Sun Yu was born on March 21, 1900 in Chongqing (Chungking), Sichuan province, to an intellectual family which valued education highly. Sun's father, who had been a successful scholar at the provincial level during the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, was a historical researcher who traveled around China, and as a boy Sun Yu often went along, which added considerably to the future filmmaker's experience and knowledge. The family later moved to Shanghai, where Sun Yu saw his first movie in a theater. In 1914, Sun became a student at the Nankai Middle School in Tianjin, where another student was a young Zhou Enlai, two years older than Sun. At that time, Zhou was acting in a school play, titled Yiyuan Qian 一元钱 ("One Yuan in Cash"), a progressive play which Zhou had also written. Sun admired it so much he saw it five times. One day, as Sun was sitting on campus, he saw Zhou passing by and abruptly stood up. Zhou, who had been absorbed in reading a manuscript, stopped. Seeming to understand that Sun wanted to talk to him, Zhou smiled, which prompted Sun to blurt out, "'One Yuan' is really great! Your acting is really great!" Zhou Enlai smiled, and sat down to talk with the younger boy for a while. In 1949, over 30 years later in Beijing, at a gala banquet held by the Chinese Motion Picture Association during the 1st National Cultural Convention, the now Premier Zhou Enlai and Sun Yu met once again. To the latter's surprise, Zhou not only recalled Sun's school name, he also gave the director an autograph in which he urged Sun to "put motion pictures at the service of the people."
After graduating from middle school, Sun Yu passed the entrance exams for admission to Qinghua University, where movies and poetry became his twin passions. In his third year, he entered a film reviewing competition and won the grand prize. Among the judges in the competition were future Chinese film directors Zhu Shilin and Fei Mu, while the chair of the panel was Luo Mingyou, who as the head of the Lianhua (United Photoplay Service) Film Company would one day rewrite the history of Chinese cinema. After graduating from Qinghua, Sun Yu took up advanced study at the University of Wisconsin in the United States, where his graduate thesis was "On English Translations of the Poetry of Li Bai." [Li Po] After Wisconsin, Sun studied screenwriting and directing at Columbia University, while also studying photography at the New York Institute of Photography. In 1926 he returned to Shanghai to formally begin his film career.
A Start in Martial Arts
Actually, Sun Yu's first attempt at obtaining motion picture work was as a screenwriter, but his application to the Mingxing (Star) studio was rejected. It took two years before he succeeded in getting a job, when in 1928 the Great Wall studio hired him to write and direct his maiden effort, Yu Cha Guai Xia 渔叉怪侠 ("Strange Hero"), a martial arts film which dealt with the close friendship between two fishermen. The following year, when the depressed economy forced Great Wall to began making serious cutbacks (it ceased operations in 1930), Sun Yu left Great Wall for the Minxin (New People) studio. The Chinese film industry was in difficult circumstances at that time, and studios were turning out a glut of movies made for purely economic reasons, movies which did not suit what the public wanted to see. As a result, many Shanghai film companies went under. About this time, Luo Mingyou joined forces with Li Minwei, head of the Minxin company, to establish the Lianhua Film Company (also called the United Photoplay Service), which they intended as a "revolutionary army for revival of our national cinema, a vanguard vessel of resistance." At their invitation Sun Yu wrote and directed Gu Du Chun Meng 故都春梦 ("Spring Dream in the Old Capital"). This film, a realistic portrayal of the sufferings of intellectuals in old China, invoked a strong public reaction and drew audiences to the theater in record numbers. Unfortunately, during the filming Sun Yu overworked himself to the point of suffering from a bleeding ulcer, and he collapsed on the set.
Following the success of "Spring Dream," Sun Yu's next work was Yecao Xian Hua 野草闲花 ("Wild Flowers") which received the same public acceptance. In 1932, Sun Yu directed Ye Meigui 野玫瑰 ("Wild Rose"), which depicted the lives of Shanghai's lower classes living in the "pigeon cages" in the lanes and alleys of the teeming metropolis. Sun had the idea that the scenes of these mean lodgings would have greater impact if viewed from above, so before making the film, he asked a technical graduate of Tungji University to build a 13-meter high camera crane for him to use. This was the first camera crane in Chinese movie history, and China's only one at that time.
Between 1932 and 1934, Sun Yu's creative vigor produced a succession of six films which are all considered classics of China's silent era: following "Wild Rose" was Huoshan Qingxue 火山情血 ("Loving Blood of the Volcano"), Tianming 天明 (Daybreak), Xiao Wanyi 小玩意 ("Little Toys"), Tiyu Huanghou 体育皇后 ("The Empress of Sport"), and Da Lu 大路 ("The Big Road"). Of these, "The Big Road" is the most highly regarded, with even Sun Yu himself calling it his most representative work.
"The Big Road" tells the story of a group of young people working on road construction for national defense. The movie had four songs, all composed by Nie Er. In one of these, "Song of the Big Road," two lines struck an inspirational note with audiences, "Marching ahead with a heavy burden on our shoulders, till we finish building the big road to freedom." Also, the group's leader in the film, a vigorous and strong young man named Jin Ge (played by Jin Yan) inspired people throughout China with his spirited image of optimistic and open-minded individualism. From the time of its Shanghai premiere on January 1, 1935 it was a huge success. Upon viewing it, Shen Xiling, director of another 1930s classic Shizi Jietou 十字街头 ("Crossroads"), dubbed Sun Yu "the poet director."
