Old Hollywood chewed up and spat out vulnerable starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, but even these tragic beauties have nothing on the Chinese screen siren Ruan Lingyu. Although Ruan’s electrifying acting stunned silent film audiences in the 1930s, her promise was cut violently short in one of Old Shanghai’s most sordid tragedies. Here is the heartbreaking story of Ruan Lingyu.
1. She Suffered A Childhood Tragedy
Ruan Lingyu’s childhood was like something out of a dark fairy tale. Born on April 26, 1910 to a working class family in Shanghai, China, the little girl’s life quickly lost its innocence. When she was just six years old, her father passed, leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves. Already, Ruan had a heartbreaking road to survival.
2. She Was A Lonely Girl
Ruan’s mother worked as a housemaid for the wealthy Zhang family in Shanghai, a profession that was considered shameful for the time. As a result, young Ruan grew up lonely and isolated, witnessing the immense wealth of her mother’s employers without experiencing any of its comforts for herself. Frustrated, Ruan and her mother made a desperate plot.
3. She Hid Her True Self
One of the only ways Ruan could escape the cycle of poverty was to try to get an education. When she was just 13 years old, her mother sent Ruan to school to give her daughter a better future. It came at a high cost. Ruan’s mother forced her to keep her working class background a secret, fearful that other children would make fun of her for her roots.
Ruan knew she had to make good on her mother’s efforts, and she knew exactly how she was going to do it.
4. She Took A Big Gamble
When Ruan was only 15 years old, she was chomping at the bit to start earning money so she could return some of her mother's generosity. The scrawny teenager answered an ad for the Mingxing Film Company, hoping to earn a spot on their acting roster. For any other teenage girl, this might have been a pipe dream…but Ruan Lingyu was the exception, not the rule.
5. A Powerful Man Fell In Love With Her
In truth, Ruan had help in high places when it came to her dream of glitz and glamour. Zhang Damin was the youngest son of the Zhang family, the clan her mother worked for, and he harbored a major crush on the quickly-developing Lingyu. To woo her, he got her foot in the door at the Mingxing Film Company. But that’s where Ruan took over.
6. She Was An Instant Sensation
Ruan blew the production company away with her powerful stage presence, and within a year, the 16-year-old was starring in 1927’s silent film A Married Couple in Name Only. It was there that she displayed her soon-to-be signature acting style: An ability to convey deep emotions through total silence. After this breakthrough role, it didn't take long for the country to learn Ruan's name.
7. She Took On A Scandalous Role
In 1930, Ruan had her first bona fide hit with the blockbuster film Spring Dream of an Old Capital—but there was a catch. Ruan's role in the movie was scandalous. She played a street worker named YanYan and quickly shot to super stardom on the back of the tragic story. Ruan earned a reputation for acting with a “suppressed sadness". If only audiences knew how right they were...
8. She Had An Unusual Beauty
One of the reasons Ruan Lingyu stood out so much was because she wasn’t your average starlet. Her features weren’t as large or naturally as expressive as some other famous Chinese stars at the time, and she wasn’t what many considered to be conventionally beautiful. Nonetheless, no one could deny that Ruan had a strange, magical charisma that made it difficult to look away.
9. She Was In “Puppy Love”
During this time, Ruan had fully taken up with the young Zhang Damin. She felt dazzled by his wealth, his childhood history with her, and the fact he had given her a leg up to stardom. Film writer Vivienne Chow calls the relationship “puppy love,” and for a time the two teenagers enjoyed the high life together…but there was a dark side to their passion.
10. She Liked Bad Boys
Although Zhang came from a well-to-do family, he was definitely the black sheep, and not just because he had gone and fallen in love with the “help". Ever since he was an adolescent, he had a raging gambling problem. Ruan's boyfriend simply couldn't stop spending his parents’ money, leading his family to throw him out. Banished, Zhang fell right into poor Ruan’s arms. Unfortunately, their romance wouldn't end well.
