New Woman (新女性Xin nüxing)

Title image of New Woman

Director: Cai Chusheng

Screenplay: Sun Shiyi

Cinematographer: Zhou Daming

Producer: Lu Jie

Music: Nie Er

Lyrics: Sun Shiyi

Cast: Ruan Lingyu, Zheng Junli, Yin Xu, Wang Naidong

Studio: Lianhua (United Photoplay Service) Film Company, 1934

Description: B/W; silent (sound version); 109 minutes. Click here to preview the translated script and view images and clips, available at MCLC Resource Center.


After being abandoned by the husband she eloped with, Wei Ming (Ruan Lingyu) seeks new life in Shanghai. She becomes a music teacher in a private school and apires to becoming a writer. With the help of her friend Yu Haichou (Zheng Junli), her first book is going to be published. The publisher, however, gets interested in publishing it only after her true identity as a beautiful woman is revealed. The trustee of the school, Dr. Wang (Wang Naidong), although a married man, keeps proposing to Wei Ming and secrectly has her expelled after being rejected by her. Being unemployed, and having to save her child, who falls seriously ill shortly after their reunion, Wei Ming relents to a one-night sexual encounter in order to collect money, but only finds herself being disgraced by her first client--Dr. Wang. The shame and the pain of losing her child push her to commit suicide. As she is dying, newspapers print the sensational story of her life. Being confronted with the slanderous gossip about her by the Shanghai news media, she cries out: "I want to revenge!" "I want to live!" But it is too late...

"The New Woman Incident":

The plot of The New Woman is based on the life and death of Ai Xia, a young woman writer and actress who had committed suicide earlier in 1934, shortly after starring in her own scripted film, A Modern Woman (Xiandai yi nüxing). When the film The New Woman premiered at the spring festival in 1935, it arose the Journalists' Union strong protest for the negative portrayal of their trade and the Lianhua Studio was forced into re-editing the film and making an open apology. At the same time, the private life of the film's star Ruan Lingyu was brought to public scrutiny by the vindicative media. On the eve of International Women's Day (March 8) in 1935, when The New Woman was to be presented at the fundraiser for a woman's educational center, Ruan Lingyu herself committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills like the protagnist Wei Ming in The New Woman.

About the director:

Cai Chusheng (1906-1968) was born in Shanghai, but attended private school in his parents' native place--a village in Chaoyang, Guangdong. He worked on farm in his childhood before being sent to apprentice in a store in Shantou, Guangdong at age 12. There he was involved in trade union and organized a spoken drama society. He helped a Shanghai film group taking location shots in Shantou and was deeply inspired for a career in cinema. In 1927, he went to Shanghai and started as handyman, extra and set designer in a few small studios until his talent was appreciated by the influential director Zheng Zhengqiu at the Mingxing Studio. From 1929 to 1931, he worked as assistant director to Zheng in six films. He joined the Lianhua Studio in 1931 and independantly directed his first two films--Nanguo zhi chun (Spring in South China) and Fenghongse de meng (Pink Dream) in 1932. He became the leading director in the mid-1930s, with Duhui de zaochen (Morning in the Metropolis, 1933), Yuguang qu (Song of the Fishermen, 1934), and Xin nüxing (New Women, 1935). Song of Fishermen created the highest box-office in the 1930s and won award at Moscow International Film Festival in 1935. He continued directing patriotic films in Hong Kong during the wartime. When he returned Shanghai after war, in collaboration with Zheng Junli, Cai created another box-office record with Spring Water Flows East. After 1949, Cai mainly worked as adminstrator, directing only one film--Nanhai chao (Tide of Southern Sea, 1963).

