Sun Yu (director)

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Sun Yu
Sun Yu.jpg
Background information
Chinese name 孫瑜 (traditional)
Chinese name 孙瑜 (simplified)
Pinyin Sūn Yú (Mandarin)
Born (1900-03-21)March 21, 1900
Chongqing, China
Died July 11, 1990(1990-07-11) (aged 90)
Occupation Film director

Sun Yu (March 21, 1900 – July 11, 1990) was a major leftist film director active in the 1930s in Shanghai. One of the core directors of the Lianhua Film Company, Sun Yu made a name for himself with a series of socially conscious dramas in the early to mid-1930s. After the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Sun Yu made his way to the interior, where he continued to make films glorifying the war effort against the Japanese.

His career took a turn for the worse after the Communist victory in 1949. In The Life of Wu Xun, Sun Yu's big-budget biographical picture of the titular Qing Dynasty educator, Sun attracted the wrath of Mao Zedong, who personally criticized the film in an essay. Though Sun never fully recovered from the episode, he has regained his reputation as one of the foremost filmmakers the golden age of Chinese cinema.

Besides his work in cinemetography, Sun Yu is known as a poet and translator, with 2 translations of Li Po's poems appearing in Poetry magazine in 1926, and a full-length book of selected Li Po poems with translations and commentary appearing in 1982.


Sun Yu was born in the city of Chongqing and educated first at Tsinghua University in Beijing before continuing his education in drama at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.[1]

After taking his degree in 1925, Sun enrolled at the New York Institute of Photography, where his courses included cinematography and film editing. He also took evening courses at Columbia University in screenwriting and other, related courses.[2] During this time he also audited a series of lectures on writing for the theater given by David Belasco which influenced him greatly.[3]

Upon returning to China in the summer of 1926, Sun Yu directed his first film, A Romantic Swordsman, with the faltering Minxin Film Company.[4] Beginning in the 1930s, Sun Yu began a collaboration with the leftist film studio, Lianhua, where he became one of the core group of "socially conscious" directors along with Cai Chusheng, Fei Mu, and others.[4] While with Lianhua, Sun directed some of his most lasting works, including Wild Rose (1932), Loving Blood of the Volcano (1932), Daybreak (1933), Little Toys (1933), and The Big Road (1934).[4]

With the outbreak of the full-fledged war with Japan in 1937, Sun, like many of his colleagues, fled to the interior to the Nationalist wartime capital of Chongqing where he directed several propaganda films praising the war effort.[4]

Upon the end of the war, Sun Yu began preparing for his most important production yet, a biographical epic of the Qing Dynasty educator, Wu Xun, who spread literacy among the common people. Sun's last major work, The Life of Wu Xun was made with the Kunlun Film Company and starred one of the top actors of the day, Zhao Dan, in the titular role. Shortly after its release, however, The Life of Wu Xun was personally denounced by Mao Zedong. In the People's Daily Mao attacked Wu Xun as a liberal whose literacy programs implied that revolution was not necessary. The flurry of criticism that Mao's denunciation triggered was the "first major politico-ideological campaign" of the post-1949 revolution, and its effects were immediate.[5] As a result, Sun Yu's reputation was soon in ruins, and his career effectively stalled.[4] Sun Yu would go on to direct only a handful of titles over the next twenty years. In 1985, thirty-five years after the release of The Life of Wuxun, members of the Chinese politburo finally admitted that Mao's campaign, and the criticisms that it instigated against the film, was essentially baseless.[5]

Sun Yu died in Shanghai in 1990.

Selected filmography[edit]

Year English Title Chinese Title Studio Notes
1928 A Romantic Swordsman 魚叉怪俠 Minxin Film Company Directorial debut
1930 Spring Dream of an Old Capital 故都春夢 Lianhua Film Company
1930 Wild Flowers 野草閒花 Lianhua Also known as Wild Flowers by the Road
1932 Wild Rose 野玫瑰 Lianhua
1932 Facing the National Crisis 共赴國難 Lianhua Co-directed with Cai Chusheng, Shi Dongshan, and Wang Cilong
1932 Loving Blood of the Volcano 火山情血 Lianhua Also known as Volcano in the Blood
1933 Daybreak 天明 Lianhua
1933 Little Toys 小玩意 Lianhua
1934 Queen of Sports 体育皇后 Lianhua
1935 The Big Road 大路 Lianhua
1936 Back to Nature 到自然去 Lianhua Adapted from The Admirable Crichton
1937 Madman's Rhapsody 瘋人狂想曲 Lianhua Segment of an anthology film, Symphony of Lianhua
1937 Spring Arrives Everywhere 春到人间 Lianhua
1950 The Life of Wu Xun 武訓傳 Kunlun Film Company
1955 Song Jingshi 宋景詩 Shanghai Film Studio Co-directed with Zheng Junli
1957 Brave the Wind and Waves 乘風破浪 Shanghai
1958 The Legend of Lu Ban 魯班的傳說 Shanghai


Sun Yu was also a published poet and translator. Works include:

  • Sun, Yu [孫瑜], translation, introduction, and commentary (1982). Li Po-A New Translation 李白詩新譯. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, ISBN 962 07 1025 8


  1. ^ Pickowicz, Paul G. (Jan 1991), "The Theme of Spiritual Pollution in Chinese Films of the 1930s", Modern China, 17 (1): 49, doi:10.1177/009770049101700102 
  2. ^ Sun, Yu. Afloat on the Silver Sea: recalling my life (in Chinese). Shanghai: Arts and Literature Press, 1987, p.37.
  3. ^ Sun, Yu. Afloat on the Silver Sea: recalling my life (in Chinese). Shanghai: Arts and Literature Press, 1987, p.38.
  4. ^ a b c d e Zhang, Yingjin & Xiao, Zhiwei. "Sun Yu" in Encyclopedia of Chinese Film. Taylor & Francis (1998), p. 324-25. ISBN 0-415-15168-6.
  5. ^ a b He, Henry Yuhuai, Dictionary of Political Thought of the People's Republic of China. M.E. Sharpe (2001), p. 297. ISBN 0-7656-0569-4.

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