Ruan Lingyu

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Ruan Lingyu
Ruan Lingyu.png
Ruan in 1935
Ruan Fenggen (阮鳳根)

(1910-04-26)April 26, 1910
Shanghai, China
DiedMarch 8, 1935(1935-03-08) (aged 24)
Shanghai, China
Cause of deathSuicide by barbiturate overdose
Other namesLily Yuen
Years active1927–1935

Ruan Lingyu (born Ruan Fenggen; April 26, 1910 – March 8, 1935), also known by her English name Lily Yuen, was a Chinese silent film actress. One of the most prominent Chinese film stars of the 1930s, her exceptional acting ability and suicide at the age of 24 led her to become an icon of Chinese cinema.

Early life[edit]

Ruan was born to a working class family in Shanghai, and her ancestral home is in Xiangshan, Guangdong.[1] Her father died when she was young, and her mother brought her up working as a housemaid.


Early career[edit]

20-year-old Ruan Lingyu in Love and Duty

In 1926, to help make ends meet, Ruan signed up for the prominent Mingxing Film Company. She made her first film at the age of 16. The film, A Married Couple in Name Only (掛名的夫妻/挂名的夫妻), was directed by Bu Wancang.[2]

Two years later, she was signed by Da Zhonghua Baihe Company (大中華百合公司/大中华百合公司), where she shot six films.[3] Her first big break came in Spring Dream of an Old Capital (故都春夢 or Reminiscences of Beijing, 1930), which was a massive hit in China. It was Ruan's first major work after signing with the newly formed Lianhua Studio in 1930. In it, she played a prostitute by the name of Yanyan.

Ruan Lingyu

Breakthrough and important films[edit]

Thereafter, Ruan became Lianhua's major film star. Her most memorable works came after 1931, starting with the melodrama Love and Duty (directed by Bu Wancang). Ruan had by then gained popularity owing to a string of leading roles, and in 1933 she was voted second runner-up in a poll held by Star Daily (明星日報) for China's "movie queen". (Hu Die emerged the winner and Chen Yumei was first runner-up).[4] Beginning with Three Modern Women (1932), Ruan started collaborating with a group of leftist Chinese directors.

In Little Toys (1933), a film by Sun Yu, Ruan played a long-suffering toy-maker. Her next film, The Goddess (1934; dir: Wu Yonggang), is often hailed as the pinnacle of Chinese silent cinema; Ruan sympathetically portrayed a prostitute bringing up a child. Later that year, Ruan made her penultimate film, New Women (directed by Cai Chusheng), in which she played an educated woman forced to death by an unfeeling society. The film was based on the life of actress Ai Xia, who killed herself in 1934.[5] Her final film, National Customs, was released shortly after her death.

One of Ruan's earliest films, Love and Duty (1931), directed by Bu Wancang and long believed to be a lost film, was discovered in Uruguay in 1994.[6]

Personal life[edit]

Ruan Lingyu on the cover of The Young Companion pictorial, December 1934

At the age of 16, Ruan became acquainted with Zhang Damin (张达民/張達民), whose family her mother worked for. Zhang was later driven out of his wealthy family due to his spendthrift ways and became a chronic gambler, supported by Ruan's salary. Unable to tolerate Zhang's gambling, Ruan split with him in 1933.[7]

She then began living with Tang Jishan, a tea tycoon. In 1935, Zhang filed a lawsuit asking for reparations from Ruan. The tabloids seized on this opportunity to probe into Ruan's private life and put her under intense pressure.[8]

Following the completion of New Women, Ruan's life began to unravel. The film opened in Shanghai in 1935. Cai Chusheng was under massive pressure from tabloid reporters, who were extremely hostile, owing to the scathing depiction of the Shanghai tabloids in the movie. Cai was forced to make extensive cuts to the film. Even after that, Ruan's private life was mercilessly seized upon by the tabloids and her lawsuit with her first husband, Zhang Damin, became a source of vindictive coverage.


