The actress who would one day be elected "Empress of Movies" by Chinese film fans was born Hu Ruihua in 1907, the elder of two daughters of the chief inspector for a national railway. Although the family was Cantonese, Ruihua was actually born in Shanghai, where her father was posted at the time. As his work took him around China, she grew up in such places as Tianjin, Yingkou, and Beijing, a peripatetic upbringing that resulted in her mastering several Chinese dialects. This later proved of great benefit during the sound era, by considerably increasing the number of roles she could perform.
In 1924, she returned to Shanghai and enrolled in the first acting class at the Shanghai Film School, and upon graduation she appeared in the silent film "Success on the Battlefield," after which she had leading roles in more than 20 films for the Youlian and Tianyi studios, then joined Shanghai's largest studio, Mingxing.
Among the notable silents she starred in for Mingxing was "Burning the Red Lotus Temple," an 18-part martial arts saga made between 1928 and 1931.
In 1931, Hu Die acted the title role in China's first sound motion picture, "Songstress Red Peony," as well as starring in such left-wing silent classics as "Raging Torrent," "Cosmetics Market," and "Salt Tide," which was suppressed soon after its completion because of the negative view it presented of the Chinese government. One of her greatest acting achievements came in the 1933 sound film, "Twin Sisters," in which she successfully portrayed both sisters of the title, two women totally unalike in personality. This film still exists, and will be discussed here in a future retro review. It was the common practice then, as it still is in Hong Kong, for Chinese films to have two sets of credits: one in Chinese characters, and one in English, with many of those credited using Westernized names. For example, the Lianhua studio's top on-screen couple, Jin Yan and Ruan Lingyu, were often billed as Raymond King and Lily Yuan, respectively; director Bu Wancang was Richard Po. Hu Die was often credited as "Butterfly Wu." (The name she adopted for the screen--Hu Die 胡蝶--was a homonym for 蝴蝶 the Chinese word for "butterfly," but substituting her birth surname "Hu" for the first character.)
In 1935, Hu Die was a member of the Chinese delegation to the Moscow International Film Festival, after which the traveling party visited the film communities in Germany, France, England and Italy before returning to Shanghai via Hong Kong. The trip was an enormous success for China's film industry, establishing many foreign contacts and getting some much-needed attention from foreign film communities.
[right: with Lilian Harvey. Click on picture for larger image.]
However, something happened during the trip which haunted Hu Die the rest of her life. The incident occurred while the delegation was in Moscow, and over time developed into what would today be termed an "urban myth." In a reception at the Chinese Embassy, an embassy employee came up to Hu Die and asked if she had heard that Ruan Lingyu had committed suicide, and upon hearing this, the visiting actress laughed. With each retelling of the incident, the story grew until it was commonly believed the two actresses hated each other, and that Hu Die reveled in Ruan's death. Actually, there is no evidence the two were ever more than friendly rivals: Ruan left Mingxing because the studio's top director Zhang Shichuan underrated her talents, and was reluctant to cast her in lead roles. So she left Mingxing for the newer (and more progressive) Lianhua studio, where she immediately became its top female star. Hu Die's own version of the incident sounds more plausible: at the reception, while she was smiling and exchanging pleasantries and small talk with the other guests, when someone approached and told her the news about Ruan, she took this for a lame attempt at humor, and laughed a bit to be polite. When she found out the news was true, she was naturally upset.
In addition to touring abroad, as the top actress at China's top studio, Hu Die was always a part of any welcoming party when foreign film delegations visited China, such as the 1929 Fairbanks-Pickford visit to Shanghai and Chinese-American star Anna May Wong's later visit.
In the late summer of 1937, the Japanese opened a second front in China by invading Shanghai. Hu Die fled the city along with many other residents, going first to Hong Kong, and later to Chongqing. During this time, the New York Times carried a story that she had been reported missing, and later that she had been reported dead.
After the war, she returned to Hong Kong, and after making several Mandarin dialect movies, she retired from acting to run her own studio, which produced both Mandarin and Cantonese films. But in 1960 she came out of retirement to renew her acting career, adjusting well to playing older women, often mothers in troubled relationships with adult children. In several of these movies, she shared top billing with a young Josephine Siao playing her daughter. By 1967, Hu Die was a 60-year-old widow with children and grandchildren who were mostly living in North America, so in that year she ended her movie career for good and retired to Canada, where she lived under the assumed name of Pan Baojuan 潘宝娟. Hu Die died of natural causes in Vancouver, in 1989. Her last words were "Butterfly is flying away."
