The 1930s marked the first “Golden Period” of Chinese cinema and catapulted its key performers to superstardom. In 1933, the newspaper Star Daily conducted China's first public poll for the most popular movie stars with Hu Die “Butterfly” Wu (胡蝶) as the runaway winner with 21,334 votes, more than twice as many as the first runner-up Chen Yumei, and almost three times the votes her friend Ruan Lingyu (阮玲玉) received. Hu Die was crowned China's first "Movie Queen", but Ruan Lingyu, whose English screen name was Lily Yuen, would soon be revered by the Chinese press as the "Goddess of Movies".
Just like for their contemporaries in Hollywood, the glitz and glamour of the Shanghai movie scene also brought with it attractive brand endorsement deals.
Butterfly Wu famously became a spokesperson for Lux soap and tycoon Huang Chujiu's Great Eastern Dispensary. Ruan Lingyu on the other hand had already been chosen in 1927 as model for the newly introduced brand Coca Cola at the tender age of 17.
Then soon after her defining movie “The Goddess” (神女) in 1934, she was hired by German pharma giant Bayer to promote their flagship product with an iconic advertising poster of the celebrated actress holding up a white drug tablet. The Aspirin brand name had become a victim of its own popularity when under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles it was forced to give up its trademark in the territories of the Entente. All the more Bayer, now part of notorious conglomerate I.G. Farben, had to invest in heavy advertising to urge consumers to “take only Aspirin-tablets in these original packings."
The Bayer deal coincided with the production of Ruan Lingyu’s latest drama film “New Women” (新女性) which was released in early 1935. The movie was a controversial product of the reform social movement and was based upon the life of Chinese actress and screen writer, Ai Xia, who had committed suicide on Lunar New Year's Eve 1934, by swallowing raw opium. Being the first actress in the Republic of China to do so, her death became infamous in Chinese cinema history and was exploited by the press and – shockingly – advertisers alike.
Bayer seemed to have had no concerns about hiring Ruan Lingyu and placing her drug advertisement in a scene of “New Woman” where the poster is prominently displayed on the inside of a Shanghai public bus.
Having actually overdosed on sleeping pills once before in the late 20’s, performing the suicide scene in “New Woman” proved devastating for Ruan, as recounted by a friend who happened to be visiting the set that day: “She didn’t show much expression, she just gazed as she swallowed one pill after another. However, the look in her eyes underwent a subtle change, showing all the contradictory emotions of a suicide at the moment when her life hangs in the balance, and expressing her thirst for life and dread of death, her indignation and sorrow . . . Her acting in this scene was extremely draining and afterwards she couldn’t stop crying for most of the day.”
What happened though after the release of the film was even more utterly shocking.
Shortly after the release of “New Women”, still shaken by her traumatizing portrayal of Ai Xia’s death, Ruan was facing intense personal problems. Her first husband, Zhang Damin, from whom she was estranged, learned of her relationship with millionaire Tang Jishan, and sued them both. Slandered by the press, and faced with an enraged Tang, Ruan Lingyu committed suicide at the age of 24. The morning before she was to appear in court again the actress mixed three bottles of barbiturates pills into a bowl of congee and died at the Sino-Foreign Hospital the same evening. Even China’s preeminent intellectual Lu Xun was appalled at the details surrounding Ruan’s death and wrote an essay entitled “Gossip is a Fearful Thing” — taken from Ruan’s suicide note — denouncing the tabloids.
Her funeral procession was reportedly 3 miles long, with three women committing suicide during the event. The New York Times called it "the most spectacular funeral of the century". A more bizarre and devastating outcome could not have been anticipated for young megastar Ruan Lingyu and neither for her brand partner Bayer who ironically developed the first commercially available barbiturates in 1903.
But quite to the contrary, it turned out that drama sells also in advertising and Bayer’s business in China flourished in the years to come. So much so that in 1936 the company established its first Bayer Pharma Co plant in Shanghai producing a range of medicines including Aspirins as well as the barbiturates brand Veronal. Bayer also continued to shamelessly reference the emblematic Ruan Lingyu poster in its print ads well into the early 1940s.
Thank you very much to Instagram user Ben Li for making us aware of the placement in the movie. This article was cross-posted on Historic Shanghai at http://www.historic-shanghai.com/selling-the-ruan-lingyu-drama-tragedy-irony-and-exploitation-in-a-1934-ad/