Ruan Lingyu

Her Life and Career

Non-Fiction - Biography
229 Pages
Reviewed on 06/06/2024
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Rich Follett for Readers' Favorite

Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career by Patrick Galvan is far more than a meticulously researched and masterfully written biography. It is a precise and impeccably unbiased portrait of a volatile and pivotal era in Chinese history when Chinese cinema was at its nascent peak and increasingly at odds with the conservative government that sought to quash independent (revolutionary) thinking throughout all forms of artistic expression. The tension is palpable in Galvan’s narrative; in a society where women had been repressed and undervalued for centuries, Ruan’s remarkable trajectory from poverty to internationally acclaimed film star seems all the more extraordinary. Born in 1910 and tragically dead by her own hand in 1935, just shy of her twenty-fifth birthday, Ruan was a study in contrasts: beautiful but scarred, delicate yet resilient, ebullient but deeply troubled, attention-seeking but intensely private – in short, exactly the sort of complex personality that invites public adulation and public scrutiny in equal measure.

Patrick Galvan provides valuable plot and character information for all of Ruan's films (many of which have been lost), offers insightful commentary and astute but impartial criticism, and infuses a solid sense of the prevailing culture and society of China at the time, along with historical highlights, anecdotal and archival evidence, and scholarly suggestions for further research. Along with the informative text, Galvan provides a complete filmography, a comprehensive bibliography, detailed chapter notes, and a wonderful assemblage of archival photographs to help bring one of China’s most enduring cinema stars into sharp focus for his readers. In addition, the text is written in an easy-to-follow chronological format. Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career is not only a wonderful tribute to a culturally important artist who might otherwise have been forgotten; it is also a sterling example of a finely constructed scholarly biography – a kind of road map for those wishing to explore the genre or perhaps write a biography themselves.

Grant Leishman

Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career by Patrick Galvan is a fascinating look at an unknown early Chinese movie actress and the tragedy that surrounded her life and premature death. Ruan was born into poverty to Cantonese parents. Her mother was determined to find a path for the young girl to escape the low social structure inherent in her birth. Working as a maid for a wealthy Shanghai family, Ruan’s mother somehow found a way for her daughter to achieve the education that had been denied to her. When Ruan saw an advertisement seeking auditions for the exciting new medium of cinema just taking off in China, she rushed off to audition. Despite a less-than-stellar performance in her first audition, those running the studio did see some special in the beautiful young teenager and she was cast in her first silent movie. She would go on to win the hearts of millions of fans across China in her brief but stellar movie career that would come to a premature end with her death, by her hand, at the tender age of just twenty-four.

Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career is more than just a biography of the brief but influential few years of an actress who became a national idol; it is also a testimony of the early film industry in China, its leading characters, and its use by both the Nationalists and the Communists as a political tool to sway the minds of the masses. Author Patrick Galvan has written a true historical record that bears the stamp of authority. What I found particularly insightful and interesting was the copious chapter notes provided by the author that did more than just cite source material but also frequently provided deeper background information on the period and topics covered. The author successfully presented Ruan Lingyu in a sympathetic light as the victim of not only the patriarchal society of early twentieth-century China but also the manipulation of two devious and duplicitous common-law husbands. Ruan’s treatment by the local media, who even back then were ready to pounce on the slightest hint of impropriety or scandal, shows that little has changed in the intervening years. The outpouring of sympathy at her funeral and the longevity of her legacy in the industry shows us what a special place this young woman occupied in the hearts and minds of ordinary Chinese. It is wonderful to read something both educational and entertaining and this book fulfills those requirements perfectly. I have no hesitation in highly recommending it.