Faced with her various public issues and intense private problems, Ruan committed suicide in Shanghai on March 8, 1935, at the age of 24, by taking an overdose of barbiturates. Her suicide note apparently contained a line which says "gossip is a fearful thing" (人言可畏), although recent researchers have doubted the note's authenticity as it appears to have been forged by Tang Jishan.[8] Even China's preeminent intellectual Lu Xun was appalled at the details surrounding Ruan's death and wrote an essay entitled "Gossip is a Fearful Thing", denouncing the tabloids.[9]

Recent researchers believe her deteriorating relationship with Tang Jishan and Zhang Damin's lawsuit were the cause of Ruan's death. It was further intensified by the mob media of China after New Women was released, since the film depicted the life of actress Ai Xia, who committed suicide due to media rumors about her private life. Ruan is also believed to have been physically abused on the evening that she died.[8]

Funeral services and subsequent tributes[edit]

Ruan Lingyu's funeral procession was reportedly attended by more than 100,000 people.

Her funeral service at the Wanguo Funeral Home lasted for three days. Several well-known film actors and actress attended her funeral, including Wang Renmei, Lin Chuchu and Liang Saizhen, and her pallbearers included some of the leading film directors such as Lai Man-Wai, Fei Mu, Wu Yonggang and Cai Chusheng. After the service, Ruan's casket was taken to a cemetery in Zhabei district.

Her funeral procession was reportedly 3 miles (4.8 km) long, with three women committing suicide during the event. The New York Times called it "the most spectacular funeral of the century".[10]

Ruan Lingyu's tomb was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.[citation needed] In 1998, a uniquely designed monument dedicated to her debuted in Fushouyuan Cemetery in Shanghai.[11]

Suicide notes and alleged forgery[edit]

Two sets of suicide notes existed that were purportedly written by Ruan Lingyu just before her death.[12][13][14][15]

First version[edit]

The earlier suicide notes were first published in Lianhua Pictorial (聯華畫報) on April 1, 1935, in a commemorative issue on Ruan Lingyu's death, supplied by Tang Jishan with whom Ruan Lingyu was cohabiting at the time of her death.[16][17][18][19]

These suicide notes are now believed to have been forged by Tang Jishan, as Ruan Lingyu was unlikely to have written a letter to the press over her suicide, furthermore with lines like "[my spirit] will watch over you forever and ever" to Tang Jishan, a notorious womanizer.[20]


Once I die, people will surely think I did it [killed herself] out of guilt. But what crime have I committed, that I must feel guilty about? Because I never did Zhang Damin any wrong, not in any way. We shan’t talk about anything else, just this: I even gave him 100 yuan (Or 14.USD.) a month after we separated and started living apart.

I'm not making this up, I have proof and the receipts. But he repaid gratitude with revenge, gave resentment for kindness. Moreover, the outside world doesn't know this, he made them think I did him wrong.

So what else can I come up with? I gave it so much thought—only suicide can end it all.

Alas, it's no pity if I die. But gossip is a fearful thing. I'm still afraid people will talk, that's all.

—Ruan Lingyu, last words. Midnight, March 7, 1924.

I can't prove my innocence unless I die. Now that I am dead, he can have his way. Although he didn't kill me himself, I have died because of him. Zhang Damin, let's see how you can escape public censure! You can't set Tang Jishan up now, since you have already driven me to my death!


Jishan: I never expected death to be separating us so soon. But don't be sad. Every banquet has to end in this world someday. Please don't keep grieving.

I'm really sorry, I let you suffer because of me. Although he did all he could to slander us, things will come to light one day. Justice has its net spread wide and no one can escape. Let's see how that man lives now.

Just before a bird dies, its cry will be plaintive. Just before a person dies, he or she will speak kind words. If my spirit still exists after my death, it will watch over you forever and ever. After I die, please use what remains of my wages to support my mother and Nannan [Ruan Lingyu's adopted daughter]. If the money is not enough, please help! And please be watchful all the time, make sure that my aged mother won't do what I am about to do. I really ask this of you.

