Updated: Apr 1
As the month of March approaches, the Asian community anticipates the results of the Oscars with Michelle Yeoh making history as the first Asian individual to be nominated for “Best Actress.” In addition to the Oscars, the month of March is the keeper of International Women's Day, March 8th, the same day another renowned Asian actress took her life.
Long before Asians appeared in the Oscar nominations and before the Oscars even considered foreign language films for nomination, Shanghai actress Ruan Lingyu rose to stardom and is now regarded as one of the most iconic faces of the silent era. Ruan was born in the spring of 1910, a year before the Qing dynasty’s overthrow. Ruan’s father died when she was six years old and she grew up supported by her mother who worked as a maid and ensured that her daughter would have a better life than the one she led. Ruan was sent to school but was instructed to conceal her background and her mother’s occupation so that she would fit in and avoid bullying.
At fifteen, Ruan was desperate to make a living and applied to become an actress, landing her first role in Bu Wancang’s A Married Couple in Name Only. Being the age of silent films, Ruan auditioned for roles and her powerfully moving expressions led her to success as a Shanghai starlet in China’s Golden Age of Cinema.
Starring in Chinese classics such as Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess and Cai Chusheng’s New Women, her roles represented a new generation of Chinese women liberated from dynastic rule but still struggling to find their place in the republican era. Her most notable role as Wei Ming in New Women caused a bit of controversy and set the tabloids’ on Ruan’s trail, predicting the end of Ruan’s own tragic tale. The film depicts Wei Ming, a music teacher who aspires to become a writer, but struggles to get by as she is pursued by the lustful Dr. Wang. The film ends with Wei going into prostitution in order to make enough money to save her dying daughter only to find that Dr. Wang is her first client. Disgusted, she runs away and watches her daughter die and soon ends her own life by overdosing. The film questioned women’s role in society and was criticized since the director's political views seemed to shine right through the celluloid.
Being the star of silent films where no dialogue was uttered, the press wrote their own words to describe Ruan's private life. Ruan’s love life consisted of two men: Zhang Damin, who was a son from one of the families her mother served as a housemaid for, and Tang Jishan, who was a wealthy, womanizing businessman. Ruan ended up choosing Tang due to Zhang’s gambling addiction. Both men were unsatisfied with Ruan’s decision and took advantage of her, making her life miserable. In spite, Zhang filed multiple lawsuits against her claiming she had stolen from him and committed adultery. Although Ruan had chosen him to be her lover, Tang pursued actress Liang Saizhen. On the night before she was supposed to appear in court, Ruan made a bowl of congee, mixed in three bottles of sleeping pills and wrote two suicide notes. The more famous note was aimed at the press, saying “gossip is a fearful thing” and the other was written to Zhang, saying “I’ve been driven to death by you.”
Ruan’s life was no celebrity spectacular. Her life was ripped from her and put into the hands of ruthless men as her story was scribbled over by the staining ink of the press.
Although her story ended 88 years ago, the archetype continues. In the 21st century, another self made woman’s story was taken out of her hands by the media and also the Royal family. Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex, became another victim of the press when her relationship with Prince Harry became public. In December of this past year, Harry and Meghan released a Netflix series revealing what occurred behind the words that the tabloids chose to publish. Upon the series’ release, Vogue released an article that further explained the couple's estrangement from the Royal family.
“The Sussexes were crumbling under incessant negative media coverage that included an intimate letter between Meghan and her estranged father published in The Daily Mail. (The duchess even began to have suicidal thoughts.) Harry claims his family did little to protect them despite it all: ‘They knew how bad it was. They thought, ‘Why couldn’t she just deal with it?”
By leaving the Royal family and releasing their Netflix series, Meghan was able to take back her life and clean up the narrative that the Royal family had contaminated.
Meghan is an example of progress, but her account also stands as proof that women’s stories are still being abused and mistold. Female stories are not only being distorted in real life, but also in entertainment. The misrepresentation in entertainment matters because entertainment doesn’t just perform as a show, but also as an example. How people are perceived on screen affects how viewers perceive people in real life. Over the course of time, women and racial groups have been working to reform the representation in media and encourage inclusivity and equity. For example, actress Sandra Oh advocates for both accurate female and Asian representation on screen. She has not only voiced her opinions about representation, but has pushed the boundaries with her career. When Oh went to audition for Grey’s Anatomy, she was signed up to audition for Dr. Bailey, but ended up asking for Cristina– who was originally not supposed to be of Asian descent. By speaking up for herself, she was able to secure a lead role in a major television series– a role that characterized a woman of color as spunky, outgoing, and self-driven. Her role in Grey’s Anatomy helped pave the way to help diversify the roles available to women of color and therefore further the perspectives and representation of who these women are and are capable of being.
Historically, we document the past in order to learn from it and as we approach an award season of firsts, we should not only embrace our progress but remember what we are progressing from. In the past, the taking of one’s life might have been the only way to take it back, autonomously. This March 8th, think of the women who came before. Who paved the way for the freedoms and successes we are able to enjoy today. Think of the women whose lives were used to make this change. Of the women who took their own because they were deprived of their own voice. Ruan Lingyu was done playing the role that other people had written for her and took autonomy over the life she thought she was given.
Editors: Lang D., Joyce P., Erika Y.