The First Marquee Name: Wang Hanlun

  • December 8, 2011
  • Editor: Sun Xi
  • Change Text Size: A  A  A

The actress who Chinese moviegoers knew as Wang Hanlun  was born Peng Jianqing in 1903 in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.  Her early life had much in common with that of Songlian, the protagonist of Zhang Yimou's 1991 movie "Raise the Red Lantern", a character played by Gong Li.  The youngest of seven children, Peng Jianqing was by all accounts her father's favorite, and although the family was strict and traditional in keeping with the times, her father sent her to an excellent private institution, St. Mary's School for Women in Shanghai.  However, her father died when she was 16, imperiling the Peng family's financial position.  In keeping with feudal tradition, the eldest brother became clan head, and he and his wife opted for the most common means of disposing of superfluous daughters at that time:  young Jianqing was pulled from school and a marriage was arranged for her, in this case an alliance with a man named Zhang, a coal mine operator in the Northeast China province of Liaoning.  Her depression at this sudden shift in her personal situation grew worse when she discovered her husband was continuing a relationship with a mistress he had before the marriage, but when she confronted him about it he dismissed her objections, saying the "it's not unusual for a man of means to have 3 or 4 wives, so don't trouble yourself about it."  Zhang's company was a joint Sino-Japanese enterprise, and when Peng Jianqing accompanied her husband on a business trip to Shanghai, she learned something more about Mr. Zhang, that his collaboration with the Japanese went beyond the economic sphere to the political:  he was actively assisting the Japanese in their encroachment into Northeast China that in less than a decade would result in full Japanese domination of the region, and establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo.  When she accused him of being a traitor, Zhang struck her.  She could take no more and demanded a divorce, to which his reply was "If you leave me, you'll be crying the rest of your life."  But she left him and remained in Shanghai.  Her family's disapproval of her action forced her to make other living arrangements:  she moved in with a distant relative and began to eke out a living, first as a teacher and later as an English language typist.

 About this time, the Mingxing Film Studio was casting what would be its first full-length feature, "An Orphan Rescues His Grandfather"  孤儿救祖记.  One of the studio's founders, Ren Jinpin, met Peng Jianqing at the home of a mutual friend.  Impressed with the young woman's dignity, confidence, grace and charm, he decided that Peng Jianqing might be ideal for what the film's director Zhang Shichuan sought for its heroine,  a wealthy family's shao nainai (少奶奶), or "young mistress," the eldest son's daughter-in-law and thereby heiress apparent to first lady of the clan.  Peng agreed to audition.

The Mingxing company at that time had just been organized, and actually had no studio, no location, just a small kiosk that served as an office.  After Peng Jianqing and Zhang Shichuan were introduced, he took her to a rural area outside Shanghai where the company did its filming, and had her express a range of emotions in front of the camera.  Afterwards, the company offered her a contract as an actress, with payment of 500 yuan per month, plus a 20 yuan per month travel allowance.

However, this happy turn in Jianqing's fortunes brought quite the opposite reaction from her family.  Her eldest brother, now the family head and the one who had represented the family in arranging his sister's disastrous marriage, demanded that she rescind the contract immediately; when she refused, he filed legal charges against his sister, accusing her of actions which were under Chinese law "contrary to women's discipline, in violation of family rules, corruptive of family morals and insulting to ancestors".

Legally, the young woman's non-compliance with her brother's wishes could have resulted in her being ordered back to Suzhou for punishment by her family.  The status of women in China at that time was so low that a woman could be put to death for violating clan rules, which was indeed the fate of the adulterous third wife in "Raise the Red Lantern".  Peng Jianqing's problem was complicated by the fact that movies were not yet accepted by most people in China.  Nearly a decade had passed since Yan Shanshan had been the first woman to appear on screen, but only a handful of women had yet dared to appear on screen, something still regarded as socially unacceptable behavior, especially for a young lady from an upper-class family.  So there were enormous pressures on Peng from both family and society.  The crisis was resolved when she suggested a compromise:  the aspiring young actress would change her name from Peng, and would never make her birth name known to the public.  The family accepted this, and she adopted Wang Hanlun as her screen name.  The surname derived from her belief that tigers are fearless and tigers have the Chinese character for king on their foreheads, so she changed her surname to Wang.  She liked the English name Helen, so she adopted the similar Chinese name Hanlun.