If you truly love me, please don't let me down by ignoring my instructions. I have said enough, we shall meet again in our next lives if fate allows it! Please collect my wage arrears from the company and support Mom and Nannan with the money. That's 2,050 yuan (Or 305.72 USD.) in all. This is so important. And that other letter—please publish it in the papers if the outside world comes to know I have killed myself. If they don't know, please don't tell the public.

—Lingyu. Last words. Midnight, March 7, 1924.

Second version[edit]

On April 26, 1935, the Siming Journal of Business (《思明商學報》) published what are now believed to be the real suicide notes of Ruan Lingyu.[21][22][23] As the Siming Journal was a journal with an internal circulation of just 1,500 copies, few in China read about this and the article was largely forgotten after its initial publication.

The editor of Siming Journal claimed that Tang Jishan got Liang Saishan (梁賽珊), the sister of his lover Liang Saizhen (梁賽珍), to forge Ruan Lingyu's handwriting and suicide notes, which were then published in Lianhua Pictorial. Pricked by their conscience, Liang Saishan and Liang Saizhen later supplied Siming Journal with Ruan Lingyu's real suicide notes.[24][25]

The notes were allegedly carelessly written, with many characters stricken off and rewritten, reflecting Ruan Lingyu’s state of mind. Most researchers believe them to be the authentic suicide notes left behind by Ruan.

The suicide notes were republished by Professor Lian Wenguang (连文光) in his 1993 book, Chinese and International Cinemas: History and Anecdotes.[26] Public interest reignited after Shanghai's Xinmin Evening News reported the research of film historian Shen Ji (沈寂) in 2001, which coincided with Lian Wenguang’s findings.[27]

Suicide note 1:

Damin: You drove me to my death, but who will believe that? Think about how I gave you 100 yuan each month after we separated. You have no conscience at all. People will surely think I did this out of guilt? But what crime have I committed, that I must feel guilty about? I only deeply regret being a trophy fought over by the two of you. But it's too late now! You don't have to cry! I'll be dead! You don't have to repent either, since it has already come to this.

Suicide note 2:

Jishan: If you weren't infatuated with XXX [left blank upon publication, allegedly Tang Jishan’s other lover, Liang Saizhen 梁賽珍], if you hadn't hit me that evening and again this evening, I probably wouldn't be doing this! After I die, people will surely call you a demon and a womanizer, and on top of that, call me a soulless woman. But by then, I'll be gone from this world. You can suffer alone!

Zhiyun in the past [Tang Jishan’s former actress girlfriend 張織雲], me today—I'm sure you know who it will be tomorrow. When I'm dead, I won't dare to hate you. I hope you will treat Mom and little Nannan [Ruan Lingyu’s adopted daughter] well.

And Lianhua owes me wage arrears of 2,050 yuan. Please use the money to take care of them. And please look after them attentively, since they can only depend on you!

Without me, you can do what you like. I'm very happy.

Portrayal in popular culture[edit]


Zhang Damin, who tried to tell his story regarding Ruan's suicide (and profit financially), agreed in 1935 to star as himself in a film titled Tears of Love (情淚). The film was aborted following angry backlash. Zhang did not give up, however. In 1937, a Hong Kong film titled Who's to Blame? (誰之過) directed by Shum Kat-sing (沈吉誠) appeared, starring Zhang as himself and Tam Yuk Lan (譚玉蘭) as Ruan; this may have been the same film as Tears of Love. In 1938, Zhang starred in yet another Hong Kong film, Wife of a Friend (朋友之妻), written and directed by Mak Tai-fung (麥大豐). This film did not invoke Ruan's name, but the reference cannot be more obvious: according to a handbill, the film told about an immoral womanizer who abandons his own wife to seduce his friend's, with the friend's wife committing suicide in the end. Neither film appears to have survived, and Zhang died from an illness later in 1938 in Hong Kong, apparently penniless.

