Five iconic Chinese actresses

From the Shanghai golden age to the modern era, Chinese cinema is notable for its succession of great actresses and strong female roles. Here are five of its most brilliant stars.

John Berra
Updated:

Gong Li in Eros (2004)

Gong Li in Eros (2004)

As with most national film industries, the cinema of mainland China is rich with iconic actresses whose screen identities are intertwined with the social climate of the day. Their star personas have embodied both the fantasies and frustrations of the popular audience.

Although movies had been produced in China from 1905, true stars emerged in the 1930s through the studio system that was largely dominated by Lianhua, Mingxing and Tianyi. With the left-wing movement developing apace, there were ample opportunities for such actresses as Ruan Lingyu, Li Lili, Lumin Lu, Yuan Meiyun, Chen Yumei and Hu Die to demonstrate their charisma in socially minded works. Hu would be crowned ‘movie queen’ in the first poll to determine the nation’s most popular movie star, organised by the newspaper Star Daily. A second survey, conducted in 1934 by Movie Life, elevated Chen to the top spot, although she retired soon after to marry the head of Tianyi.

Today, it is Ruan who is most associated with the era due to the high standing of her classic melodrama The Goddess (1934), while Li is best known for her collaborations with director Sun Yu, such as Queen of Sports (1934) and The Big Road (1934). Other actresses had careers that straddled both the first (1930s) and second (late 1940s) golden age of Chinese cinema, such as Shangguan Yunzhu, who appeared in the leftist dramas Myriad of Lights (1948) and Crows and Sparrows (1949). Another film made just before the Communist Revolution, the romance Spring in a Small Town (1948), revolved around the fiercely internalised performance of Wei Wei as a wife torn between loyalty to her invalid husband and childhood sweetheart.

Wei Wei in Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Wei Wei in Spring in a Small Town (1948)

The first breakout star of the reform era was Chong Chen, more popularly known in the west as Joan Chen, who was dubbed China’s answer to Elizabeth Taylor by Time magazine. The fresh-faced actress won the heart of the nation with her performance in the propagandist drama The Little Flower Girl (1979) but the industry was not developing fast enough to nurture her talent, so Chen moved to the US and won international recognition with her stunning performances as a drug-addled empress in The Last Emperor (1987). However, she then drifted through various B-movies that merely required an exotic presence due to the lack of suitable roles for Asian talent in the Hollywood mainstream.

As with many screen icons, Gong Li arrived as a fully-fledged star, with the opening scene of Zhang Yimou’s ravishing feudal drama Red Sorghum (1987) focusing on her sobbing bride-to-be as she is ferried across a mythical landscape to marry the owner of a winery, only to reveal a more provocative side to her nature when the carriage is ambushed by a masked bandit. Her ability to convey courage in the face of adversity would play a crucial role in putting Chinese cinema on the map in the late-1980s and early-1990s, although subsequent frustration with a lack of quality material due to censorship restrictions would make her a comparatively sporadic presence in the 2000s.

At this time, much media attention was afforded to the ‘Four Dan Actresses’ – a grouping derived from the term ‘Four Dan’ that was coined in the 1920s to refer to actors who were popular for undertaking female roles – namely Zhang Ziyi, Zhao Wei, Zhou Xun and Xu Jinglei. They would be followed by media-savvy starlet Fan Bingbing and Tang Wei, the latter of whom found her promising career curtailed by the controversy surrounding her sexually explicit performance in Ang Lee’s espionage thriller Lust, Caution (2007), but has recently re-established her stardom in mainland cinema with the crowd-pleasing romance Finding Mr. Right (2013).

What follows is a summary of the selected highlights from the careers of five Chinese actresses ranging from the first golden age to the commercial and independent sectors of today, with an emphasis on the performances that have made them so iconic.

Ruan Lingyu

The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess (1934)

Essential films  

Little Toys (1933), The Goddess (1934), New Women (1934)

What’s special about her?

The protagonists essayed by Ruan Lingyu always had a tragic dimension, a recurrent theme in her melodramas that the Lianhua studio used to distinguish her within the developing star system. Often an object of commodification through exploitation – as in The Goddess and New Woman – her sorrowful heroines would try to maintain their dignity in face of humiliation or degradation, whether their background was that of high society or abject poverty.

She would frequently portray loving mothers who lose their children, as in Little Toys, in which the son of her humble villager is kidnapped and sold to a wealthy woman in Shanghai. While her screen image is synonymous with Shanghai cinema, The Goddess is the film that most encapsulates Ruan’s iconography. She plays a prostitute who tries to provide her son with the chance of a better life, but further sinks into disrepute when she becomes the ‘property’ of a wicked gambler, eventually being sentenced to a lengthy prison term due to an outburst of violence.

Ruan’s legacy is forever intertwined with the tragic circumstances of her suicide at the age of 24. This was attributed to a fall-out with the tabloid press, which had run intrusive coverage of her private life and been unhappy with how they had been presented in her penultimate film New Woman which, in a horrible foreshadowing, ends with her struggling mother taking her own life. Ruan would be the subject of Stanley Kwan’s biopic Centre Stage (1991) starring Maggie Cheung.

Finest moment… making a dignified case to the school principal in The Goddess when the discovery of her profession has put her innocent son at the risk of expulsion.

Li Lili

Daybreak (1933)

Daybreak (1933)

Essential films  

Daybreak (1933), Queen of Sports (1934), The Big Road (1934)

What’s special about her?

While her Little Toys and National Customs (1935) co-star Ruan Lingyu projected an image of big city sophistication, even when playing characters at the lower end of the social spectrum, Li Lili was presented as a ‘country girl’, soon gaining the nickname ‘sweet sister’ due to her wholesome presence, although her spirited nature was also part of her popular appeal.

