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Rian Lingyu, the “Chinese Garbo”
Yap Soo Ei, Ji Xing, Nicolai Volland, Yang Lijun, and Paul Pickowicz wrote in China Beat.“In the earky days of Chinese film, women took center stage — from the innocent Xiao Feng (played effectively by Wang Renmei) in Wild Rose (1931) to the seductress Li Huilan (played nicely by Xue Lingxian), a woman who seeks men for pleasure and money in A Dream in Pink (Fenhongse de meng, 1932, d. Cai Chusheng). The viewer first marvels at how the materialistic new woman Zhang Tao (played by the vivacious Li Lili) ultimately repents in the film National Pride (Guo feng, 1935, d. Zhu Shilin), and then feels emotional distress as Xiao Mao (played again by Wang Renmei) loses her only brother to malnutrition in Cai Chusheng’s famous Song of the Fisherman (Yu guang qu, 1935).” [Source:Yap Soo Ei, Ji Xing, Nicolai Volland, Yang Lijun, and Paul Pickowicz, China Beat, August 30, 2010; Yap Soo Ei and Ji Xing were graduate students in the Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS). Nicolai Volland and Yang Lijun teach Chinese Studies at NUS, and Paul Pickowicz is professor of Chinese History at the University of California, San Diego]

“It is the women, played by Shanghai’s top film stars, who command the audience’s attention. Not only are their lives inevitably entangled with issues like imperialism, violence, and poverty, but they are able to endure mountains of heartache along the way. The directors — some of the most creative artists in Shanghai’s highly entrepreneurial cultural marketplace — identify a wide array of modern women, and dwell on the complexities of the social and personal problems these resilient women faced in their daily lives. The fact that quite a few of these problems — self-sacrifice, marriage, temptation, vanity, and love — remain unresolved in present-day society points to the contemporary relevance of these films.

While directors generally proposed reconciliation as the solution to most problems, the viewer is easily touched by the earnest attempt of the male directors to openly discuss the plight of women, especially in Spring in the South (Nanguo zhi chun, 1932, d. Cai Chusheng) and A Dream in Pink. One of our favorite films is Shen Xiling’s Boatman’s Daughter (Chuanjia nü, 1934), a seamless and powerful narrative about modern-style exploitation and violence woven into a quasi-traditional Chinese love story about a boatman’s daughter (played beautifully by Xu Lai) and a laborer. Despite their immense popularity with audiences in the 1930s, many of these films were criticized by reviewers, including leftists, for failing to provide further insight or understanding of such hot-button political issues as spiritual pollution.

Websites: Chinese Film Classics chinesefilmclassics.org ; Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com; 100 Films to Understand China radiichina.com. “The Goddess” (dir. Wu Yonggang)is available on the Internet Archive at archive.org/details/thegoddess . “Shanghai Old and New” is also available on the Internet Archive at archive.org ; The best place to get English-subtitled films from the Republican era is Cinema Epoch cinemaepoch.com. They sell the following Classic Chinese filsm: “Spring In A Small Town”, “The Big Road”, “Queen Of Sports”, “Street Angel”, “Twin Sisters”, “Crossroads”, “Daybreak Song At Midnight”, “The Spring River Flows East”, “Romance Of The Western Chamber”, “Princess Iron Fan”, “A Spray Of Plum Blossoms”, “Two Stars In The Milky Way”, “Empress Wu Zeitan”, “Dream Of The Red Chamber”, “An Orphan On The Streets”, “The Watch Myriad Of Lights”, “Along The Sungari River”

Songstresses in Chinese Cinema

In a review of the book: “Sounding the Modern Woman” by Jean Ma, Victor Fan wrote: “Film historians have long regarded the songstress as the single most important figure in Chinese cinema between the 1930s and 1960s. Played by movie stars including Zhou Xuan (Chow Hsuen, 1918-57), Bai Guang (1921-99), Zhong Qing (Chung Ching, b. 1932), Yao Li (Yao Lee, b. 1922), and Ge Lan (Grace Chang, b. 1933), these songstresses ranged from orphans of war, sex workers, temptresses, nightclub singers, and innocent country girls to the mambo girl, calypso girl, and air hostess. [Source: Book: “Sounding the Modern Woman: The Songstress in Chinese Cinema” “by Jean Ma (Duke University Press, 2015); Reviewed by Victor Fan, King’s College London, MCLC Resource Center Publication, August, 2016]

