In researching the history of Chinese motion pictures, and the lives of their makers in particular, one often comes across sad tales of actresses whose careers and lives were destroyed by the men in their lives. To conlude our series on “Burning of the Red Lotus Temple,” we have to mention one such sad story, that of its first female lead, the only actress to appear in all 19 parts. But this sad tale is particularly tragic in her case, as the destructive force in the life of this beautiful and talented young woman was not a false lover, but the one person who should have been watching out for her – her legal guardian.
Xia Peizhen (夏佩珍) was born in 1908 to a desperately poor family in Nanjing. Both of her parents were uneducated day laborers barely able to support themselves. By the time she was 13, her parents were no longer able to keep their daughter fed and clothed, so they sent her to Shanghai to be adopted and raised by an uncle, Xia Tianren (夏天人), a prominent Shanghai stage actor. He got her into acting, and in 1927 she joined the the Mingxing studio on a temporary contract. She then worked for several other Shanghai studios, getting roles of increasing importance, which led to Mingxing rehiring her for grooming as a leading lady.
She became a star after making “Burning,” and continued in her role through all 18 sequels to the original, becoming one of the most popular martial arts heroines of the time, and with an overall popularity and salary that were on the same level of Mingxing’s other top female stars Hu Die and Xuan Jinglin. Her salary, 800 silver dollars a month, had become the principal source of income for her adoptive father, and when Mingxing turned down still another raise he threatened to move her to another studio.
When censorship and changing audience tastes spelled the end for “gods and spirits” movies, Mingxing changed policy and turned to making literary and art films. Xia Peizhen returned to the studio, and appeared with Hu Die in such early sound films as “Genü Hongmudan” 《歌女红牡丹》 (Songstress Red Peony) and “Tixiao Yiyuan” 《啼笑姻缘》(A Marriage Through Tears and Laughter). Her performances were well-received by audiences, leading Mingxing to cast her as the principal lead in several more popular films in the mid-1930s, and her popularity stood on the same level as Hu Die’s.
Unfortunately, her adoptive father Xia Tianren feared that her growing popularity might lead to a marriage which would remove her from his control, so he forced her to begin using opium. But his scheme succeeded too well: she became deeply addicted, to the point where she would spend whole days in bed under its influence. Her strength and faculties diminished as her addiction grew, and finally, while under the influence, she was severely injured in a fall from a building while shooting a scene. These injuries left her in constant pain, and only worsened her drug habit. Although she had a few more roles after that, her career was over. She disappeared from public view until the early 1950s, shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic, when she was found in Wuhan. The new government placed her with a movie studio in a non-performing capacity (although she had one small role in a 1960 production) and exploited her by trotting her out from time to time as an example of how actresses were treated in the old society. Xia Peizhen died April 5, 1975, and one hopes she found some happiness in her later life.