After relying in the earliest years of Chinese filmmaking on stage artists, by 1925 China's growing number of film schools, studio-operated as well as independents, were turning out a deep pool of acting talent trained specifically for the the screen. One of these was a young actress named Wu Suxin, who became a leading martial arts film heroine during the late-1920s mania for that genre.
Wu Suxin was born in 1905 or 1906, and while sources list her as a native of Xiangshan, Guangdong, it is unclear as to whether that was her actual birthplace or her family's ancestral home. (Chinese biographical sources often list both, especially if the subject was born in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin or outside of the China mainland.) We do know that her birth name was Wu Baodiao 吴宝蝉, and after graduating from Kai Xiu Senior Girls School in Shanghai, she enrolled in the (independent) Far East Film College to study acting. After graduating in 1925 she joined the newly-founded Tianyi Film Company (forerunner of the Shaw Brothers) and had important supporting roles in such films as "Repentance," "Movie Actresses," "Legend of the White Snake," "The Tragedy of Liang and Zhu" and "The Pearl Pagoda," all of which starred Hu Die (still several years away from becoming China's "Movie Empress") with Wu Suxin holding second or third billing among the females in each film.
[left, Wu Suxin in traditional bridal dress; click on any image to see full size]
One of her early supporting roles was in the Minxin studio's "Heroine Li Feifei." This brought her to the attention of two brothers who were starting their own studio, and for the next several years the name of Wu Suxin was inseparable from that of another: Zhang Huimin 张惠民. We earlier discussed the varied careers of Zhang Huichong, the eldest of seven sons of a wealthy Shanghai businessman, who left a sizable fortune when he died. Zhang Huichong used his part of the legacy to start a film company with his actress wife Xu Sue, a studio that specialized in martial arts films. Hoping to emulate their elder brother's success, the second and third eldest brothers, Zhang Huimin and Zhang Qingpu 晴浦 used their share to start another studio they called Huaju, also specializing in martial arts. They recruited Wu Suxin to be their principal leading lady. Her first movie for Huaju was the two-part "White Lotus," and from that start she went on to make a total of 24 films for the studio between 1927 and 1931, the bulk of them martial arts adventures, although Huaju moved into other genres when the mania for action films declined at the end of the 1920s. One of Wu Suxin's recurring characters was a swordswoman called the "White Rose," and Huaju began listing her in the English language credits as "White Rose Woo," even in her non-action roles. In most of these movies, Zhang Huimin had the male lead, with he and brother Qingpu sharing the directing, writing and cinematography functions.
[left, Wu Suxin and Zhang Huimin in a Huaju studio publicity still]
During the years they were working together, Wu Suxin and Zhang Huimin established a relationship generally recorded in the press as that of husband and wife. However, a 1936 issue of the Shanghai film magazine Diansheng 电声 (which carried the English title "Radio and Movie News") had a news item which stated the couple's relationship was one of "contractual romantic cohabitation," which I assume was similar to what in the West is called a "common-law" marriage. Another indefinite aspect of the Huaju studio's history is the name Wu Susu 吴素素, frequently seen in their films' supporting credits. I believe she was Wu Suxin's sister: in addition to the similarity of names, both actresses were in Wu Suxin's sole surviving silent film, and there was a strong facial resemblance between the two.
[Wu and Zhang in an ad for 1929's "An Adopted Daughter"]
As with many other small Shanghai studios, the brief Shanghai War of 1932 forced Huaju out of business. The director and actress ended their relationship after that, and Wu Xuxin found a new romance with popular stage (and sometimes screen) actor Chen Qiufeng 陈秋风. Her career took a new turn in the winter of 1935. when the head of a Shanghai theatrical organization invited her to join a road company he was forming. The new troupe would tour the Cantonese-speaking provinces of south China and the countries of Southeast Asia, presenting stage performances for the overseas communities there. She accepted, and nothing more is recorded of her whereabouts or activities until 1937, when "Radio Movie News" mentioned she was in Chungking (Chongqing), China's wartime capital.
[right, Wu on a cigarette card for a Sino-Belgian brand]
The last mention of Wu Suxin in the film literature was in Hong Kong in 1954. At that time, director Hong Bo was preparing "Tiantang Meinu"《天堂美女》, a musical comedy which would relate the machinations surrounding a fictional Hong Kong beauty contest. It was one of the most ambitious HK films since the end of the war, and in addition to casting several major stars of the day in the principal roles, Hong Bo also recruited several older stars from the classic era to appear in cameos as the contest's judging panel. Wu Suxin was one of these, as were two other silent stars we have already discussed: Yang Naimei and Zhang Zhiyun, both previously homeless people who had been rescued from Hong Kong's mean streets.
But unlike those two silent era stars, whose entire body of work is lost, we have one of Wu Suxin's movies to view, "Xue Zhong Gu Chu,"《雪中孤雏》("An Orphan"). It is somewhat ironic that this sole survivor of Wu's silent career has her cast in a straight melodramatic role, while the bulk of her career was in martial arts movies. At this point I wish to give a big shout-out to the Classical Iconoclast, largely devoted to classical music but with an occasional post about Chinese culture. There is a link there to the full version of "An Orphan," with English intertitles. It's good, and as one of the few 1920s Chinese films to have survived, it should be cherished as well as enjoyed.
[right, theater poster for《An Orphan》