“As opposed to regular screen actors who leave their traces as embodiments of these contesting desires and anxieties, songstresses leave their disembodied voices in the spectators’ memories. In many cases, singing films or singing and dancing films ( musicals), had long been forgotten or even lost prior to their rediscoveries and revivals by film archives, cable television, and social media. Yet, their theme songs and inserted songs have been well remembered and circulated through records, radio, and, again, social media. This is especially true when an onscreen songstress was played by an actor who could not sing professionally, and her image had to be synchronized to the voice of a singer who was herself a star. As Ma points out, this was the case with many actors and their “substitute singers behind the screen”: actor Hu Die (Butterfly Wu, 1908-89) and Peking opera artist Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) in the 1930s, actor Chung Ching and singer Yao Lee in the 1950s, and Lin Dai (Linda Lin Dai, 1934-64) and Gu Mei (Koo Mei, b. 1929) in the 1960s.

“As Ma argues, the songstress is not simply a character or narrative device. Rather, when she sings, she interrupts the narrative and intercepts the spectator’s participation in the diegesis by being a star and performer. Furthermore, her performance is often mediated through various platforms and technical devices — including the stage, microphone, radio, tape, phonograph, and television — on the diegetic level, and the camera, celluloid film, and optical soundtrack, on the technical level.

“From a historical perspective,Zhou Xuan not only consolidated the prototype of the cinematic songstress, but her films also signaled that filmmakers in Shanghai were beginning to think about how to integrate song into the narrative. In Street Angels (dir. Yuan Muzhi, Star Motion Picture Company, 1937), songstress Xiao Hong (Zhou) performs three times what would become the film’s emblematic tune, “The Wandering Songstress” . In each instance, the song serves to express contesting affects that are integral to the romantic plot (love, desire, frustration, jealousy, and pain). They are also connected diegetically and intertextually to the sociopolitical affects associated with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the resulting mass migration of refugees from Northeast China to Shanghai.

“Yet, according to Ma, in the 1930s, such narrative integration is far from complete in the Hollywood sense. Rather than being a character fully incorporated into the diegetic space, the songstress — as a star, an itinerant singer, a nightclub performer, a recording artist, or, sometimes, a disembodied voice from a record or radio — is always foregrounded as a technical being whose inter-technicity negotiates the desires and traumatic memories associated with modernity and modern historicity.

Ruan Lingyu

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Love and Duty
The most famous old time Chinese movie star was Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935), who is sometimes called the “Chinese Garbo.” She appeared in Shanghai silent classics such as Cai Chusheng’s “New Woman” (1934). Her performance in the film caused a major sensation and outcry in the press to which Rian responded by killing herself with a bottle of sleeping pills. In her suicide note she wrote, “Nothing matters.” Thousands turned out for her funeral.

Interest in Ruan Lingyu remain strong even though she died a decade and half before the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The mysterious circumstances surrounding her tragic death has only compounded the interest.Vivienne Chow wrote for the BBC: It’s been decades “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. [Source: Vivienne Chow, BBC News, October 30, 2017]

“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.

Ruan Lingyu’s Life

Born Ruan Fenggen in Shanghai in 1910 to a working class family, the actress experienced tragedies from a young age. Vivienne Chow wrote for the BBC: 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. [Source: Vivienne Chow, BBC News, October 30, 2017]

“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.

Ruan Lingyu’s Film Career

The Lianhua Film Company was also known as the United Photoplay Service. Vivienne Chow wrote for the BBC: 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. [Source: Vivienne Chow, BBC News, October 30, 2017]

“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.

“Love and Duty” is a 1931 Chinese silent film, directed by Bu Wancang and starring Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan. Long considered lost, it was accidentally rediscovered in Uruguay in the 1990s, and almost immediately hailed as one of the greatest Chinese silent films. Like many Chinese silent films, it features both Chinese and English intertitles. Ruan Lingyu portrays two different characters, and the split screen technology is used for scenes where both characters appear. [Source: Wikipedia]

“Goddess” (directed by Wu Yonggang, 1934) stars Ruan Lingyu in one of her final roles and and is widely regarded as one of Ruan’s finest works. According to Chow: 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." Michael Berry wrote: “One of Ruan Lingyu’s most outstanding roles as a young mother forced to into prostitution in order to support her son, The Goddess is beautifully shot and features powerful censure of “public opinion” in Republican China.