In 1991, Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan made a movie about her life, Center Stage, starring Maggie Cheung as Ruan Lingyu. Cheung won the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear for Best Actress.[28] Zhang Damin and Tang Jishan are portrayed by Lawrence Ng and Chin Han respectively. The film is credited to have revived public interest in Ruan Lingyu and her films.

TV series[edit]

In 1985, Cecilia Wong (黃杏秀) played Ruan in a 20-episode TV series aired on Asia Television, titled Ruan Lingyu/The Stardust Memories.

In 2005, Jacklyn Wu Chien-lien played Ruan in a 30-episode Chinese TV series, also titled Ruan Lingyu.[29]

Kong Lingjie (孔令洁) played Ruan Lingyu in the 1996 Chinese TV series Movie Queen Butterfly (影后胡蝶).

Ruan Lingyu's name was discussed throughout the HK TVB series - The 'W' Files (衛斯理) in 2003; however, there was no character portrayal. It was fitting to mention her name in the series since the plot was set in Shanghai during the 1930s, and she was a notable figure during that time.


Year English title Original title Role Notes
1927 A Married Couple in Name Only 掛名的夫妻 Shi Miaowen Lost
The Tablet of Blood and Tears 血淚碑 Liang Sibao Lost
Yang Kwei Fei of Peking 北京楊貴妃 Yang Xiaoyue Lost
The Heart of Women 婦人心 Lost
1928 The Luoyang Bridge 蔡狀元建造洛陽橋 Wang Yongxu Lost
The White Cloud Pagoda 白雲塔 Pu Lüji Lost
1929 The Pearl Crown 珍珠冠 Lost
Warnings for the Lovers 情欲寶鑑 Lost
Lonely Swan After the Calamity 劫後孤鴻 Lost
Attacking Nine-Dragon Mountain 大破九龍山 Lost
Burning Nine-Dragon Mountain 火燒九龍山 Lost
The Flower of the Silver Screen 銀幕之花 Lost
1930 Dream of the Ancient Capital 故都春夢 Lost
Suicide Contract 自殺合同 Lost
Wild Flowers by the Road 野草閒花 Lilian Lost?
1931 Love and Duty 戀愛與義務
  • Yang Naifan
  • Huang Guanying
A Spray of Plum Blossoms 一剪梅 Hu Zhilu (Julia)
The Peach Girl 桃花泣血記 Miss Lim [30]
Yu Tang Chun 玉堂春 Lost
1932 Another Dream of the Ancient Capital 續故都春夢 Lost
1933 Three Modern Women 三个摩登女性 Zhou Shuzhen Lost
Night in the City 城市之夜 Daughter Lost
Little Toys 小玩意 Sister Ye
1934 Life 人生 Lost
Coming Home 歸來 Survived reels are unedited
Goodbye, Shanghai 再會吧,上海 Partially survived, missing 3 reels
A Sea of Fragrant Snow 香雪海 Lost
The Goddess 神女 Prostitute
1935 New Women 新女性 Wei Ming
National Customs 國風 Zhang Lan

