Ruan Lingyu, a silent-film actress still remembered by many, left behind 29 films and the final message, "gossip can kill," when she committed suicide in Shanghai on March 8, 1935.
Ruan's acting was so natural, accurate and graceful that, even after 70 years, her films still seem fresh. She was adept at conveying meaning through her whole body, thus overcoming the limitations of early silent films, unlike some performers today who talk and talk and express nothing through gesture and "body language."
In 1982, when a Chinese Film Retrospective was held in Italy, audiences were amazed at Ruan's talent, especially in the film Goddess. They called Ruan "China's Greta Garbo."
Ruan was a versatile character actress. In her nine-year film career, she played many different roles, such as writer, factory worker, wealthy socialite, prostitute, flower girl, nun and beggar. Her unaffected, sensitive character portrayals contrast with the false, exaggerated performance that predominates in many films today.
Ruan was born in Shanghai in 1910. Her father, a penniless machinist, died when she was just five years old. For a while she went to live with her mother who was working as a housemaid for a rich family. She then went to a girl's school, but as soon as she had finished primary school, she began to look for a job to lighten her mother's load. She saw an advertisement for film actors, went for an interview and was given a job.
Her first screen appearance in 1927 was in the film Husband and Wife in Name. In spite of her lack of formal education, she was diligent and scrupulous in every detail of her acting. These qualities, combined with her beauty, made her screen images very impressive.
In 1935, during the shooting of her last film, a divorce suit and slanderous stories in unscrupulous local newspapers caused her a great deal of mental anguish. She finally decided to take her own life to prove her innocence.
The whole of Shanghai wept when the news of her death was heard. When she was buried at Lianyi Villa outside Shanghai, several hundred thousand mourners lined the road to watch her funeral procession.
Ruan's death aroused much public indignation. The great writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) published an essay Gossip Is a Fearful Thing, denouncing the newspaper bloodhounds and gossip mongers.
(China Daily April 13, 2006)