According to Christopher Rea: Widely regarded as the finest Chinese silent film, Goddess is a stylistic masterpiece. A single mother working as a streetwalking prostitute finds herself trapped in a relationship with a thuggish gambler, and desperately fights to escape. How should society respond to her sacrifices? An exemplary melodrama featuring legendary actress Ruan Lingyu at her most radiant.

New Woman

“New Women” (directed by Cai Chusheng, 1935) is based on the life of an actress and writer, Ai Xia who committed suicide in 1934. Ruan Lingyu plays the lead role here and some regard it as a preview to her own suicide in 1935. The film helped bring attention to social reform and women’s issues in China. Chow wrote: "New Woman" 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. The film 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.

Linda C. Zhang, PhD candidate, UC Berkeley, wrote: Not just interesting for its plot, New Women stirred up controversy and an infamous life-imitating-art situation. Ruan Lingyu plays a young writer, music teacher, and mother, who is trapped between conservative tradition and a movement that seeks to liberate women, but various pressures and misfortunes only lead to her tragic suicide. The film, directed by Cai Chusheng, is based on the true story of another young woman writer, Ai Xia, and her fate. Not long after the release of the film itself, the main actress Ruan also committed suicide.

According to Christopher Rea: What is the reality women face in Chinese society? What should it be? This “problem film” dramatizes the perils facing women seeking a public role in society, especially a predatory news media that treats them like commodities for public consumption. A film inspired by the recent suicide of an actress, the film became a sensation when lead actress Ruan Lingyu committed suicide on International Women’s Day, shortly following the film’s premiere. Subtitles translated by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow.

New Woman

Ruan Lingyu’s Love Life and Suicide

Vivienne Chow wrote for the BBC: “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. [Source: Vivienne Chow, BBC News, October 30, 2017]

“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.

Thief of Baghdad

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong was legendary screen icon and a star during the silent era and the first Chinese American movie star. Wong rose to fame with her role in 1924’s “Thief of Baghdad”, opposite Douglas Fairbanks, one of the most famous films of the silent era. But her career was plagued by offers to play negative stereotypes of Chinese females and was limited by American anti-miscegenation laws that prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with a person of another race. She appeared in “Daughter of the Dragon,” “Daughter of Shanghai,” and, with Marlene Dietrich, in Josef von Sternberg’s “Shanghai Express”, another iconic film. [Source: Angry Asian Man, July 29, 2014]

Wong grew up in a poor neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is depicted in the the Four Ladies of Hollywood statues at La Brea and Sunset along with Dolores del Río, Dorothy Dandridge and Mae West. Wong’s career was marked by frustration over the limited roles available to her as an Asian American actress in Hollywood.

Wong retired in 1928 saying, "I was tired of parts I had to play. Why is it that on the screen the Chinese are nearly always the villain and so cruel a villain — murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass? We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization so many times older than that of the West? We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show those on the screen?"

In 2014, it was announced that Fan Bingbing, arguably China’s biggest movie star in the 2010s, was in talks to star in Anna May Wong biopic. Variety reported that, Shanghai-based Fundamental Films is developing Dragon Lady, based on the life and career of the Asian American silent era star. Jonathan Keasey and Brant Boivin are writing the script, which will recall Wong's poverty-stricken upbringing in downtown Los Angeles and her rise to fame in Hollywood.

Li Lili

Li Lili (1915-2005) was another big star in 1930s Shanghai cinema. He biggest films were: “Daybreak” (1933), “Queen of Sports” (1934), “The Big Road” (1934). Her finest moment, it is said, is when she tell the firing squad that they can only shoot when she flashes her best smile at the heartbreaking climax of “Daybreak”.

According to the British Film Institute: "While her Little Toys and National Customs (1935) co-star Ruan Lingyu projected an image of big city sophistication, even when playing characters at the lower end of the social spectrum, Li Lili was presented as a ‘country girl’, soon gaining the nickname ‘sweet sister’ due to her wholesome presence, although her spirited nature was also part of her popular appeal.


"A rural upbringing was often part of her screen history, with Daybreak casting her as a young woman from a fishing village who becomes trapped by the dark side of Shanghai after relocating for a factory job. The more upbeat Queen of Sports has her overcoming the jealousy of her college classmates to achieve fame in the world of athletics, although this is also a cautionary tale as her running champion loses sight of her ideals once she starts mixing with high society.

