By: Patrick Galvan
Publication Date: June 2, 2022
Reviewed by: Barbara Bamberger Scott
Author Patrick Galvan sets his sights on a Chinese actress of that country’s silent film era – Ruan Lingyu, noted for her ability to bring genuine emotion to the roles she played, and, as Galvan portrays her, to experience deep feeling in her personal, often trauma-ridden private life in his debut biography, Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career.
Ruan Lingyu (her stage name) was the daughter of a couple whose poverty shaped her early life; her father died when she was young after working in a polluted factory for little pay and her only sister died of malnutrition. Her mother, clearly a strong character despite her cultural limitations, was determined to give her daughter a chance to succeed. She found work as a maid in a private, wealthy household, allowing for Ruan to attend a private school and learn math and language skills. Early on the little girl’s theatrical talents, as a singer and amateur actress, became apparent. Fate decreed that Ruan, an alluring teen, would become involved in an unofficial marriage with one of the rich master’s sons, who not only stole the girl’s heart but gambled away any money she would supply. A second relationship was equally denigrating, with a man who physically abused her. But her acting ability brought her to public recognition and garnered an adoring public, possibly soothing her battered heart and body for a time. Her film career began when she was in her mid-teens, in a role in a now-lost film, Husband and Wife in Name. Like many of her noted roles, the movie stressed the lowly station of women, including the one for which she was greatly acclaimed, as The Goddess – a prostitute. Her suicide at age 24 would have come as a shock to her admirers, and indeed it was reported, Galvan notes, that as many as 300,000 people followed her funeral procession and at least three female suicides took place among those in attendance.
The political and cultural background that played its own eerie, sometimes directly cataclysmic role in Ruan’s life is deftly woven into Galvan’s narrative. A well-known film journalist specializing in Japanese and early Chinese cinema, Galvan first saw Ruan Lingyu in all her delicate and emotive attractiveness in The Goddess and resolved to bring her accomplishments to the attention of a new generation.
Quill says: Galvan’s skillfully written account of this unusual, touchingly bold young woman could well be envisioned as a movie or film series, set against the dramatic backdrop of events in her nation, her professional realm, and along the rough road Ruan Lingyu had to travel as an intelligent, intuitive woman in a male-dominated society.