Ruan Lingyu: an icon of a marginalised Chinese golden age

In the Western world we are so accustomed to regarding Hollywood as the Self to the ‘world cinema’ Other. That is, non-Western cinema is often seen as peripheral to a supposed Western mainstream. Due to cinema’s origins in France with the Lumière brothers, cinema is often viewed as something inherently Western. Hence, film criticism and the international film festival circuit frequently categorise non-Western cinema as ‘world cinema’ and ‘best foreign language film’ awards place non-English language cinema as marginal. This Western hegemony certainly seems evident in the way that the so-called golden age of cinema is frequently seen as something stemming principally from Hollywood.

In terms of classic cinema, or the golden age, we think of names such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich or iconic films such as Gone with the Wind or It Happened One Night. However, it is easy to overlook the fact that Hollywood is not all there is. China’s cinematic golden age is usually considered as that which existed in Shanghai in the 1930s. While few people living in Euro-America may have heard of Chinese film star Ruan Lingyu, she was without a doubt an icon of China’s own golden age of cinema.

However, claims of the marginalisation of non-Western cinema would be hypocritical without mentioning the Western influences of China’s own golden age of cinema. Shanghai was a principal area impacted by colonisation and influences from Euro-America inevitably arrived. What’s more, the rise of urban commercialism saw the opening of more and more cinemas and theatres in Shanghai. In the 1930s the leftist movement saw many films dealing with issues such as the critique of oppressive patriarchy.

Two films that do just that are the silent classics The Goddess (1934) and New Women (1935) which star Ruan Lingyu. In Goddess, she plays a mother driven to prostitution to care for her young son. After being slave to the threats of gambling man Mr Zhang she ultimately kills him and is sent to prison. However, her son’s headmaster comes to her and vows to look after the child. The film contains clear elements of the leftist movement of the era. New Women depicts the bitterness that ensues when the female protagonist rejects male advances from friends and colleagues. The result leads to a stunted career, financial struggles and the sickness of her child. The film ends with the female protagonist’s suicide following her daughter’s death. Ruan’s powerful screen presence succeeds in rousing maximum audience empathy with her rage and desolation.

Ruan’s iconic status was consolidated by her tragic suicide shortly after the release of New Women. What’s more, her turbulent personal life had provided tabloid-worthy intrigue. Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage (1991) deals with such aspects of Ruan’s private life and is cut with real footage of Ruan while Maggie Cheung gives a refined and luring portrayal of the star.

Ultimately, the brilliance of China’s golden age of cinema should be remembered and promoted in order to deconstruct Hollywood hegemony and recognise non-Western narratives.

 

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