The leading ladies of old Shanghai

By Zjang Kun in Shanghai ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-04-09 07:27:32

Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935)

One of the most famous Chinese stars of silent movies in the 1930s, Ruan is often compared to the legendary American actress Marilyn Monroe, not simply because of her seductive curves and coquettish manners, but because she too took her own life, and at a very young age of just 24.

Ruan was not considered to be the typical "pretty face" actress unlike many of her industry peers but she was a highly versatile one who had taken on myriad roles throughout her very short but illustrious career.

She started her career playing the roles of destitute women and prostitutes before moving on to depict strong-willed and rebellious characters who all had one thing in common - the ability to show compassion in the face of persecution and misfortune. Because of this, film critics often said that she had a disposition for "suppressed sadness". In her nine years of acting, she had starred in 29 films, and this feat cemented her place among the silver screen legends in the early 20th century.

Born to a father who died during her childhood and a mother who worked as a maid, Ruan's foray into the entertainment business started early at the age of 16. One of the main reasons for this was that she needed a job to support herself and her mother.

Zhang Damin, the youngest son in a wealthy family - the one which Ruan's mother worked at - fell in love with Ruan during this time and it was his brother who kickstarted her acting career after introducing her to a film studio.

Zhang, a hardcore gambler, was later disowned by his family and relied on the budding actress to pay off his debts. Ruan eventually left him for a successful businessman named Tang Jishan, who bought a three-storey house so that they could live together. Their old residence is still standing at No 9, Lane 1124 Xinzha Road in Jing'an district.

Driven by jealousy and bitterness, Zhang harassed Ruan and threatened to blackmail his former lover, saying that he would claim she was his concubine. Zhang even filed a lawsuit to demand reparation from her. The media caught wind of Zhang's antics and Ruan soon became the first celebrity in modern China to suffer from bad press.

On the eve of International Women's Day on 1935, Ruan succumbed to the pressure and scrutiny of the public and the media, and decided to take her own life by consuming barbiturates. She left behind a suicide note that said, "Gossip is a fearful thing."

The people of Shanghai were overwhelmed by grief over her sudden demise and hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the roads during the funeral procession. Lu Xun, one of modern China's greatest authors, wrote an essay that blamed the media for being responsible for Ruan's death.

In 1992, Stanley Kwan, a Hong Kong director, made a movie titled Center Stage about Ruan. Famous Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung played the role of the Chinese thespian and Cheung's performance won her the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

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