11. Her Lover Stole From Her
Zhang Damin had always been impulsive and brash, which did not combine well with his rampant gambling problem. Eventually, his debts grew so high and his appetites so big that Zhang would pilfer Ruan’s hard earned film money to cover his bids at the card tables. In an instant, the couple's puppy love turned toxic, and Ruan knew she had to get out.
12. She Ran Away With Another Man
If there was one thing Ruan Lingyu knew how to do, it was survive. And this time, she would have to use all her smarts to escape her short-tempered partner. Fearful of Zhang’s quick fuse, Ruan ran into the arms of the wealthy and powerful tycoon Tang Jishan, who at the very least had the money to protect her against her now-ex lover. Yet that wasn’t all that Tang offered Ruan…
13. She Had Expensive Tastes
Where Ruan spent her time with Zhang continually worried about keeping her money firmly in her pocket, her new man Tang was more than happy to provide Ruan with all the luxury she could imagine. He even bought her a three-storey house where they could move in together. Still, as with everything in Ruan’s life, there was a big trade-off.
14. Her Boyfriend Betrayed Her
Although Tang Jishan kept Ruan in the glamorous style she deserved, he was far from a perfect catch. Tan was a notorious womanizer and he had zero qualms about running around behind Ruan’s back. Of course, Ruan noticed when her boyfriend didn't come home at night. But then, their already twisted romance got even worse.
15. She Wasn’t Good Enough For Her Love
It wasn’t enough for Tang to carry on dalliances with random women around Shanghai; he had to go and seduce one of Ruan’s own co-workers. In the 1930s, Tang struck up an illicit relationship with Ruan’s fellow actress Liang Saizhen, a coquettish cabaret performer who couldn’t have been further from Ruan’s serious looks. And Tang had more in store for her.
16. She Was Trapped In Her Relationship
Ruan just couldn’t seem to pick the right men and before long, Tang really upped his game in the “horrible boyfriend” department. Whether the big man couldn’t take being around Ruan’s star-power or he was just naturally an enormous jerk, Tang soon became an aggressor in their relationship, physically mistreating Ruan. One day, it reached a disturbing climax.
17. Her Boyfriend Killed Her Dog
After a particularly rocky argument, Tang came up with a sick way to get revenge on his starlet girlfriend. Without warning, he threw Ruan’s beloved pet dog clear out of a window, taking his anger out on the innocent animal and leaving Ruan devastated. And sadly, just as Ruan’s personal life started to fall apart, so did her professional career.
18. She Became A Household Name
Ruan was now a household name in China, but terrifying fractures were breaking under her surface. Ruan poured herself so completely into her roles that she couldn’t help but take her emotional work home with her, especially when—in an echo of her difficult childhood—she starred in 1934’s The Goddess, playing a single mother.
Ruan’s next role only made those troubles worse.
19. She Was Vulnerable
In 1935, Ruan starred in New Women, and the project nearly broke her. The film told the veiled life story of tormented starlet Ai Xia, who had just taken her own life the previous year. Indeed, the tragedy was so fresh that many claimed the film had a secret meaning. According to some, the movie's director Cai Chusheng had been in love with Ai, and was making the movie as an elegy to her.
With emotions running high, the set turned into a nightmare for Ruan.
20. She Had A Breakdown On Set
Ruan felt immense pressure to do Ai Xia’s story justice, and she couldn’t help but be affected by the grimness of the late star’s life. Eventually, all the pressure took a massive toll on Ruan. In the final scene, where Ruan’s character is on her deathbed, the young starlet was so wound up that the director had to stay with her to calm her down long after the cameras stopped rolling.
Tragically, all this emotional turmoil just foreshadowed Ruan’s own upcoming horrors.
21. The Critics Attacked Her
Despite the incredible torment Ruan had put herself through on the set of New Women—not to mention her relationship issues going on behind the scenes—all her hard work didn’t pay off. The film made a horrible impression when it first came out, with many critics objecting to what they saw as Ruan’s overly negative portrayal of Ai Xia.