"The latter film was specifically developed for Li by director Sun Yu in order to capitalise on her energetic image, as was The Big Road, a national defence film designed to arouse patriotic feelings with its story of labourers constructing a highway to use in the war against the Japanese. Li plays one of two women who flirt with and later help the road crew. Her image takes a bolder turn when she seduces a local landlord in order to expose the fact that he has been taking bribes from the enemy in exchange for sabotaging the construction project."

Films with Li Lili

“Playthings” (1933) is also known as “Toys”: According to Christopher Rea: Ruan Lingyu and Li Lili star as mother and daughter, artisan toymakers whose livelihood is being ruined by mass-produced foreign imports. After her son is kidnapped, Sister Ye leads the community in supporting soldiers defending Shanghai against the Japanese invasion of 1932. Director Sun Yu harnesses the charisma of two screen goddesses in this parable about China’s urgent need for military and economic self-strengthening. Ruan’s final scene is a tour de force. [You Tube for "Playthings" youtube.com ]

“Daybreak” (1933) is about “an idealistic young man and woman from the countryside who move to Shanghai to begin a new life, only to be ruined by a corrupt city. The man is fired, and the woman is tricked into prostitution. She redeems herself by conducting espionage in preparation for the arrival of the National Revolutionary Army, which is sweeping north in their campaign against the warlords. Will she live to see a new dawn for China?

“Sports Queen” (1934): According to Christopher Rea: A naturally-gifted runner from the countryside enrolls in a women’s sports academy in Shanghai and, after letting early success go to her head, eventually learns about the true athletic spirit. The film was made in response to a national sports craze and the government’s New Life Movement, which called for physical and moral self-strengthening. Comic sequences and elements borrowed from pre-Code Hollywood leaven the moralizing. A star vehicle for the mischievous Li Lili. The music is not original, so feel free to mute it.

“The Great Road” (1934) features laid-off road workers in Shanghai who head to the interior to build a great road across China. Their task becomes more urgent when “the enemy”Japan) invades, and the army needs a road to the front. A fantastic, genre-defying ensemble piece that, like Sports Queen, makes work look fun. Raymond King, the “Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai,” co-stars with Li Lili and emerging star Chen Yanyan, with musical numbers by all three and a few surprises. [You Tube for Great Road Toys youtube.com ]

Sports Queen

China's Seven Great Singing Stars

China's Seven Great Singing Stars from the Jazz Era in Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s were known mainly for their singing but they also appeared in a number of films. They were 1) Bai Guang, Queen of the Low Voice (active from 1943 to 1959), best known for "Waiting For Your Return", "Hypocrite" and "Autumn Night"; 2 Bai Hong, White Rainow, (active from 1933 to 1979), best known for "He Is Like The Spring Wind" and "The Intoxicating Lipstick"; 3) Gong Qiuxia, Big Sister (active 1933-1980), best known for "Best Wishes";4) Li Xianglan (Yoshiko Yamaguchi), The Judy Garland of Japan (active 1938 to 1958), best known for "Candy Selling Song", "Fragrance of the Night" and "Suzhou Nocturne"; 5) Wu Yingyin, Queen of the Nasal Voice (active 1945 to 2003), best known for "The Heartbreaking Red", "The Moon Sends My Love to Afar" and "Spring Returns to the World"; 6) Yao Li (Yao Lee) and 7) Zhou Xuan, See Music. factsanddetails.com [Source: Wikipedia]

Several of the stars acted in films, and their music played a prominent role in developing Chinese cinema. They dominated the Chinese pop music industry in the 1930s and 1940s, which was centered in Shanghai, and often performed in a genre known as Shidaiqu. Amongst the earliest of the stars to emerge in the 1930s were Zhou Xuan, Gong Qiuxia, Yao Lee, and Bai Hong. In the 40s, Bai Guang, Li Xianglan, and Wu Yingyin also became popular, and these seven were grouped as the seven great singing stars of the period.

Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese from 1937 to 1945. Popular at that time was Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who was Japanese and went by the Chinese name Li Xianglan (Li Hsiang-lan) without revealing here Japanese ancestry. After the Communist victory in 1949, there was a large migration of people from Shanghai to Hong Kong that included many entertainers but some stayed on in Communist China.. While some of the seven continued to perform for many years, Zhou Xuan died in 1957, Yoshiko retired from entertainment in 1958, and Bai Guang stopped recording in 1959.

