Ruan Lingyu Analysis

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Often referred to as the “Chinese Garbo” and “generally regarded as the greatest actress China has produced”, Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935) is one of the icons of early Chinese cinema (Stokes and Hoover, 92). In addition to being recognized for her “soulful characterizations” of “tragic roles”, Ruan was also representative of a “new, modern woman” (Stokes and Hoover, 92; The Chinese Mirror, 2011). This essay will examine and show how the “Ruan Lingyu” that both the viewers of her own era and today know is ultimately just the constructed visual persona of her – a mythologized figure that transcends even her own life. Using The Goddess (1934) and Centre Stage (1992) as case studies, I argue that the multi-faceted onscreen and off-screen image of Ruan is transformed into a vehicle through which Chinese cinema engages with its society’s particular time and space in the films’ moments of production.

An examination of Ruan Lingyu’s career would reveal that “in general, Ruan’s persona is not a “type” character” but rather a “fate persona” who “encounters tragedy in her life” regardless of “her social background or her age” (Kerlan, 2011). Ruan was “an icon in the tradition of ‘suffering Chinese women’
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Hailed as “a masterpiece of ‘the first golden age of Chinese cinema’”, the film marked not only Wu’s directorial debut, but also “the pinnacle of [Ruan Lingyu’s] career” (Harris, 128). Ruan’s “mature, nuanced performance”, which was “subtle but at the same time powerful and rich”, proved to be a major factor in the movie’s success and lasting impact in Chinese cinema (Harris, 128; Rayns, 18). As “one of Lianhua’s biggest successes”, The Goddess “provides a handy metonym of the good-hearted prostitute for nationalistic Chinese identity” while channeling “anti-capitalist, anti-feudal leftist notions” at the same time (Gentry,
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