When full-scale war erupted between China and Japan, Sun Yu took his family back to Chongqing, the place of his birth and China's wartime capital. In spite of ill health, Sun shot two patriotic war films there, Chang Kong Wanli 长空万里 (The Vast Sky), and Huode Xili 火的洗礼 (Baptism by Fire), after which he went back to America for medical attention and recuperation. Returning to China in 1947, Sun turned his attention to planning Wu Xun Zhuan 武训传 (The Life of Wu Xun), a film he had envisioned for some time. Wu Xun (1838-1896) is a famous figure in Chinese history: a bright child born into a desperately poor family, with no chance of receiving an education, Wu became a professional beggar. Throughout his life, Wu painstakingly set aside a portion of his earnings from begging to save for his dream, a free school for the education of poor children who could not afford tuition. Cast in the title role of this heartrending story of dedication and sacrifice was Zhao Dan, China's top male actor at the time. Making the film turned out to be a difficult process; among other problems, the studio funding the project packed up and fled the mainland for Taiwan in the spring of 1949. Filming was finally completed in 1950 under the relatively new Kunlun studio. "The Life of Wu Xun" premiered in February, 1951 in Shanghai and Nanjing, with strong audience approval. Sun Yu took a copy of the movie to Beijing, the capital of the new Communist government, and exhibited it to Chinese government and political officials, an audience which included Premier Zhou Enlai and the army's commander-in-chief Zhu De. All who saw the film rated it highly.
So after all this praise, it came as a shock when barely three months later, on May 20, 1951, the official government organ, the "People's Daily," published an editorial, "Pay Close Attention to Discussions of 'The Life of Wu Xun'." Accusing the film of "fanatically propagating feudal culture," and "bowing down to reactionary feudal rulers," this editorial laid the foundation for what became a nationwide campaign of critical attacks on the movie.
Criticism of "The Life of Wu Xun" was a major event in the first stage of the cultural environment being established in New China, and it had deep impact. For Sun Yu, it signified an end to his creative career. After this, he made only a few more films, of minor significance. During the Cultural Revolution, he suffered numerous invasions of his home and seizure of his family's possessions. He was also arrested and made to endure public denunciations which weakened his health to the point that he was at last permitted to return home to recuperate. However, he was still subjected to repeated public criticism.
After the Cultural Revolution ended, Sun Yu's reputation was restored, but he no longer had the strength or will to resume filmmaking. He turned to writing, and in 1981 published two books, Selected Screenplays of Sun Yu and New Translations of the Poetry of Li Bai, the latter work in English. In September of that same year, he was honored at the New Light Theater in Shanghai with a "Celebration of 50 Years of Sun Yu's Motion Picture Career," a commemoration ceremony. In May, 1987, Sun Yu's autobiography, Afloat on the Silver Sea: recalling my life was published in China. Retitled Song of the Big Road, it was published in Taiwan and overseas in 1990. On July 11 of that year, Sun Yu died at the age of 90. In the first half of the last century he had been like a brilliant meteor flashing across China's movie sky, a brilliance extinguished prematurely by politics, as were so many others during that era.
Accepting the Laurel of "Poet"
At a time when the realistic style of filmmaking held an absolutely dominant position, Sun Yu began developing his own style, which was poetic and romantic.
Sun Yu expressed his personal feelings about his style in 1934, when he wrote, "I can accept the 'poet' designation, if by that is meant someone whose face is always lifted up to the sky ... [B]ut if by that term is meant someone who just sings the praises of 'the moon" and 'sweethearts,' deceiving himself while putting others to sleep, then I absolutely must reject it. But if the laurel is bestowed on one who is viewed as an "idealistic poet," his eyes open, his so-called poetry [his films] filled with youthful spirits, not avoiding trouble or fearing abuse, totally committed to using his spirit to give heart to the dispirited and the suffering, then I not only accept the "poet" laurel, I will willingly cherish it forever!"
Strange Hero ... Director, Writer
The Spider Gang ... Writer
Heroic Son ... English Intertitles
Knight Errant ... Director, Writer
The Suicide Pact ... Writer
Spring Dream in the Old Capital ... Director
A Free Spirit ... Original Story
Wild Flowers ... Director, Writer
Wild Rose ... Director, Writer
Loving Blood of the Volcano ... Director, Writer
Work Together in the National Crisis ... Director, Writer
Little Toys ... Director, Writer
Daybreak ... Director, Writer
The Empress of Sport ... Director, Writer
The Big Road ... Director, Writer
Go to Nature ... Director, Writer
United Photoplay Symphony; Part 7: Madman's Rhapsocy ... Director, Writer
It's Spring All Over the World ... Director, Writer
Baptism by Fire ... Director, Writer
The Vast Sky ... Director
The Life of Wu Xun ... Director, Writer
Song Jingshi ... Director
Brave the Wind and Waves ... Director, Writer
The Legend of Lu Ban ... Director
Qin Niangmei ... Director
For Further Reading:
Sun, Yu. Da lu zhi ge 大路之歌 (Song of the Big Road). Taibei: Yuanliu Publishing Co., 1990.
_______. Sun Yu dian ying ju ben xuan ji 孙瑜电影剧本选集 (Selected Screenplays by Sun Yu) Beijing : Beijing: China Motion Picture Press, 1981.
_______. Yin hai fan zhou : hui yi wo di yi sheng 银海泛舟 : 回忆我的一生 (Afloat on the Silver Sea: recalling my life). Shanghai: Shanghai Arts and Literature Press, 1987.