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Movie actresses

Between 1930 and 1937, Lianhua Film Company was one of the major studios in China, and, by many ways, a symbol of modernity. This company was the first in China to control all aspects of production, making it similar to a Hollywood major. Moreover, it was Lianhua that first produced the type of movies that would set the tone for the entire Chinese cinematographic production of the 1930’s. The Lianhua films repeatedly addressed questions regarding modern Chinese society, such as the status of women. The politic of the Company towards its staff, specifically its actors, was also quite new and contributed to the creation of a new social status for a group, the actors, which encountered tremendous transformation in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Some of the most famous female stars of this period (e.g. Ruan Lingyu, Chen Yanyan, Li Lili, Wang Renmei) worked for Lianhua Film Company. Although they encountered many difficulties, working in a still traditional society where actresses were poorly considered, female stars of Lianhua were also by many ways modern women. At least this is the way they were presented by the Company through its publications, the Yingxi zazhi (TheFilm Magazine, 1930-1931) and the Lianhua huabaoLianhua illustrated, 1933-1937). Here, we see women working hard, proud of a profession shown as an honourable one, financially autonomous, developing all sorts of skills (writing, sports, languages, etc.), and, more important than anything, dedicated to the development of their country, participating to the building of a new, young and modern China. But there is a discrepancy between the images built by these magazines, the real life of the actresses and the numerous roles they played in the films. The tragic life and suicide of Ruan Lingyu is one moving example of this discrepancy. 

Between 1930, date of the foundation of the Lianhua Film Company and 1937, when it disappeared after Japanese invasion, 94 feature films were produced in the different studios of the Company. So far, we identified thirty five female actresses who worked for Lianhua. Some of them were big stars, some had a long and steady career, and others went unnoticed. They came from diverse backgrounds: some were born in a poor family; some came from prostitution and entertainment; some received a good, modern education. Some were married; some started their career at a very early age. Were they making a lot of money? Were they living with their family? How much the Company influenced their private lives?  To say the truth, little is known about the lives and careers of most of these women, albeit they are, in their diversity, good symbols of the social status of common people in 1930’s China. This is one of the aims of this study: put together as many elements as possible to help to understand what was the life, in its most concrete aspects, of women who had to establish their identity as professional artists, and to differentiate themselves from the ones working in the entertainment milieu where a woman was not far from being a prostitute.

If little is known about the lives and career of most of the actresses, it is because the lack of documentation about them. What we have, when we study movie actresses are images: still photos taken from magazines and, of course, movie images. We may know little about the biographies of Lianhua actresses, but by studying carefully the way they were shown in magazines; by studying the kind of roles they were attributed, and by confronting those with the facts, we may understand a lot about how they were perceived by Chinese society. Hence, images of the actresses –mainly the ones taken from Lianhua huabao and from the movies produced by the Company- will be our main object of study. Through a detailed analysis of feature films produced by the Company, as well as articles and photos published in its magazine, we will study how Lianhua transformed these women into professional actresses. We will see also how they became modern female public figures. Their image was created by the entanglement of three spheres: the private life, the public life and fiction lives played on screen. We will consider the sometimes conflicting relationships between these spheres by confronting different types of material: photos taken from 1930’s publications, Lianhua’s feature films, written documents. This confrontation of images and text documents produced with different purposes will underline the complexity and the ambiguity of a process understood not only as the making of professional actresses but also as the creation of a new, modern, Chinese woman.  

Anne Kerlan

Institut d'Histoire du Temps Présent, CNRS


For the history of Lianhua Film Company, see Anne Kerlan-Stephens & Marie-Claire Quiquemelle,  « La compagnie cinématographique Lianhua et le cinéma progressiste chinois, 1930-1937 », forthcoming, Arts Asiatiques 2006.

List of the 94 movies produced by the Lianhua Company

List of the 35 actresses who worked at the Lianhhua Company.

Last update Tuesday 25 May 2010 by C. Henriot