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 中躍 (September 2014). 人言可畏: 阮玲玉玉碎之謎. ISBN 9789865716219. Retrieved 2019-04-25.
  2. ^ "阮玲玉纪念馆生平简介-名人纪念馆-网上名人纪念馆-网络名人纪念堂-网上名人馆-地球城纪念网". Retrieved 30 October 2017.
  3. ^ "死于流言:阮玲玉去世73周年 - 大事网". Archived from the original on 2010-02-13. Retrieved 2010-07-01.
  4. ^ "胡蝶阮玲玉谁才是真正的电影皇后(图)_文化读书频道_新浪网". 26 July 2011. Archived from the original on 26 July 2011. Retrieved 30 October 2017.
  5. ^ Wang, Lingzhen (2011). Chinese Women's Cinema: Transnational Contexts. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-15675-2. Retrieved April 15, 2015.
  6. ^ "APT5 – Shanghai Goddess: Ruan Lingyu". 27 September 2013. Archived from the original on 27 September 2013. Retrieved 30 October 2017.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  7. ^ 老照片:旗袍丽质阮玲玉 与角色一样不幸(图集). CRI Online (in Chinese). 15 November 2006. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  8. ^ a b c 1935年:阮玲玉之死. 搜狐 (in Chinese). Inc. 22 June 2004. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  9. ^ Yu, Wentao (2006-04-07), "Tragic Goddess", China Daily, retrieved 2009-11-14
  10. ^ Cousins, Mark (2004-11-21), "The Asian aesthetic", Prospect (104), retrieved 2014-05-31
  11. ^ Haoling, Wang; Shengjie, Zhou; Youyang, Zhong (3 April 2020). "A cemetery that celebrates life and death". SHINE News. In 1998, a sculpture of Ruan debuted in Qingpu District's Fushouyuan Cemetery.
  12. ^ 刘帼君,《从小丫头到大明星: 阮玲玉传》, pp. 118-119, 四川文艺出版社, 1986
  13. ^ 沈宗洲、傅勤《上海旧事》,p. 195, 学苑出版社, 2000
  14. ^ 韩丛耀《第4卷/中国现代图像新闻史(1919-1949)》,南京大学出版社, ebook version
  15. ^ "史話》阮玲玉的三封遺書──民初名媛的風華往事(四) - 兩岸史話".
  16. ^ 刘帼君,《从小丫头到大明星: 阮玲玉传》, pp. 118-119, 四川文艺出版社, 1986
  17. ^ 沈宗洲、傅勤《上海旧事》,p. 195, 学苑出版社, 2000
  18. ^ 韩丛耀《第4卷/中国现代图像新闻史(1919-1949)》,南京大学出版社, ebook version
  19. ^ "史話》阮玲玉的三封遺書──民初名媛的風華往事(四) - 兩岸史話".
  20. ^ Yang Zhanye (杨展业) Xinmin Evening News, July 18, 2001. The article is republished by here:
  21. ^ 刘帼君,《从小丫头到大明星: 阮玲玉传》, pp. 118-119, 四川文艺出版社, 1986
  22. ^ 中躍,《人言可畏: 阮玲玉玉碎之謎》,pp. 326-327, 獨立作家-新銳文創, 2014
  23. ^ 《文史精华》编辑部, 《文史精华典藏版》, Volume 10,p. 184-185, 河北人民出版社, 2010. ISBN 7202048817, 9787202048818
  24. ^ 中躍,《人言可畏: 阮玲玉玉碎之謎》,pp. 326-327, 獨立作家-新銳文創, 2014
  25. ^ 《文史精华》编辑部, 《文史精华典藏版》, Volume 10,p. 184-185, 河北人民出版社, 2010, ISBN 7202048817, 9787202048818
  26. ^ Lian Wenguang 连文光 (1993), "The Authenticity of Ruan Lingyu’s suicide notes" <阮玲玉遗书的真伪>, Chinese and International Cinemas: History and Anecdotes《中外电影史话》,pp. 260-263, Jinan University Press 暨南大学出版社
  27. ^ Yang Zhanye (杨展业) Xinmin Evening News, July 18, 2001. Republished by here:
  28. ^ "The Tragic Life of Ruan Lingyu". Archived from the original on 2013-11-05. Retrieved 2016-05-24.
  29. ^ 吴中华 (29 November 2005). 电视剧版《阮玲玉》面世 吴倩莲表演荡气回肠. (in Chinese). Archived from the original on 6 November 2012. Retrieved 24 January 2013.
  30. ^ "Peach Girl (1931)". July 26, 2014. Retrieved October 21, 2020.


  • Richard J. Meyer (2005). Ruan Ling-Yu: The Goddess of Shanghai. Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 962-209-395-7.

External links[edit]