The Goddess: A Classic from the Golden Age of Chinese Cinema, Starring the Silent Film Icon Ruan Lingyu (1934)

Ruan Lingyu deliv­ered one of the great­est per­for­mances in silent cin­e­ma, and yet to West­ern audi­ences, she is almost com­plete­ly unknown.

Up until the Impe­r­i­al Japan­ese Army invad­ed the city in 1937, Shang­hai was the thriv­ing, cos­mopoli­tan cul­tur­al heart of Chi­na. The first Chi­nese film was made in Shang­hai in 1905 and, for the next cou­ple of decades, cos­tumed retellings of tra­di­tion­al tales dom­i­nat­ed the indus­try. Then, in the ‘30s, film­mak­ers like Sun Yu and Cheng Bugao start­ed to make grit­ty, real­is­tic movies about the strug­gles of the low­er class. Per­haps the great­est of these films is Wu Yonggang’s 1935 mas­ter­piece The God­dess, fea­tur­ing an absolute­ly heart­break­ing per­for­mance by Ruan. You can watch it above.

On paper, the sto­ry of The God­dess could eas­i­ly be mis­tak­en for films by Josef Von Stern­berg or G.W. Pab­st – a “fall­en woman” weepie where the pro­tag­o­nist suf­fers for the sins of hyp­o­crit­i­cal soci­ety. Ruan plays the name­less lead, a beau­ti­ful, impov­er­ished woman forced to sell her body to feed and edu­cate her son. She soon falls in with The Boss, a porcine, dis­solute gang­ster who serves as her pimp. She scrapes and strug­gles to keep her son out of the same gut­ter where she finds her­self trapped. Yet, at every step, she and her son are taunt­ed and shunned. When she spends every­thing she has to put her son into a good school, the child is expelled sim­ply because the oth­er par­ents don’t approve of her. “Even though I am a degen­er­ate woman,” she begs to the school board, “don’t I have the right as a moth­er to raise him as a good boy?”

the goddess 1934

While silent film act­ing tend­ed towards the histri­on­ic, Ruan’s per­for­mance is nat­u­ral­is­tic while still hav­ing an emo­tion­al raw­ness that few actors could match. Just watch the scene where the pro­tag­o­nist is watch­ing her son per­form dur­ing a school play. Her expres­sion of unadul­ter­at­ed parental pride slow­ly cur­dles as she hears vicious whis­pers from near­by haus­fraus. Like Gre­ta Gar­bo or Mar­lene Diet­rich, Ruan has a wound­ed beau­ty that sim­ply riv­ets you to the screen.

Like many of the char­ac­ters she played, Ruan came from hum­ble begin­nings and had per­pet­u­al roman­tic trou­ble. When her com­pli­cat­ed per­son­al life became the fod­der for press, she took an over­dose of sleep­ing pills on March 8, 1935, leav­ing behind a note that read, “Gos­sip is a fear­ful thing.” She was only 24. Ruan’s funer­al pro­ces­sion was over three miles long and three women were report­ed­ly so dis­traught over her death that they com­mit­ted sui­cide. The funer­al even end­ed up on the front page of the New York Times who called it “the most spec­tac­u­lar funer­al of the cen­tu­ry.”

In 1992, Mag­gie Che­ung played Ruan for Stan­ley Kwan’s Cen­ter Stage (1992), which end­ed up win­ning a Best Actress prize at the Berlin Inter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val.

The God­dess will be added to our list of Great Silent Films, part of our larg­er col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

101 Free Silent Films: The Great Clas­sics

A Page of Mad­ness: The Lost, Avant Garde Mas­ter­piece from the Ear­ly Days of Japan­ese Cin­e­ma (1926)

65 Free Char­lie Chap­lin Films Free Online

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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  • Lucinda Baker says:

    Shen Nu (The God­dess) is one of my favorite silent films. I’ve nev­er been so moved by an actress they way I was moved by Ruan Lingyu’s per­for­mance. She per­son­i­fies what a silent film actress, or any actress for that mat­ter, should be. She’s an absolute­ly stun­ning per­former! As she walks up the steps after a night solic­it­ing on the streets, I could feel her utter weari­ness. When she holds her child and her face lights up, I can feel her joy. When she kills The Boss after being repeat­ed­ly abused and stolen from, I can feel her rage. And when she lets go of her child, giv­ing him over to the care of the kind­ly school mas­ter with only a request to not tell her son about her, I can feel her pain.
    This is a mar­velous film and so well act­ed that you for­get there is no dia­logue.

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