In the history of Chinese movies, perhaps no character actor had a richer and longer career than Hong Jingling. Like other familiar character actors Wang Xianzhai and Sun Min, he portrayed a wide variety of villains; but unlike the other two, whose careers were cut short by health problems, Hong’s career spanned six decades.
Hong Jingling (洪警铃) was born Hong Zhitong (洪志通) in Shanghai, March 12, 1893. He was very fond of dramatics as a child, and he and his playmates often played at acting in his home. When in 1908 he actually joined an acting troupe, he ran into intense opposition from his family. But he was adamant in his decision, and they gradually came around. At that time, in the waning years of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, the imperial government was vigorously harassing and persecuting those elements in Chinese society, such as actors, which it regarded as revolutionary agitators. The teenaged actor experienced this directly when he was performing with a Hangzhou company called the “Societal Education” troupe, and the theater was suddenly surrounded by Qing troops. Hong escaped out a back door, and made his way to the city docks where he boarded a small steamship bound for Shanghai. The harassment radicalized him, and the formerly apolitical young actor became an active participant in anti-Qing activities.
In 1913, Hong joined the New Drama Society, and appeared in its stage hit, “Victims of Opium.” When the Huanxian Film Company adapted the society’s production of “Victims” in 1916 (released in 1917), he made his screen debut in the supporting role of a maidservant (New Drama was an all-male company). He said some years later that he would have liked to concentrate his energies on movies after that initial effort, but the war in Europe effectively shut down China’s emerging film industry by cutting off the supply of film from France and Germany.
But with the resumption of filmmaking in 1919, Hong Jingling joined the Commercial Press’s Motion Picture Section, and appeared in seven short features for them over the next several years, while continuing to perform on stage. But his major role came in the detective/martial arts full-length feature made by the New Asia studio in 1922, “Women Skeletons.” Hong portrayed the chief henchman of the insurance gang, charged with the dual function of guarding the women’s dormitory while also supplying the drugs used to control their male victims.
In 1926, after the Commercial Press spun off its Motion Picture Section as an independent studio, renamed the Guoguang (National Light) Shadow Play Company, he continued working there until the company disbanded in 1927. He was always in demand, however, and when director Sun Yu returned from studying in America and joined the Great Wall studio he immediately hired Hong for Sun’s first production, “The Spider Gang” (Zhizhu Dang 蜘蛛党), in which Hong co-starred as the gang boss.
In 1929, Hong joined with some friends in setting up their own film company, the Changming (Flourishing) studio, for which he would serve as both a major actor and studio executive. The company’s first two films were not very successful at the box office, but the overwhelming success of the Mingxing studio’s series “Burning of the Red Lotus Temple” prompted Changming to join in the new mania for these martial arts fantasies. Their first attempt at this, “Burning of Pingyang City,” a six-part saga with Hong himself in a lead role, was very well-received by the public, and put the company in a good fiscal status by the end of 1931.
We have mentioned in several previous posts how the two-month Sino-Japanese war which broke out in January, 1932 resulted in the destruction of several of Shanghai’s smaller film studios. The Changming studio was one of these, just when it seemed to have a bright outlook. The company did find another location, and completed the sixth part of the series, but the Chinese government’s suppression of the martial arts fantasy genre led to the studio’s partners arguing among themselves about the future course Changming should take. The end result was dissolution of the company.
In 1933, Hong Jingling joined the Lianhua (United Photoplay)) film studio, and over the next several years appeared in many of its films, including some of its most important productions, such as “A Match Made in Heaven,” “The Big Road,” “Lost Lambs,” “Song of a Loving Mother,” “The Lost Pearl,” “Gold-plated City” and “Bloodshed on Wolf Mountain.”
When the Japanese invaded Shanghai in 1937, Hong Jingling’s home was destroyed in the bombing. He was one of those in the film community who remained in the city, where he eked out a living acting for two of China’s low-budget wartime studios: Xinhua (New China), making “Unexpected Luck” and “Thunderstorm,” then later for Huaying (China Film), for which he made several films. Actors were treated very poorly during this period, and for most it was a struggle just to eat every day.
[below, center, as the deceitful elder brother in "Song of a Loving Mother]
Hong Jingling made a great many movies during his career. His villains were often cunning, small people, and from reading contemporary reviews it seems his face was his greatest acting asset – audiences could discern instantly from his expressions what were his characters’ thinking and motives. During the Lianhua years his villains became more subtle in their deviousness, which made them even more distasteful to audiences. For example, in “Song of a Loving Mother,” he was the title character’s eldest son, in public a neatly-dressed gentleman, with charity to all, but in private a beast who abuses and bullies his mother, a woman with no way of escaping her situation. As the eldest son he is in charge of her affairs, and her care, but just exploits his situation by draining her financially. The character’s behavior was so ugly that, as one filmgoer expressed it, “He was so hateful my teeth hurt from gnashing them.” In contrast, the mother and the helpless younger brother were all the more sympathetic. In “The Big Road,” he was the stooge of a tyrannical landlord, the pair secretly collaborating with Japanese agents to stop a strategic defense construction project.
But like so many fine actors who specialize in stage and screen villainy, Hong Jingling’s real nature was the polar opposite: after the war, instead of returning immediately to motion pictures he devoted himself to charity work, performing in stage productions which raised funds for refugee relief and postwar reconstruction. He also organized and managed a relief organization which arranged for adoption of war orphans by members of the entertainment community.
[right, the real Hong Jingling off-screen]
After the founding of the People’s Republic, Hong returned to filmmaking under the new regime, and appeared in several more films, the last in 1961. Hong Jingling died on June 6, 1963 in Shanghai, age 70.