide occurs in many movies she played (the most emblematic one being New Woman made in 1934 few months before her death). I also study the media staging of her suicide and funeral that became a national event that definitely established Ruan Lingyu's fame as a movie star, which she still is today. Hence, my last question might be whether Ruan Lingyu had to be "cinematographically murdered" in order to become a movie star? (Essay Four: the last performance).



Last update Wednesday 9 June 2010 by G. Foliot