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Women Taking Back Their Stories

Updated: Apr 1

TW: suicide

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