8/3/1935: Ruan Lingyu Commits Suicide
"Gossip is a Fearful Thing": The Death of Ruan Lingyu
Largely unknown in the West, the actress Ruan Lingyu is still an iconic figure in China more that seventy years after her tragic death in 1935. Often referred to as China’s Greta Garbo, Ruan appeared in 29 films - all silent - in less than a decade, and found herself at the heart of both the nation’s affections and its’ news media’s predatory attentions.
In contrast to her relatively smooth ascendancy to film stardom, Ruan’s personal life was a succession of bad choices that not only brought her deep unhappiness but also flew in the face of China’s social conventions. Her father died when she was five years old, and her newly-widowed mother found employment with the Zhang family. Zhang Damin, the youngest son of the family, took a shine to Ruan and they lived together as man and wife from 1925 – although they never officially married because his parents disapproved on the basis of their differing social positions. However, in China at this time, the vagaries of marital law meant that a couple who lived together were often looked upon as married, as morality was considered to be as major a consideration as legal formality.
The couple’s relationship was strained and unhappy. Zhang Damin was a gambler who frittered away large amounts of their money. He was also physically abusive to Ruan. Separation was inevitable, and by late 1932 they were living apart. Ruan entered into a relationship with Tang Jishan, a wealthy Cantonese tea merchant who managed the Chahua Tea Company, whom she had met at various functions staged by the Lianhua Studio. In February 1933, Ruan instructed her lawyer, Wu Chengyu, to publish a statement of her independence from Zhang in numerous papers, an action which was widely accepted as a means of divorce at the time. When Zhang returned from a business trip in April 1933 to find Ruan living with Tang Jishan, the three of them entered into a formal legal agreement under which it was agreed that Ruan would pay Zhang a maximum of 100 yuan per month, that they would otherwise live independently of each other and that the terms of the agreement would not be made public.
Both parties adhered to the terms until November 1934, when Zhang, knowing that Ruan was only obliged to pay him for another few months, asked her for money to finance a business venture. Ruan refused, saying she would only pay him the outstanding 500 yuan due to him under the terms of their agreement. Zhang sued Ruan and Jishan for damages, but when Jishan counter-sued for defamation the case was dropped. However, in February 1935, Zhang began new proceedings accusing Ruan and Jishan of fabricating documents and forging his seal in order to defraud him.
Ironically, the real-life proceedings being played out in the public eye bore many similarities to the plot of New Woman, the film that was to be Ruan Lingyu’s last. In the film she played a character whose modern outlook and perceived immorality earns her the scorn of her peers and the press which ultimately drives her to suicide. When the film was released the press protested loudly at the negative way in which it was portrayed. Fearing a media backlash that could scupper the film’s performance at the box office, the Lianhua studio made an open apology and arranged to screen the film at a fundraising event for a women’s educational centre on International Women’s Day on 8th March 1935. However, it was on that day that Ruan Lingyu took her life by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
At around midnight on 7th March 1935, two days before Zhang’s case was due in court, Ruan and Jishan returned from a dinner party at Lianhua Studios. While Jishan slept, Ruan ate a bowl of rice porridge and prepared herself some tea which she used to wash down some 30 barbitone-sodium tablets.
She wrote three suicide notes as she waited to die, one of which was an open note ‘to society’ in which she restated New Woman’s stand against the press and its methods. She also acknowledged the role that gossip – both malicious and idle – had played in her decision, using the phrase ‘renyan kewei’ which can be translated to mean ‘gossip is a fearful thing.’ She also censured Zhang Damin, for selling maliciously slanderous stories to the press. ‘You may not have killed me with your own two hands,’ she wrote, ‘but I have died because of you.’
Ruan was still alive when Jishan awoke, but she was unconscious, and despite a frantic dash to hospital, doctors were unable to save her life and she was formally pronounced dead at 6.38pm on 8th March 1935.
Ruan Lingyu’s funeral, which took place on 14th March 1935, has become the stuff of legend. Conflicting reports give the number of mourners that lined the streets to watch her funeral procession wind its way through the streets of Shanghai to be anything between 100,000 and 300,000. The procession itself stretched for more than three miles, and three women are alleged to have committed suicide. The New York Times even carried a report on the event on its front page, proclaiming it ‘the most spectacular funeral of the century.’
The press, which had arguably played its part in Ruan Lingyu’s suicide, now pored over every detail of her death, and reported without irony the accusations her grieving mother levelled at them. They made the hapless Tang Jishan, who was also reported to have been unfaithful and abusive to Ruan, the villain of the piece with such thorough conviction that the Lianhua Studios openly accused him of being ‘a criminal who did harm to the whole movie world, being the direct cause of Ruan’s suicide.’
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