And then she made an even bigger enemy…
22. The Tabloids Hated Her
Throughout New Women, the film takes aim at Chinese tabloids for the part they played in hastening Ai Xia’s passing. Well, the journals did not like that. Protesting reporters even forced director Cai Chusheng to make cuts to the movie, so that reporters wouldn't look so cruel. When that wasn’t enough, they turned their hungry gaze to Ruan. Sadly, she was about to have plenty of fodder for them.
23. Her Boyfriend Blackmailed Her
Around this time, Ruan’s past came back to haunt her in a terrifying way. Her old lover Zhang Damin, never much of an upstanding man, had turned into an absolute ghoul since Ruan left him. Now, he was out for blood—her blood, to be exact. First, he tried to blackmail the famous star in the hopes that she would cave…and his threats were ruinous.
24. Her Lover Threatened Her
Disgustingly enough, Zhang Damin tried to hold one over on Ruan by saying he would claim she had been his concubine, not his girlfriend. This would have been enough to unravel her whole career, but Zhang eventually changed his mind and switched tactics. Unfortunately, his new approach was something even more horrific.
25. Her Ex Got Revenge
In 1934, Zhang launched a lawsuit against the starlet, and his allegations were chillng. Zhang claimed Ruan as his property, almost literally. According to the spurned lover, Ruan was actually his wife, and even though she had left him for another man, she was still his, which meant that by seeing anyone else, she was committing adultery.
And even after that stunning accusation, Zhang had more up his sleeve.
26. She Was In A Courtroom Drama
In a move so mind-bogglingly ironic that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic, Zhang Damin also claimed that Ruan had stolen from him and owed him money. Yeah, this from the guy who used to fritter away Ruan’s superstar earnings at the blackjack table. The lovers’ spat was heating up, and it was going nowhere good.
27. She Had A Horrific Year
In 1935—the same year that New Women came out—Zhang publicly took poor Ruan to court for adultery. It was supposed to be a breakout year for China’s darling starlet, but instead it was the year that made her infamous. The tabloids gleefully splashed her chaotic love life all over the front pages. All the bad press had devastating consequences on poor Ruan.
28. Her Life Fell Apart
The public lapped up the scandalous news, and soon enough Ruan’s personal life far overshadowed her cinematic achievements. Meanwhile, her current partner Tang was becoming both more distant and more abusive toward the starlet, while her ex-boyfriend Zhang showed no signs of slowing down his vengeful lawsuit. In the end, Ruan was pushed to a breaking point.
29. She Met A Horrific End
On March 8, 1935, Ruan Lingyu took her own life, downing a fatal dose of barbiturates when she was alone and no one could possibly come to save her. The emotional, electrifying actress wasn’t just in the prime of her talent when she chose to end her life, she was also only a bare 24 years old. Yet her story was far from over.
30. Her Funeral Was Enormous
The people of Shanghai were tormented over their beloved starlet’s end, and Ruan’s funeral became less a memorial than a mass gathering. Surpassing even Rudolph Valentino’s notorious funeral, tens of thousands of people came out to say one last goodbye to Ruan. The procession of mourners was over three miles long. That’s when tragedy struck again.
31. She Had A Disturbing Domino Effect
During Ruan Lingyu’s funeral procession, her fans whipped themselves into a dark frenzy over their grief, until all at once, it came to a brutal head. In a kind of mass hysteria, no fewer than three young women took their own lives soon after the service. They felt too bereft to go on living, so they followed their heroine into the dark instead.
32. Her Fate Was Eerie
Perhaps one of the eeriest things about Ruan's short, sad life is the way it imitated her incandescent art. Despite the controversy, New Women remains some of her best work—and it seemed as though Ruan could never quite separate herself from her character, even at her darkest moment. Indeed, Ruan took her own life in the exact same way her character in the film does.
33. Her Lover Tried To Profit From Her Tragedy
Even though Ruan was gone, she still had to suffer one final indignity. Before she was cold in her grave, her ex Zhang Damin was already doing what he did best: Thinking only about himself. Instead of grieving his young ex-girlfriend, Zhang started trying to option a film about Ruan’s life to turn a profit. Oh, and it gets more mortifying than that.