There was one dark period during her life that was common knowledge in China. When she and her family were in Chongqing, China's top motion picture actress caught the eye of Dai Li, head of the country's secret police and the most feared man in China. He demanded that Hu Die become his mistress, and there was no way she could reject a man with that much power to do harm to her or those close to her. Fortunately, she had the support and understanding of her family during those years. The forced relationship lasted until after the war, when Dai Li was killed in a plane crash that may have been a political assassination. Whatever the cause, it freed her from him at last. [NOTE: In a later post, we provide an English translation of a Chinese TV documentary which examines this episode in detail.]
Hu Die's performing career spanned four decades, from Chinese cinema's first flowering in the mid-1920s until well into the 1960s. However, the most radiant period of her career was the 1930s. As mentioned earlier, she played the title role in China's first sound film, 1931's "Genu Hong Mudan" 歌女红牡丹 (Songstress Red Peony), in which her character is a talented vocalist whose life is one of constant abuse and exploitation by her rotter of a husband. She successfully portrayed a common type in Chinese films depicting the plight of women, a goodhearted but somewhat simple woman powerless to resist male abuse, but who accepts it out of a sense of duty and a lack of alternatives. In "Raging Torrent," the first production from China's left-wing film movement, she portrayed a society beauty imbued with a sense of resistance to foreign encroachment on China.
But the performance regarded as the apex of her career was her dual role in 1933's "Zimei Hua" 姊妹花 (Twin Sisters). (Some studies of Chinese movie history erroneously give the title as "Jiemei Hua" 姐妹花, which means the same thing in English.) Two sisters, separated in childhood, are raised in completely different environments, and develop totally different personalities. This film will be the subject of a future retro review, but suffice to say here that the praise for Hu Die's performance was fully justified: she not only clearly delineated their different personalities, at times there was little more than a vague physical resemblance between the two women -- this at a time when makeup techniques were nowhere as sophisticated as they would later become. "Twin Sisters" set a box office record for a domestically-produced film, and was later well-received by audiences in Southeast Asia, Japan, and Western Europe.
[right: Hu Die in the dual role of twins, with Xuan Jinglin in the middle as their mother]
Hu Die's film career encompassed a wide spectrum of roles, including maidservants, loving mothers, teachers, prostitutes, actresses, dancers, wealthy women, factory workers, farm girls - about every type of woman in China. In a 1930s nationwide fan poll, moviegoers elected her the "Empress of Movies," although some supporters of runner-up Ruan Lingyu questioned the poll's validity. But one thing is certain: throughout a career than spanned both the silent and early sound eras, Hu Die was one of the leading, and best, actresses in China, ranking with the best in the world.
A Couple's Secret
The Tragedy of Liang and Zhu
Legend of the White Snake [pts.1,2]
The Monkey King Conquers the Leopard
Legend of the White Snake (pt.3)
Princess Iron Fan
Jiang Laowu's Sacrifice for Love
Swordsman with White Legs
Tale of a Knight's Revenge (pts.1,2)
The Girl Detective
White Cloud Pagoda
The Bloodstained Crysanthemum
Burning the Red Lotus Temple (pt.3)
Swordswoman Rescues a Lady
The Life of the Rich
Blood of the Lovers
Papa Loves Mama
Burning the Red Lotus Temple (pts.4-8)
Peach Blossom Lake
Hall of the Broken Zither
Burning the Red Lotus Temple (pts.9-16)
Songstress Red Peony
A Paradise Like This (pts.1,2)
The Shadow of Red Tears (pts.1,2)
Three Arrows of Love
Movie Stars Are Lucky
Burning the Red Lotus Temple (pts.17,18)
The Flower of Freedom
Marriage Through Tears and Laughter (pts.1-6)
Romance in Spring
A Brief Life
A Bible for Women
The Heart of a Woman
Orchid in an Empty Valley
Down-trodden Peach Blossom
The following were all made in Hong Kong:
Rouge Tears (Mandarin version)
Rouge Tears (Cantonese version)
The Perfect Beauty
The Sparrow Flies Southeast
Songstress Red Peony (remake)
The Magic World of Movies
My Daughter, My Daughter
Filial Piety (Cantonese)
A Mother's Tears
Search for a Loved One
(all in Cantonese)
A Nice Girl Should Have a Loving Husband
Favor as Heavy as a Mountain
New Twin Sisters (aka A Happy Reunion)
(all in Cantonese)
A Family's Miseries (Cantonese)
The Lady in the Tower
For further reading: Hu Die huiyi lu (Hu Die's memoirs), by Hu Die, as told to Liu Huiqin. Taipei, 1986. Reprinted Beijing, 1988.