When shooting began that summer on "An Orphan Rescues His Grandfather", it quickly became obvious that Ren Jinpin's judgment was accurate.  Wang Hanlun's intelligence and education (she was fluent in English as well as Chinese), combined with her mature work ethic made it seem the role of the main character, Yu Weiru, had been created just for her.  Wang also had an advantage in that her own personality was very similar to that of the onscreen heroine, in both temperament and manner.

Wang's sensitive portrayal of the besieged heroine moved audiences, making "An Orphan Rescues His Grandfather" China's first national hit and Wang Hanlun an overnight sensation.

"An Orphan Rescues His Grandfather" holds a significant place in Chinese film history.  As a purely Chinese feature with content appealing to Chinese audiences of the time, it succeeded in helping those audiences make the transition from foreign films, and nationalized this new art form.  The movie marked the end of Chinese cinema's developmental stage, and signaled the beginning of the rise of Chinese film.  The movie's commercial success not only laid a foundation for the Mingxing Film Studio's prosperity, it attracted more investment capital and talent into filmmaking, allowing the industry to grow. 

Mother and son face a murky future together. [chinesemirror.com]

Mother and son face a murky future together. [chinesemirror.com]

Wang Hanlun starred in nine more films during the rest of the decade. In most of her movies, she played bright and capable women whose lives were ruined by the traditional, feudal practices of old China.  After Mingxing refused to give her a raise, despite her being the studio's number one box office attraction, she accepted an offer of more money from the Great Wall studio.  Unfortunately, Great Wall was already experiencing the financial problems that would force it out of business in 1930.  After making three films for Great Wall, and not being paid, she determined to take things into her own hands, and go for one last big score.  In 1929, Wang founded her own independent film company, the Hanlun Film Studio, to produce "An Actress's Revenge" (aka "Blind Love"), in which she starred.  She toured China promoting the film, and her efforts on and off-screen made it a huge box office hit.  Wang then disbanded the company and with the profits from what turned out to be her last starring movie, she opened the "Hanlun Beauty Parlor" in Shanghai, retiring from movies to become a businesswoman.  She was very successful throughout the 1930s until the Japanese occupied Shanghai.  As did many Chinese screen stars who remained in Shanghai, Wang Hanlun came under considerable pressure to cooperate in collaborative motion pictures or radio broadcasts.  Her adamant refusal soon led to the shutting down of her salon.  With no income, she was forced to sell off her furniture and other personal possessions to survive.  But like so much of China in that time, and in that place, she muddled through until the end of the war.

Wang Hanlun at work in her beauty parlor [chinesemirror.com]
Wang Hanlun at work in her beauty parlor [chinesemirror.com]

After the war, Wang returned to acting, but with minimal success.  Film and theatrical companies thought her either too old (she was 42 at war's end) or, in the case of the Communist "New China" which came into being in 1949, too associated with upper-class, bourgeois relics of the old society, now scorned and rejected.  She had a few supporting roles in minor motion pictures, but her one role in a major film actually backfired:  in 1950, Sun Yu filmed his biopic titled "The Life of Wu Xun," in which Wang Hanlun portrayed the Dowager Empress Ci Xi.  Although she was in just one scene, with 10 lines, she focused herself on preparing for this small role as if it were the lead.   However, the critical reviews of the film and her appearance were very negative, most of them criticizing her character, a relic of a feudal dynasty. She realized that times had changed, everything had changed.  As she later wrote:

"I came to realize that my best was not good enough.  The characters I had played before were of the bourgeoisie or feudal classes, but what was wanted now were new people from the new society.  As much as I desired to participate in the building of this new world, their thoughts and emotions were things I just did not understand..."

So Chinese film's first box office draw retired from acting for good.   She still received a pension from the government every month and enjoyed free medical care.  She had no children and had long been estranged from most of her relatives,  but in her later years a nephew frequently visited her.  She was a voluminous reader, and visitors said she always had a book in hand. She became reclusive, preferring solitude and being left alone.

On August 17, 1978, Wang Hanlun passed away in a Shanghai hospital, at age 75.  She had been a strong woman, maintaining her independence right up to the end.