Essien Asian

Ruan Lingyu, born to struggling parents, triumphed over severe poverty and a rigid class structure to become a well-known figure in the early growing Chinese film industry. Because of her extraordinary achievements, even after her controversial suicide she continues to be revered by both her people and the current generation of actors. The irony surrounding Ruan Lingyu is that, despite her widespread fame, much important information about her personal life was contentious. Ruan Lingyu: Her Life And Career is a thought-provoking biography by Patrick Galvan that objectively evaluates the star's accomplishments and the sad events that led to her death just a year and a half into her glittering career. This book is an in-depth examination of the well-known Chinese actress's early life as well as a meticulous effort to paint an accurate picture of the circumstances surrounding her suicide, devoid of the rumors and gossip that the tabloids spread about the incident.

Ruan Lingyu: Her Life And Career cites multiple sources and presents the facts alongside the misleading information circulating at the time. The circumstances surrounding her marriage to Zhang Damin and the comparison of the dubious letters her lover Tang Jishan published, following her passing, with others that seemed far more genuine are two instances that stand out in this regard. Curious readers can come to their own conclusions about this actress's life, thanks to the extensive reference notes at the end of each chapter and a comprehensive list of all the movies in which she appeared. Galvan's clear explanations and in-depth analysis shed light on a rising star struggling to thrive within a cultural structure that did little to protect its female members when needed, even going so far as to explain why her name changed over time to fit the situations she found herself in and how she channeled her real-life experiences in her roles. Patrick Galvan deserves recognition for the work that went into writing this exceptional book.

Jamie Michele

Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career by Patrick Galvan chronicles the journey of Ruan Lingyu, a prominent figure in Chinese cinema during the 1920s and 1930s. Born as Western influence grew, Ruan overcame personal and professional obstacles to become a leading actress, embodying traditional values against the rise of foreign cinema. Collaborating with socially conscious filmmakers, she maneuvered private issues while maintaining her status in the industry. Despite facing the challenges of transitioning to sound cinema, Ruan's legacy endured beyond her tragic death in 1935. Her life sparked discussions about women's treatment and left a huge impact on Chinese cinema in the thick of financial decline, censorship, and political turmoil. Ruan Lingyu's legacy continues to inspire reflections on fame, scandal, and gender roles, resonating across film and academia.

Ruan Lingyu by Patrick Galvan provides a rich historical backdrop, placing the actress's life and career within the socio-political landscape of early 20th-century China, essential for understanding the challenges she faced. Galvan digs deeply into the Chinese film industry's operations, showing how political and social changes influenced filmmaking. Particularly compelling is the discussion, for me personally, on the Chinese Left Wing Dramatists Association's strategy to critique the government through proletarian cinema without inciting censorship, exemplified by Ruan's film, The Peach Girl. I appreciate that Galvan intimately describes Ruan's personal relationships and struggles, including her tumultuous relationships with Zhang Damin and Tang Jishan, without being salacious and with the respect she deserves. Overall, the writing is straightforward with some picture insertions and offers substantial insights into a person, an industry, and an era of cinema previously unknown to me. Very highly recommended.

C.R. Hurst

I have always been drawn to biographies about women who, though they have led compelling lives, have nonetheless been overlooked by many historians. One such woman is Ruan Lingyu who gained fame and fortune as a silent film star in the Shanghai film industry during the 1920s and 1930s, yet she is little known to film fans. Author Patrick Galvan’s Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career aims to change that with a biography that introduces her and her movies to a Western audience. Known for her delicate beauty and natural and versatile acting style, Ruan Lingyu’s life is examined through the context of her films and her circle of directors and fellow actors who seek artistic freedom during intense political turmoil in China.

Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career is undeniably well-researched. Patrick Galvan incorporates numerous sources that provide a thorough look at not only Ruan’s life but also the flourishing film industry that produced movies that not only entertained but also questioned traditional Chinese values during the rise of the Communist party. I often wished that the author had offered more personal information about Ruan Lingyu, though I understand why he could not – she was a private person off-screen who lived a short life. Many potential sources too were either lost or destroyed. Nevertheless, Galvan does a fine job of capturing the importance of her legacy. Like many great film actors who die young, Ruan Lingyu represented more to her fans than the roles that she played. Whether she portrayed a servant, a rebel, an aristocrat, or a prostitute, to them she embodied their struggles and those of the entire nation.