About the stars:

Ruan Lingyu(1910-1935) was one of the greatest actresses in Chinese silent cinema. Born into a poor Cantonese family in Shanghai, she had a tough childhood and became the commonlaw wife of a wastrel at age 16. She started her acting career at the Mingxing (Star) Studio to support her family in 1926, however, her talent was not fully displayed until she joined the newly established Lianhua Studio in 1930. With Gudu chunmeng (Spring Dream in the Old Capital, dir. Sun Yu, 1930), her first major work, Ruan started her collaboration with a group of talented left-leaning directors. She starred in a series of social drama featuring suffering women from various social strata, including Sange modeng müxing (Three Modern Girls, dir. Bu Wangcang, 1932), Xiao wanyi (Little Toys, dir. Sun Yu, 1933), Shennü (The Goddess, dir. Wu Yonggang, 1934), and Xin nüxing (New Woman, dir. Cai Chusheng, 1934). Her powerful and subtle performing style is often compared to Greta Garbo and Lilian Gish in the West.

Center Stage posterRuan's fame brought her troubled personal life to merciless public scrutiny. Shortly after the public screen of her last film New Woman, which arose vindictive attack from street tabloids for a scathing depiction of them in the film, Ruan committed suicide on the eve of International Women's Day (March 8), 1935, at age 25.

Ruan Lingyu became the subject and the feature title of Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan's (Guan Jinpeng) 1992 film, which is translated into English as Center Stage or The Actress, starring Maggie Cheung (Zhang Manyu).

Click here for a comprehensive website dedicated to Ruan Lingyu.

Zheng Junli (1911-1969) was born into a Cantonese family in Shanghai. Starting out as a spoken drama actor, Zheng studied at the Nanguo (South China) Art School and participated in the Leftist Dramatists Association. He joined the Lianhua Film Company in 1932, and performed in Sun Yu's Dalu (Highway, 1936), Cai Chusheng's Xin nüxing (New Women, 1935), Mitu de gaoyang (Stray Lambs, 1935), and other films. He started directing film in the 1940s. Collaborating with Cai Chusheng, he wrote and directed the box-office hit Spring Water Flows East in 1947, and then independantly directed Wuya yu maque (Crows and Sparrows, 1949). In the PRC period, he directed Women fufu zhijian (Between A Couple, 1951), Kumu fengchun (Withered Trees Revive, 1961), and biopics Lin Zexu (1958) and Nie Er (1959).

Questions to ponder:

These are a few questions suggested for you to think about while reading the assigned articles and watching the film. Please jot down ideas and notes on details or scenes you think are relevant for class discussion.

1. The English title of the film, New Woman, is in singular form. But the Chinese title, Xin nüxing, can be both singular and plural. There are at least three main female characters--Wei Ming, Mrs. Wang, and Li Aying--in the film. Whom do you think the title refers to? Who is the new woman, or who are the new women? What's "new" about her or them? How do you understand this "newness" in terms of the ideological representations and of the everyday reality, in the context of post-May Fourth China?

2. "The woman question," or funü wenti, centered on love, marriage, education, and employment for women, has been brought into social discourse since the May Fourth Movement. What are the major challenges and confusions facing educated women in the 1930s Shanghai as this film presents? How do the three main female characters--Wei Ming, Mrs. Wang, and Li Aying--respond to them differently?

3. Relating the real suicide of Ai Xia which sparks the filmic suicide of Wei Ming to the real suicide of Ruan Lingyu after the public screening of the film, how would you interpret cinematic images as public spectacle and how the star image is consumed and manipulated?

Relevant readings:

Harris, Kristine. "The New Woman: Image, Subject, and Dissent in 1930s Shanghai Film Culture." Republican China 20.2 (April 1995):55-79.

Harris, Kristine. "The New Woman Incident: Cinema, Scandal, and Spectacle in 1935 Shanghai." in Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, ed., Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997. 20.2 (April 1995):277-302.

Cui, Shuqin. 2003. Women Through the Lens: Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 3-29.

Web Sources: Ling Lung Women's Magazine (1931-1937); An Illustrated History of the Communist Party of China; Tales of Old Shanghai.