It’s been 82 years since Ruan Lingyu took her own life but the legend of the silent screen goddess lives on. Despite the fact that many of her films were either lost or incomplete, Ruan’s surviving realist dramas, set against the backdrop of the golden age of China’s pre-war era, capture her legendary mystique, which was forever enshrined with her mysterious suicide at age 24.

Some of her films are considered among the finest of early Chinese cinema

That mystique was the focus of the 1992 biopic Centre Stage by Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan. Starring Maggie Cheung as Ruan, the film re-introduced the charismatic on-screen presence and tragic off-screen life of the 1930s star to a new generation. Throughout her nine-year career, Ruan made 29 films. Some of these titles, such as A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931), Little Toys (1933), The Goddess (1934) and New Women (1935), are regarded as among the finest films of early Chinese cinema. Her roles represented a new generation of Chinese women liberated from dynastic rule but still struggling to find their place in the republican era.

Besides Ruan’s natural acting talent, perhaps the fact that she was one of these new women gave her the emotional depth required to portray these conflicting characters on the big screen.

A star is born

Born Ruan Fenggen in Shanghai in 1910 to a working class family, the actress experienced tragedies from a young age. It was a turbulent time in China as the Qing dynasty that had ruled the country for more than 250 years exhausted itself from fending off foreign invasions and internal rebellions. A year after Ruan was born, the dynasty was overthrown in the 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, and the Republic of China was founded on the Three Principles of People, Sun’s philosophy that aimed to lead China into a new era, free and prosperous under the influence of Western democracy and modernity.

Growing up during this dramatic transition from old to new, Ruan lost her father, an unskilled labourer working for the British-owned Asiatic Petroleum Company, when she was six. She was left with her mother, who worked as a housemaid for the rich Zhang family to support themselves. Ruan had a lonely childhood, isolated from her surroundings while witnessing her mother’s sufferings as a servant for the upper class.

Shanghai in those days was growing into a metropolis. Part of the coastal city was the French Concession until 1943, and during that time Western influence played a huge part in city life. Education was seen as a ticket out, and Ruan’s mother sent her to school, but she warned her daughter not to reveal her background to anyone, afraid that her daughter would be bullied because she worked as a housemaid, a job that was looked down on by society.

This rough upbringing, combined with a modern education, laid the foundation for Ruan’s future acting career. Desperate to make a living, as a 15-year-old she answered an ad and applied to Mingxing Film Company to become an actress. A year later, she made her first film – A Married Couple in Name Only(1927) – adopting Ruan Lingyu as her stage name. The film’s director Bu Wancang was impressed by her elegance and natural talent for conveying complex emotions on screen – this was still the silent era and revealing deep feeling without dialogue was a valued skill.

Three years later, Ruan signed up with the Lianhua Film Company, also known as the United Photoplay Service. But while sound film was taking Western cinema by storm in the early 1930s, the technology had yet to reach China. Silent film was still the only artform and that allowed Ruan, master of the stunning close-up and the nuanced gesture, to shoot to stardom in the 1930s – as Greta Garbo had in Hollywood the previous decade.

Flower of Shanghai

During her years with the United Photoplay Service, Ruan collaborated with some of the top directors of the time, including Fei Mu, Sun Yu and Cai Chusheng. On screen, the actress captivated the hearts of many with her effervescent charisma. She also displayed her versatility, as she took on challenges to play a varied range of roles, making her one of the most bankable actresses at the time.

Bu’s A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931), adapted from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, was a rare showcase of the actress’ comedic talent. In the heart-wrenching drama Little Toys (1933) directed by Sun Yu, Ruan played the role of a village woman and toymaker who lost her family to the cruelty of war. In Zhu Shilin’s drama Homecoming (1934), Ruan portrayed a woman of dignity as she finds out her husband, thinking that she has died, has married another woman overseas.

The Goddess (1934) is widely regarded as one of Ruan’s finest works. In the film directed by Wu Yonggang, Ruan emanated her charm in the complex role of a single mother who has to work as a prostitute in order to support her child. Perhaps her stunning performance owed to a storyline that was a reminiscent of her own childhood, so she could relate her role with her own mother’s sufferings.

New Women (1935) remains one of the most discussed of Ruan’s films today, as it eerily resembled her off-screen life and her struggle with being the target of gossip. Based on the life of Ai Xia, an actress who committed suicide in 1934, this film directed by Cai Chusheng follows the journey of a school teacher and author portrayed by Ruan who eventually takes her own life in the wake of the death of her little daughter and torture by a cruel wealthy man, who publicly shamed her by giving a story to the press. It was said that after filming the last scene in the deathbed of her character, Ruan remained emotionally tense and Cai kept her company until she calmed down.

In real life, Ruan was torn between two men – her puppy love Zhang Damin, the fourth son of the family her mother served as a housemaid, and tycoon Tang Jishan. Zhang was an avid gambler whom Ruan left for Tang, a notorious womaniser. Zhang first filed a lawsuit in 1934, claiming Ruan as his wife and accusing her of stealing. The following year he went to court again accusing Ruan of adultery with Tang. By that time, though Tang was living with Ruan, he had embarked on an affair with the actress Liang Saizhen.

Ruan’s private life proved to be even more of an attraction to the public than her films. The court cases made news headlines, with many column inches given over to sensationalised accounts. On 8 March 1935, Ruan committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills – the same way her character in New Women takes her own life. In a suicide note released to the public at the time, Ruan left the words “gossip is a fearful thing”.

Tens of thousands bid farewell to the silent screen goddess at her funeral, which was dubbed “the most spectacular funeral of the century” by The New York Times. Film historian Mark Cousins wrote in Prospect that the procession through Shanghai was three miles (4.8 km) long, and during the march three other women committed suicide, so overcome were they by their grief for Ruan. The funeral was far beyond even that for Rudolph Valentino, the Hollywood silent film star whose death in 1926 only heightened his romantic appeal.

But in 2001, two other versions of Ruan’s suicide note surfaced. In one of the notes, the late actress blamed the womaniser tycoon Tang for mistreating her and breaking her heart, while accusing Zhang of his malicious act in shaming her publicly. There was great public speculation about which of these notes most got to the heart of ‘why she did it’ – in part because of the phenomenal success of Centre Stage and Maggie Cheung’s portrayal of Ruan. Cheung won the best actress prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1992 for her performance in Centre Stage, which the US film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum named as the best film of the 1990s.

A couple of years later, in 1994, a stage drama about Ruan’s life was performed in Beijing – it was revived for another run in 2013. And the actress Jacklyn Wu Chien-lien would go on to portray Ruan in a Chinese TV series about her life that spanned 30 episodes.

The true cause for Ruan’s suicide remains a mystery. But regardless of the reasons for her untimely death, Ruan accomplished a great deal in her short life as the brightest star of early Chinese cinema. And with her education, modern style and portrayal of independent women onscreen – even if those women could sometimes be subject to abuse by men, as she was herself – she became an icon of China’s republican era, sealing her status as an immortal goddess in the hearts of modern day film buffs.

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