China's first Movie Queen – Zhang Zhiyun's tragic life

November 9, 2006
Editor: fyn

In the 1920s, on China's silver screen, female performers fought to show their extraordinary skills. At that time, movie actors and actresses were just beginning to become public figures. The names of movie stars, especially those of females, frequently appeared in newspapers. In 1926, Shanghai's The New World held a contest for the title of movie queen and Zhang Zhiyun was crowned. Following her were Yang Naimei, Wang Hanlun and Xuan Jinglin. So together they became known as early China's "Four Famous Actresses".

Zhang Zhiyun was China's first "Movie Queen". She was born as Axi in Boyu, Guangdong. When she was a child, she moved to Shanghai. Because her family was poor, she had to drop out of school. In 1924, she passed an exam began working at Shanghai Great China Film Company. There is a story about how she started working there. Early in 1924, Gu Kenfu, Lu Jie, Bu Wancang and some others founded Great China Film Company. They advertised in newspapers that they were recruiting actresses and temporarily used Shengbao Publishing House's mailbox for their correspondence. After October 10, they opened the postbox and checked. There were thousands of photos, but none were suitable. Some one reported that the box had been opened before by a Shenbao journalist. After negotiating with the journalist, 10 photographs were returned. One was of Zhang Zhiyun. Zhang Zhiyun herself was not surprisingly beautiful, but she received attention from this incident. And Great China took this opportunity. After playing leading roles in the silent movies Poor Heart and Amid the Battle of Musketry, Zhang became famous. In 1925 she worked for Mingxing Film Company and starred in Sincerely Poor Girl and Lonely Orchid.

When Lonely Orchid was shown, Mingxing Company launched a large advertising campaign. Together with the tickets, many flyers were distributed. Zhang Zhiyun thus became red hot. Her appearance, loving and slightly sad, was favored by the audience of that time. In 1926, Zhang Zhiyun was chosen China's first movie queen. This was three years earlier than the first Oscars and seven years before China's another "Best Actress" Hu Die appeared.


In the film Pure as Jade, Clean as Ice, directed by Bu Wancang, Zhang Zhiyun played the role of a jilted countryside girl. Her performance was vivid and striking. For her talent, she was acclaimed "the master of Tragedy". Zhang and Director Bu fell in love, but she unexpectedly left Bu, and in 1927 she married the tea tycoon Tang Jishan. After getting married, Tang Jishan took her to the U.S. and Zhang helped him promote tea with her fame. After returning to China, Zhang Zhiyun stopped acting and lived a comfortable life. Later, she became addicted to drugs. Tang Jishan was a womanizer, and he left her for another movie star, Ruan Lingyu. Zhang Zhiyun was soon replaced by Ruan Lingyu and Hu Die in the movies.

China's first Movie Queen – Zhang Zhiyun's tragic life

After divorcing Tang, Zhang Zhiiyun said with much sorrow: I lost the love of friends and my audience. More importantly, my golden years passed with youth. At that time, talkie times began. The "movie queen" could not speak Mandarin, so it was difficult to find a job. She lived in a friend's home. In 1933, Mingxing Film Company shot the film Disappointed Love. The film was based on Zhang Zhiyun's misfortune and starred her. In 1935, as a member of Mingxing Performing Troupe, Zhang Zhiyun went to the South Pacific to perform. When she returned to Shanghai, she acted in New Peach Blossom Fan.  But for a long time, Zhang did not have a steady income. She even had to resort to begging. Later, she moved to Hong Kong and starred in some Cantonese films. Despite all this, in the 1970s, she died in Hong Kong.

Although female movie stars of the 1920s were admired by thousands of people, because of China's traditional society, the social status of actresses was very low. Many people in high society were fans, but they could not stand actresses to be among them. Zhang Zhiyun acted in 13 romances and tragedies, while she herself, like the roles she played, was immersed in her own life tragedy.

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