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“Gossip is a fearful thing”: The Suicide of Ruan Lingyu

March 13, 2011

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.

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