34. She Had An Exploitation Film Made About Her
Not only did Zhang try to squeeze every penny he could out of his ex-girlfriend’s tragedy, he also “graciously” offered to star in the production. Grossly enough, someone took him up on the offer. In 1937, Zhang came out with the delicately titled Who’s to Blame, a thinly veiled account of Ruan’s life. Don’t worry though—Zhang got his comeuppance.
35. Her First Love Met An Ironic End
In the end, Zhang didn’t live much longer than the woman he had so scorned and used. By 1938, he was gravely ill and penniless once more from his gambling addictions. He passed later that year, just three short years after Ruan. Thankfully, the films he made about the starlet don’t seem to be in existence today. Serves him right.
36. She Was A Princess Of Cinema
It’s hard to overstate just how popular Ruan Lingyu was in the brief time that she reigned over Old Shanghai. In 1933, Ruan won second-runner up in Star Daily’s poll of the country’s “Movie Queen,” just behind mega-celebrities Hu Die and Chen Yumei. Keep in mind, this was just five years into Ruan’s burgeoning acting career.
37. Her Oeuvre Is Legendary
Following her premature end, Ruan became an absolute giant of Chinese cinema and a goddess of the silver screen. Although she only worked in film for less than a decade, the actress managed to make 29 movies, many of which are considered to be some of the finest silent films in all of Chinese cinema. And she also inspired more groundbreaking works….
38. Her Legacy Lives On
In 1992, years after Ruan’s passing, the famed Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung starred as the tragic starlet in Stanley Kwan’s film Centre Stage, which snagged Cheung the Best Actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival and earned a spot on several “The Best Films of the Decade” lists. Today, Ruan is still a legend of Old Shanghai.
39. Old Shanghai Mourned Her
In honor of just how much she had done for the art of silent film, the pallbearers at Ruan Lingyu’s funeral were a veritable who’s who of Chinese cinema, including multiple directors liker her New Women helmsman Cai Chusheng.
40. She Was The Greta Garbo Of China
For the brief, burning time that Ruan was at her peak, she had China in the palm of her perfectly manicured hands. Her searing talent for emoting in silent films was so undeniable that she earned a reputation as “The Greta Garbo of China,” after the actress equally famous for her ability to make love to the camera without saying a word.
41. She Changed Her Name
Like so many starlets before her, Ruan Lingyu changed her name to better make it in movies. Originally born Ruan Fenggen, Ruan chose the stage first name “Lingyu” when she decided she was going to go into acting. Obviously, the ploy worked out for her.
42. Her Final Words Were Brutal
Although Ruan was gone, she did leave one thing behind—a heartbreaking farewell note, which the Chinese authorities released to the mourning public in the days after her sudden and shocking passing. It explained Ruan's decision to end her own life in just five horrible words: “Gossip is a fearful thing". Even so, this note wasn’t the end of the story.
43. Her Last Hours Were Heartbreaking
In the aftermath of Ruan’s passing, investigators leapt to understand what exactly led her to her horrific final moments at such a young age. Sadly, it went far beyond the pressures she faced in the media. There is some evidence to suggest that just before she took the pills, Ruan had been physically abused. And then, in 2001, even more evidence emerged.
44. She Wrote More Than One Note
In 2001, decades after her ignominious end, researchers uncovered two other versions of Ruan's note, and they explained her final emotions in a much different light. In one of the letters, Ruan puts the blame solely on her childhood love Zhang, lamenting his vindictive streak and how he tried to shame her publicly. But the second and final note hits even closer to home.
45. Her Demise Is Mysterious
In the last version of her note, Ruan shifts the burden instead to Tang, confessing that his mistreatment and womanizing drove her into a depression and broke her heart. With so many aspects to consider—from the tabloids to her lovers—the real reasons behind Ruan’s decision are still murky and much debated. In short, she may never rest in peace.