In the summer of 1920, Shanghai was scandalized by a sensational murder, a high-profile case and subsequent trial that was the ongoing topic of conversation in the city's numerous cafes, clubs and teahouses. Among the various reasons for its notoriety, two stand out: first, the victim was a high-class prostitute, well known in Shanghai; second, the murderer had been a mid-level manager in a respected foreign firm, a playboy who in Manhattan might have been termed a "prominent young man about town." There were detailed press reports daily as the case wound its way through the judicial system. As an indication of the victim Wang Lianying's prominence in society at large, in the winter of 1917 she was chosen in an election the top courtesan in Shanghai, no small honor. Her principal drawback was her temper: a gossip columnist about that time described it as "very volatile," and Wang as someone who would immediately break off all relations with anyone who offended or displeased her in any way.
Yan Ruisheng, the man who plotted the murder, had recently lost his job in a foreign firm. Contemporary news reports describe him as being age 26, well over 6 feet tall, and a university graduate fluent in English and French. While still employed, he had acquired a taste for the city's bustling night life, and became a habitué of its race track, casinos and better brothels. Yan had become acquainted with Wang, like himself someone fond of Shanghai's bustling nightlife, and they were frequently seen dining, wining and making the rounds of the nightclubs together. Of course, this sort of relationship lasts only as long as the money supporting it, and when Yan's source of income disappeared Wang turned her attentions elsewhere. Yet in spite of losing his job at the beginning of 1920, Yan continued his lifestyle much as before, partying as if he were the playboy son of a wealthy family, and trying to recover his fortunes at the track and casinos. By June of that year, he was hopelessly in debt to gamblers who were pressing him for payment. He went back to Wang and asked her to loan him the money to cover his debts, which she flatly refused to do. Bitterly recalling how much he had spent on her during his days of prosperity, Yan became consumed with hatred and began hatching a scheme to murder his ex-lover for the money.
(Below: Yan admires Wang's jewelry)
His first step was to obtain an automobile, a luxury car he borrowed from an old schoolmate. From another friend he borrowed some up-front money. On the day of the murder, dressed in his finest and driving the flashy car, Yan went to see Wang and told her he had come into quite a bit of money and wanted to renew their relationship, starting with a drive into the countryside to enjoy the summer evening. As she usually did when going out, and as Yan had counted on her doing, Wang wore her best jewelry: a diamond-inlayed bracelet, two diamond rings, a diamond-inlayed brooch and a gold watch. With Wang seated by his side, Yan started out, but he soon spotted two friends by the roadside and invited them to join the couple on their outing. These two men, Wu Chunfang and Fang Rishan, were prearranged accomplices. They got into the back seat, and the four drove out of the city. The four drove to a sparsely-populated suburb of Shanghai, where they stopped by a wheat field.
By now it had grown dark. Yan stopped the car and under the pretence of having to light the car's headlights, the three men got out and took some chloroform from a small chest. The two accomplices pulled Wang from the car and into the wheat field, where Wu held a chloroform-soaked cotton cloth over her nose and mouth, ignoring her pleas for mercy. Just at this time, a farmer was passing by on the road, so to distract his attention Yan offered to take the man for a ride, which he did. Meanwhile, Wu had grabbed all of Wang's jewelry, then strangled her. When Yan returned after dropping off the farmer, the three men stuffed the corpse into the car and drove to a more remote site to dump it. During this drive, they began dividing the spoils, which caused Yan to take his eyes off the road. He bumped into a tree, damaging a fender. When the car's owner demanded an explanation for the damage, Yan realized what he had done and how much evidence there was against him, so he fled Shanghai. Shortly thereafter, the body was discovered, a warrant was issued for Yan's arrest as the prime suspect, and his photo widely published in newspapers.
After wandering in panic for a time, Yan Ruisheng was recognized by a policeman at the railway station platform in Xuzhou, not far from the scene of the crime. He was arrested and returned to Shanghai under guard. News accounts said that at the time of his arrest, Yan was concealing one of Wang Lianying's diamond rings in his mouth. His two accomplices had also been apprehended, and after two trials the three men were found guilty and sentenced to be shot. They were transported to nearby Fort Wusong where the execution was carried out. The movie's conclusion was most gratifying to Chinese audiences. The train carrying the condemned trio also carried the official witnesses, and as the film's last intertitle expressed it, "the little train was full upon leaving the city, but there were a few vacant seats coming back."
Although it was rushed into production, a stage version of the story was very popular with theatergoers and had a six-month run. This inspired several entrepreneurs to pool their funds and arrange for the Commercial Press to handle the filming. But instead of just copying the theatrical script, the producers hired a noted dramatist to improve on the script and in some cases do a complete rewrite. In addition, several of the investors had known Yan well, in some cases were close friends, so they were able to assist with the writing by contributing anecdotes and recollections that were not commonly known. So the script was richer and more detailed by the time the shooting began.
In order to make the film as close to actual events as possible, several interesting devices were employed. First, in a break with previous practice, nonprofessionals were used in the principal roles, rather than stage performers. The title role of Yan Ruisheng was played by Chen Shouzhi, the lead investor in putting the film together. Chen was himself an employee of a foreign firm, as Yan had been, and in fact was well acquainted with Yan. He was said to resemble Yan, and could imitate the latter's mannerisms. Cast in the role of Wang Lianying was a former prostitute who had married and retired from the profession. The role of the brutish Wu Chunfa, who had carried out the actual murder, was played by Shao Peng, one of Shanghai's top football players, second accomplice Fang Rishan was played by Ren Pengnian, the film's director, while co-director Xu Xinfu played the lead detective in the case, and, in an interesting case of cross-dressing, another investor Gu Kenfu (who later became a director) played the part of Wang Lianying's mother.
In addition to film, this case has been adapted for other varieties of presentation, including several forms of stage productions, even cross-talk comedy routines and a musical. These various adaptations and the many publications discussing it have made it into an almost legendary vehicle for mass consumption.