(Source: chinesemirror.com)

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  • The First Marquee Name: Wang Hanlun2011-12-08   Editor: Sun Xi

    The actress who Chinese moviegoers knew as Wang Hanlun  was born Peng Jianqing in 1903 in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.  Her early life had much in common with that of Songlian, the protagonist of Zhang Yimou's 1991 movie "Raise the Red Lantern", a character played by Gong Li.  The youngest of seven children, Peng Jianqing was by all accounts her father's favorite, and although the family was strict and traditional in keeping with the times, her father sent her to an excellent private institution, St. Mary's School for Women in Shanghai.  However, her father died when she was 16, imperiling the Peng family's financial position.  In keeping with feudal tradition, the eldest brother became clan head, and he and his wife opted for the most common means of disposing of superfluous daughters at that time:  young Jianqing was pulled from school and a marriage was arranged for her, in this case an alliance with a man named Zhang, a coal mine operator in the Northeast China province of Liaoning.  Her depression at this sudden shift in her personal situation grew worse when she discovered her husband was continuing a relationship with a mistress he had before the marriage, but when she confronted him about it he dismissed her objections, saying the "it's not unusual for a man of means to have 3 or 4 wives, so don't trouble yourself about it."  Zhang's company was a joint Sino-Japanese enterprise, and when Peng Jianqing accompanied her husband on a business trip to Shanghai, she learned something more about Mr. Zhang, that his collaboration with the Japanese went beyond the economic sphere to the political:  he was actively assisting the Japanese in their encroachment into Northeast China that in less than a decade would result in full Japanese domination of the region, and establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo.  When she accused him of being a traitor, Zhang struck her.  She could take no more and demanded a divorce, to which his reply was "If you leave me, you'll be crying the rest of your life."  But she left him and remained in Shanghai.  Her family's disapproval of her action forced her to make other living arrangements:  she moved in with a distant relative and began to eke out a living, first as a teacher and later as an English language typist.

     About this time, the Mingxing Film Studio was casting what would be its first full-length feature, "An Orphan Rescues His Grandfather"  孤儿救祖记.  One of the studio's founders, Ren Jinpin, met Peng Jianqing at the home of a mutual friend.  Impressed with the young woman's dignity, confidence, grace and charm, he decided that Peng Jianqing might be ideal for what the film's director Zhang Shichuan sought for its heroine,  a wealthy family's shao nainai (少奶奶), or "young mistress," the eldest son's daughter-in-law and thereby heiress apparent to first lady of the clan.  Peng agreed to audition.

    The Mingxing company at that time had just been organized, and actually had no studio, no location, just a small kiosk that served as an office.  After Peng Jianqing and Zhang Shichuan were introduced, he took her to a rural area outside Shanghai where the company did its filming, and had her express a range of emotions in front of the camera.  Afterwards, the company offered her a contract as an actress, with payment of 500 yuan per month, plus a 20 yuan per month travel allowance.

    However, this happy turn in Jianqing's fortunes brought quite the opposite reaction from her family.  Her eldest brother, now the family head and the one who had represented the family in arranging his sister's disastrous marriage, demanded that she rescind the contract immediately; when she refused, he filed legal charges against his sister, accusing her of actions which were under Chinese law "contrary to women's discipline, in violation of family rules, corruptive of family morals and insulting to ancestors".

    Legally, the young woman's non-compliance with her brother's wishes could have resulted in her being ordered back to Suzhou for punishment by her family.  The status of women in China at that time was so low that a woman could be put to death for violating clan rules, which was indeed the fate of the adulterous third wife in "Raise the Red Lantern".  Peng Jianqing's problem was complicated by the fact that movies were not yet accepted by most people in China.  Nearly a decade had passed since Yan Shanshan had been the first woman to appear on screen, but only a handful of women had yet dared to appear on screen, something still regarded as socially unacceptable behavior, especially for a young lady from an upper-class family.  So there were enormous pressures on Peng from both family and society.  The crisis was resolved when she suggested a compromise:  the aspiring young actress would change her name from Peng, and would never make her birth name known to the public.  The family accepted this, and she adopted Wang Hanlun as her screen name.  The surname derived from her belief that tigers are fearless and tigers have the Chinese character for king on their foreheads, so she changed her surname to Wang.  She liked the English name Helen, so she adopted the similar Chinese name Hanlun.