Yoshiko Yamaguchi (Li Xianglan)

Yoshiko Yamaguchi, a beautiful doe-eyed singer and actress, was featured in a number of propaganda films in China the 1930s when the Japanese occupied Manchuria. Appearing under the pseudonym Li Xianglan, she caused a sensation in erotic melodramas like “China Nights”, about a love affair between a Chinese peasant and a heroic Japanese ship captain in wartime Shanghai. Her producers at the sinister Manchurian Film Association purposely hid her nationality. Most of her fans thought she was Chinese.

Yamaguchi also (also known as Ri Koran) was born in Manchuria to Japanese parents and grew up speaking both Mandarin and Japanese. When the war was over she fell into the hands of Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces, who charged her with collaborating with the enemy, a crime punishable by death. She was only spared execution when he was able to prove she was an ethnic Japanese.

But Yamaguchi's career didn’t end there. After the war she reinvented herself, first as the star of pro-American films and then as the Hollywood actress Shirley Yamaguchi, her name inspired by Shirley Temple, appearing in a few B-level movies. After retiring from film in the 1950s she did a stint as a diplomat’s wife and worked as a television talk show host and journalist, with stints in Vietnam and Palestine, and was a prominent politician in the Japanese Parliament for 20 years. Her story has been fictionalized in the novel “The China Lover” by Ian Buruma (2008, Penguin Press).

Li Xianglan (Yoshiko Yamaguchi) in Glory to Eternity (1943)

China’s ‘Four Great Actresses’

The “Four Great Actresses” of the Late Republic and Early Communist period of Chinese film were Zhang Ruifang (1918-2012), Qin Yi (born 1922), Shu Xiuwen (1915-1969) and Bai Yang (1920-1996). They were all in Chongqing around the same time in 1930s, trying to their careers of the ground, and came to Shanghai in the 1940s. The Communist playwright and polemicist, Xia Yan, who was in Chongqing around the same time they were, called the group “the Four Great Actresses.” [Source: Jane Perlez New York Times, November 30, 2015]

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: Their glamour onstage and on screen stirred audiences during the turmoil at the birth of modern China. But beneath the glamour lay the chaos of wartime Shanghai and the intrigue of Chongqing, a city filled with spies and soldiers and run by the Nationalists. In 1946, after the defeat of the Japanese, the four returned to Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city of grand buildings and sleek bars, great wealth and terrible poverty. Three years later, the city fell to the Communists. When the Communists took over, these actresses concealed their affection for Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis, tucked away their love of fashion and steered their careers toward movies that promoted proletarian values...Then came the treacherous roller-coaster politics of the Mao Zedong era.

“The cinema was an important tool for the Communist Party as it strove to build a cohesive society, and as the sirens of the new leadership, the four women, often dressed in clean and pressed peasant clothes, played in heated anti-Japanese war movies and slightly implausible family melodramas. Their beauty dazzled audiences starved for distraction from hard times and made the propaganda about the new revolutionary society palatable. “Their careers flourished and then withered during the tumultuous Mao era,” Ying Zhu, a professor who studies cinema at the College of Staten Island, said of the four actresses. They believed in the Communist Party and immersed themselves in all their roles, she said, noting, “Given the little choice we had, many were indeed memorable roles that I grew up repeatedly watching.” For the government, the actresses were vital, said Hao Jian, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy. “Movies have been a very significant part of the red propaganda machine. The Chinese filmmakers like to quote Lenin as saying, ‘You must remember always that of all the arts, the most important for us is the cinema.’”

“During the Cultural Revolution, the lives of the four actresses fell apart. Artistic figures who had been favored by Mao and Mr. Zhou were singled out for vilification. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who had been an opera star in Shanghai, appears to have taken special pleasure in excoriating the women she had known in the 1930s. Ms. Zhang, perhaps because of her Communist pedigree from World War II, suffered the least. Although imprisoned, she was released after a year or two, Mr. Zhu said. For Ms. Qin, there were six years of hard labor away from Shanghai. Red Guards denounced Shu Xiuwen, who died of heart failure during the period. Bai Yang, who was deemed by the Red Guards to be even more bourgeois than her colleagues, was kept in solitary confinement in a dark cell for five years. (She died in 1996.)