A rural upbringing was often part of her screen history, with Daybreak casting her as a young woman from a fishing village who becomes trapped by the dark side of Shanghai after relocating for a factory job. The more upbeat Queen of Sports has her overcoming the jealousy of her college classmates to achieve fame in the world of athletics, although this is also a cautionary tale as her running champion loses sight of her ideals once she starts mixing with high society.

The latter film was specifically developed for Li by director Sun Yu in order to capitalise on her energetic image, as was The Big Road, a national defence film designed to arouse patriotic feelings with its story of labourers constructing a highway to use in the war against the Japanese. Li plays one of two women who flirt with and later help the road crew. Her image takes a bolder turn when she seduces a local landlord in order to expose the fact that he has been taking bribes from the enemy in exchange for sabotaging the construction project.

Finest moment… telling the firing squad that they can only shoot when she flashes her best smile at the heartbreaking climax of Daybreak.

Gong Li

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Essential films

Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), Temptress Moon (1996)

What’s special about her?

Gong Li became the international face of Chinese cinema in the 1990s due to her collaborations with director and then-partner Zhang Yimou, which began with her screen debut in Red Sorghum (1987). A saga of female oppression set in feudal times, it established Gong’s image as a striking yet tragic figure whose tribulations would be framed against lush revolution-era backdrops.

Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern follow this pattern. Gong’s characters exhibit strident behaviour that can be seen as rebellious, although her heroines are often ground down by social constraints. This headstrong screen persona was largely bound to Zhang’s rural dramas, which also include the more satirical The Story of Qiu Ju, a contemporary tale of a peasant (Gong) who files a lawsuit against her village head when her husband is injured.

Aside from her role as a cabaret singer in Zhang’s 1930s underworld epic Shanghai Triad (1995), Gong’s more exotic roles during this period came in collaboration with Chen Kaige, although her characters would once again be tinged by tragedy. Farewell My Concubine (1993) has her courtesan driven to suicide by the betrayal of her opera performer lover, while her powerful head of estate in Temptress Moon is crippled by an opium addiction.

In her finest work, Gong is a model of restraint as a range of emotions ripple across her face, although her capacity for bursts of rage, as seen in Zhang’s post-revolution family saga To Live (1994), is equally shattering.

Finest moment… slipping into insanity in Raise the Red Lantern after learning that she has indirectly caused her master to murder another concubine following scandalous revelations during a bout of drunkenness.

Zhou Xun

Suzhou River (2000)

Suzhou River (2000)

Essential films

Suzhou River (2000), Perhaps Love (2005), Stolen Life (2005)

What’s special about her?

In the case of Zhou Xun, it’s her breakthrough dual role that remains her most iconic. Lou Ye’s haunting urban noir Suzhou River cast Zhou in two roles: Moudan is the daughter of a wealthy businessman who charms the motorcycle courier assigned the task of ferrying her around Shanghai, while Meimei is the physically identical bar performer whom the young man becomes obsessed with when he seemingly loses the love of his life. Both women are hopeless romantics, but Zhou oscillates between Moudan’s naivety and Meimei’s worldly attitude.

Doubling is a recurrent theme in Zhou’s career, as she was resplendent as both a movie actress and a film-within-a-film character in Peter Chan’s stylised musical Perhaps Love, while she inhabited another doppelgänger identity in Susie Au’s frenetic crime caper Ming Ming (2007).

Zhou’s affinity for characters on the social margins is best represented by her tragic performance as a swindled student in Li Shaohong’s cautionary tale Stolen Life, although these instincts would also find a suitable genre vehicle in Cao Baoping’s thriller The Equation of Love and Death (2008), which cast Zhao as a kidnapped Kunming taxi driver.

Perhaps due to the industry’s shift towards escapist spectacle over human drama to achieve multiplex supremacy over Hollywood imports, Zhou has recently featured in such commercial fare as The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011), The Great Magician (2012) and the Painted Skin franchise (2008/2012), but remains a formidable dramatic talent if allocated sufficiently adventurous material.

Finest moment… directly addressing the camera to question the lengths that Suzhou River’s unseen videographer will go to for true love.

Zhao Tao

The World (2004)

The World (2004)

Essential films

The World (2004), Shun Li and the Poet (2011), A Touch of Sin (2013)

What’s special about her?

Usually introduced as the muse of Sixth Generation figurehead Jia Zhangke, with whom she collaborated on her first screen role in Platform (2000), the versatile Zhao Tao has played a range of roles across the director’s work, although most serve to represent the impact of China’s modernisation on her generation.

Unknown Pleasures (2002) casts Tao as a dancer working for the Mongolian King Liquor company, which extols the virtues of a hedonistic lifestyle that is at odds with her fundamental conservatism. In The World, she inhabits a stage performer at Beijing World Park who risks losing both personal identity and relationship with her security guard boyfriend due to the suffocating nature of their place of employment. In Still Life (2006) she plays a middle-class nurse who purposefully navigates the region of the Three Gorge Damn project in search of her estranged husband in order to secure a divorce, somehow remaining unmoved by the turbulent demolition and relocation that is occurring around her. In the fact/fiction hybrid 24 City (2008) she is a personal shopper who breaks down while expressing her dream of buying a new apartment for her family. And in the combustible A Touch of Sin her sauna receptionist has an unpleasant exchange with an entitled customer which leads to bloodshed.

In a rare non-Jia role, Tao is equally compelling as an immigrant in Italy who develops a relationship with an elderly fisherman in Andrea Segre’s naturalistic drama Shun Li and the Poet.

Finest moment… being forced to commit an act of shocking violence out of self-defence in A Touch of Sin, a scene in which the social frustrations embodied by Tao’s usually reserved screen presence suddenly rise to the surface.

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