    When shooting began that summer on "An Orphan Rescues His Grandfather", it quickly became obvious that Ren Jinpin's judgment was accurate.  Wang Hanlun's intelligence and education (she was fluent in English as well as Chinese), combined with her mature work ethic made it seem the role of the main character, Yu Weiru, had been created just for her.  Wang also had an advantage in that her own personality was very similar to that of the onscreen heroine, in both temperament and manner.

    Wang's sensitive portrayal of the besieged heroine moved audiences, making "An Orphan Rescues His Grandfather" China's first national hit and Wang Hanlun an overnight sensation.

    "An Orphan Rescues His Grandfather" holds a significant place in Chinese film history.  As a purely Chinese feature with content appealing to Chinese audiences of the time, it succeeded in helping those audiences make the transition from foreign films, and nationalized this new art form.  The movie marked the end of Chinese cinema's developmental stage, and signaled the beginning of the rise of Chinese film.  The movie's commercial success not only laid a foundation for the Mingxing Film Studio's prosperity, it attracted more investment capital and talent into filmmaking, allowing the industry to grow. 

    Mother and son face a murky future together. [chinesemirror.com]

    Mother and son face a murky future together. [chinesemirror.com]

    Wang Hanlun starred in nine more films during the rest of the decade. In most of her movies, she played bright and capable women whose lives were ruined by the traditional, feudal practices of old China.  After Mingxing refused to give her a raise, despite her being the studio's number one box office attraction, she accepted an offer of more money from the Great Wall studio.  Unfortunately, Great Wall was already experiencing the financial problems that would force it out of business in 1930.  After making three films for Great Wall, and not being paid, she determined to take things into her own hands, and go for one last big score.  In 1929, Wang founded her own independent film company, the Hanlun Film Studio, to produce "An Actress's Revenge" (aka "Blind Love"), in which she starred.  She toured China promoting the film, and her efforts on and off-screen made it a huge box office hit.  Wang then disbanded the company and with the profits from what turned out to be her last starring movie, she opened the "Hanlun Beauty Parlor" in Shanghai, retiring from movies to become a businesswoman.  She was very successful throughout the 1930s until the Japanese occupied Shanghai.  As did many Chinese screen stars who remained in Shanghai, Wang Hanlun came under considerable pressure to cooperate in collaborative motion pictures or radio broadcasts.  Her adamant refusal soon led to the shutting down of her salon.  With no income, she was forced to sell off her furniture and other personal possessions to survive.  But like so much of China in that time, and in that place, she muddled through until the end of the war.

    Wang Hanlun at work in her beauty parlor [chinesemirror.com]
    Wang Hanlun at work in her beauty parlor [chinesemirror.com]

    After the war, Wang returned to acting, but with minimal success.  Film and theatrical companies thought her either too old (she was 42 at war's end) or, in the case of the Communist "New China" which came into being in 1949, too associated with upper-class, bourgeois relics of the old society, now scorned and rejected.  She had a few supporting roles in minor motion pictures, but her one role in a major film actually backfired:  in 1950, Sun Yu filmed his biopic titled "The Life of Wu Xun," in which Wang Hanlun portrayed the Dowager Empress Ci Xi.  Although she was in just one scene, with 10 lines, she focused herself on preparing for this small role as if it were the lead.   However, the critical reviews of the film and her appearance were very negative, most of them criticizing her character, a relic of a feudal dynasty. She realized that times had changed, everything had changed.  As she later wrote:

    "I came to realize that my best was not good enough.  The characters I had played before were of the bourgeoisie or feudal classes, but what was wanted now were new people from the new society.  As much as I desired to participate in the building of this new world, their thoughts and emotions were things I just did not understand..."

    So Chinese film's first box office draw retired from acting for good.   She still received a pension from the government every month and enjoyed free medical care.  She had no children and had long been estranged from most of her relatives,  but in her later years a nephew frequently visited her.  She was a voluminous reader, and visitors said she always had a book in hand. She became reclusive, preferring solitude and being left alone.

    On August 17, 1978, Wang Hanlun passed away in a Shanghai hospital, at age 75.  She had been a strong woman, maintaining her independence right up to the end.

    (Source: chinesemirror.com)