Zhang Ruifang

Zhang Ruifang (1918– 2012) is considered one China's greatest actresses. Zhang was born in Baoding in Hebei Province and studied painting in Beijing in the early 1930s. She joined the Chinese Drama Society.and began acting on the stage in 1936. In 1937, she joined the Communist Party. During the war years she performed to support the national effort against the Japanese and took the lead in her first film, Sun Yu “Baptism of Fire”, in which she played a double agent. Later she became a Communist spy for real. Her next role was not until after the war in 1946 when her performance in “On Songhua River” to good reviews. In 1963, Zhang won Hundred Flowers Award for Best Actress for her performance in the comedy “Li Shuangshuang”.

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: Ms. Zhang “styled herself after Ingrid Bergman, her favorite actress. Her second husband, Jin Shan, had served as a secret agent for the Communists in Chongqing. A photograph of the couple in 1943 shows Ms. Zhang in a well-cut black jacket with a heart-shaped silver pin on one lapel. Mr. Jin wears a tweed sport jacket, a shirt and tie, and a handkerchief in his pocket. Beneath her persona of old Shanghai elegance, however, Ms. Zhang was also an undercover Communist spy, said her grandson, Zhu Feng, a movie director. The two found out about each other’s clandestine work when party members informed them after Mr. Jin’s marriage proposal, Mr. Zhu said. [Source: Jane Perlez New York Times, November 30, 2015]

“In Chongqing, Ms. Zhang’s controller had been Zhou Enlai, who ran the Communist intelligence operation in the city and went on to become prime minister and his grandmother’s lifelong friend, Mr. Zhu said. (Mr. Zhou, considered the intellectual of the Communist Party leaders, later called Ms. Qin the beauty of China.) It was Mr. Jin, a bon vivant and denizen of bars, though, who was an especially skilled spy, maintaining good relations with the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek in Shanghai, Mr. Zhu said. Through Mr. Jin’s connections, a gang lord allied with the Nationalists married the couple in Shanghai.

“In postwar Communist Shanghai, Ms. Zhang began making movies again. In 1963, Ms. Zhang won a national best actress award, and a grainy black-and-white image of her in Mr. Zhu’s collection of photographs shows Mr. Zhou grinning broadly as his protégée accepts the prize. But again, not all was as it seemed. By then, Ms. Zhang’s marriage had broken up after Mr. Zhou’s goddaughter, Sun Weishi, a theater director, had an affair with Mr. Jin, Mr. Zhu said. She later married him. Ms. Zhang resumed acting after the Cultural Revolution, but it was never quite the same. Five years before Ms. Zhang died in 2012, Xi Jinping, now the president of China, visited her when he was mayor of Shanghai, in a sign of the deep respect the party held for her.

Qin Yi, Last of China’s ‘Four Great Actresses’

Qin Yi (born 1922) was called the most beautiful woman in early Communist China. Jane Perlez New York Times met up with her in 2015. She wrote: Now, at 93, as she sits in her apartment in the city where she appeared in more than three dozen movies, her pale complexion and dark eyes are still charming. Ms. Qin is the last surviving member of a group once known as the “four great actresses.” “The content was always designed to spread forward thinking,” Ms. Qin said as she recalled her starring roles in, among others, “Railway Guerrillas,” “Woman Basketball Player No. 5” and “Loyal Overseas Chinese.” [Source: Jane Perlez New York Times, November 30, 2015

“The heady days of 1930s Shanghai movies were slowing down when Ms. Qin, still a teenager, escaped the city and settled in Chongqing, the wartime capital to the west. “She slept in a tiny dormitory on a bamboo mattress on the floor with nine other girls, surviving on rice and soup. There, she met Zhang Ruifang, “Two other up-and-coming stars, Bai Yang and Shu Xiuwen were also in Chongqing.” After their return to Shanghai “the lives of the four actresses were outwardly romantic: Ms. Qin married China’s most famous actor of the postwar period, Jin Yan, known as the Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai.

“In postwar Communist Shanghai, Ms. Qin began making movies again. “Railway Guerrillas” called for the cast to go on location to Wuxi, a city west of Shanghai. “It was summer and extremely hot, but we had to wear quilted jackets, as the scenes were supposed to be in winter,” Ms. Qin said. “The actors had to learn how to climb on and jump off a moving train. I learned to play the widow of a railway official killed by the Japanese. Then she cooked and spied for the guerrillas. It was 35 degrees Celsius,” about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, “and I had heat rash all over my neck.” Ms. Qin resumed her acting after the Cultural Revolution, but it was never quite the same. Even now, though, awards for lifetime achievement keep arriving for Ms. Qin, who flew to Los Angeles in 2015 to be honored by a Chinese American association.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, University of Washington; Ohio State University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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