Beginning in the mid-1920s and running into the 1940s, a frequent leading man in Chinese motion pictures was Gong Jianong (龚稼农), who followed that earlier success with two more decades as a character actor in Taiwan. Ruggedly handsome, with an athletic build, Gong was the Mingxing studio's answer to rival Lianhua studio's Jin Yan, another former star athlete turned actor.
[left, Gong Jianong at the height of his career]
Gong Jianong was born in Nanjing on February 23, 1902. From his early teens his twin passions were sports and movies. He initially set out to pursue a career in athletics, and after graduation from high school entered Southeast University where he majored in physical education and starred in track and football. He also continued his interest in dramatics, and appeared in several student theatricals. After graduating in 1922, he was appointed to the faculty of the Jiangsu provincial physical education academy in Nanjing, with a concurrent appointment as dormitory administrator.
But as an undergraduate the young man had been inspired by the enthusiasm of the May 4th Movement, and wanted to participate in the modernization and strengthening of China. As he later wrote, he realized that promoting the movement’s ideals required getting the attention of the masses, and while sports events drew the public’s attention, dramatics was much more effective in communicating ideas. So in 1925 he went to Shanghai, and through an introduction from former classmate Tang Jie (汤杰) [the future creator and star of the popular "Mr. Wang" comedy movie series of the 1930s and 40s], Gong was hired by the Da Zhonghua Baihe studio in Shanghai as a logkeeper. By the following year his looks and acting experience provided his entrée into acting, and in 1926 he made his first on-screen appearance as an extra in a crowd scene in "Toumingde Shanghai" 透明的上海 (Transparent Shanghai). Gong’s first credited role came later that year in the Minxin studio’s “Yujiebingqing” 玉洁冰清 (Why Not Her? aka Pure and Noble), opposite China’s first “Movie Empress” Zhang Zhiyun. This was one of the most famous films of China’s silent era, and audience reception of the movie and its young new face established Gong Jianong’s status as a coming star. He was quickly signed by Mingxing, the leading Shanghai studio, and immediately cast in “Weihun Qi” 未婚妻 (Fiancée). During his 12 years with Mingxing, Gong Jianong became the studio’s number one male marquee attraction, appearing as the lead or a major supporting role in over 60 films that included such classics as “A Couple in Name Only,” “Tears and Flowers,” “Cosmetics Market,” “Burning of the Red Lotus Temple,” “Marriages Through Tears and Laughter,” “The Flower of Freedom,” “Spring Silkworms,” “New Year’s Money,” etc. His leading ladies over the years were some of the brightest female stars of the silent and early sound eras, such luminaries as Ruan Lingyu, Zhang Zhiyun, Hu Die, Wang Hanlun, Ding Ziming, Xuan Jinglin, Yang Naimei, Li Minghui, Xu Lai, Bai Yang, Zhou Xuan, Zhou Manhua ... His best performances were considered to be in “Kick" (1928), opposite Ding Ziming, and opposite Hu Die in “Songstress Red Peony,” “Such a Paradise” (both 1931), and “Raging Torrent” (1933).
[left, Gong and Hu Die often co-starred in the early '30s]
Gong Jianong was highly respected for his professionalism: it was reported that he never haggled over credit billing or salary, always showed up on time, knowing his lines, and never complained if a scene had to be shot repeatedly until the director was satisfied.
[below, Gong and Hu Die had a reunion in Taiwan in 1965]
From 1939 through 1941, he acted for some of the “Orphan Island” studios that continued making movies in Shanghai’s unoccupied foreign concessions. After the concessions were also occupied at the end of 1941, he left Shanghai and joined a Chinese Nationalist Army troupe, giving productions to entertain troops.
[left, Gong Jianong and Bai Yang were frequent on-screen lovers in the late '30s]
Gong had been a strong supporter of the Nationalist government, so when the Chinese mainland fell to the Communists in 1949, he joined the exodus of many pro-Nationalist figures who fled to Taiwan. Unfortunately most of his family was unable to leave with him. In Taiwan he became involved at first in making agricultural educational films, and served as head of the studio producing these. He resumed acting in 1954, in character roles for the Taiwan Film Company. He retired in 1971, having accumulated more than 120 film credits during his several decades of acting. In 1989, after travel restrictions between Taiwan and the mainland were lifted, Gong returned to China accompanied by his eldest son, who had gone with the actor to Taiwan in 1949. The trip was a bittersweet experience. After first visiting his old home in Nanjing and having a happy family reunion with the wife he had not seen in 40 years and his 5 younger sons, Gong had planned to visit some of his old movie colleagues who were still living, such once close friends as Bai Yang, Xuan Jinglin and Zheng Xiaoqiu; but this part of the trip was ill-timed, as his arrival in Beijing coincided with the Tiananmen demonstrations that spring, so he abruptly ended his visit and flew back to Taipei.
At the 30th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan in 1993, Gong Jianong was honored with a lifetime achievement award. He died on October 27, 1993, aged 91.
Sources and Further Reading:
Chen, Ping 陈平,"Gong Jianong" 《龚稼农》Silver Palace《银銮殿》, No.1, April, 1941.
Gong, Jianong. Gong Jianong Cong Ying Huiyilu 《龚稼农从影回忆录》(Gong Jianong's Movie Memoirs). Taipei, 1967.
Zhu Xiling 朱锡龄,"Ji Gong Jianong" 记龚家农 (Notes on Gong Jianong). Shidai Dianying《时代电影》(Films of the Times), v.1, no.4, September 5, 1934.