The name Shangguan Yunzhu is not well known to Western audiences. In her homeland of China, she was an illustrious movie star who first became popular in Shanghai. She enjoyed a period of artistic limelight like stars arching over the moon. She was once considered one of the elites and the glamorous set. She was received “in private” by Mao Zedong many times and he penned poems for her.
In Mao’s China, however, danger lurked everywhere. She initially found favor and escaped the disastrous fate of being framed as a “rightist.” In the end, however, her fame, beauty, glamour, and talent were not enough to save her. Just because of a letter that caused Jiang Qing, one of Mao’s wives, to become jealous, she was finally driven to desperation during the Cultural Revolution, which tragically ended her life.
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Shangguan Yunzhu: Beautiful and outstanding good looks
In 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out. She was 16 years old then. When her hometown Jiangyin was attacked by the Japanese, she fled and took refuge in Shanghai with her husband. In Shanghai, she found a job as a ticket teller in a photo studio, but because of her beautiful and outstanding appearance, her boss selected her to be a model and put her photos on display in the window. At that time, Shanghai was a “peaceful island” during wartime. The film industry prospered, producing a large number of movie stars. She was influenced by the studio’s many customers from the film industry and became fascinated with acting.
Born Wei Junluo, she was given the charming stage name “Shangguan Yunzhu,” which was suggested by the influential director at that time Bu Wancang, while she was auditioning for a film in 1940. This was the time when she started to embark on an acting career. In the days that followed, Shangguan Yunzhu mingled with almost all of Shanghai’s large and small performance groups.
Rise to fame
Gradually, Shangguan Yunzhu rose to fame in the performing arts world with her varied acting talents. On stage, she played an important role in Sunrise and became famous for her role in Thunderstorm. Another big drama followed, Spring River Flows East, and she become a frequent guest on the big screen, playing the roles of charming and vain courtesans, mean and snobbish wives, or bullied factory workers, and other roles with different personalities.
Just like her stage name “Shangguan Yunzhu” (Yunzhu means “pearl in the cloud”), she was like a pearl in the cloud, dazzling and outstanding. However, fate is always unexpected. In the movie Long Live My Wife, Shangguan Yunzhu has a line: “My life is really unfortunate. If it is made into a movie, everyone will cry.” People often say: “Life is like a play,” and this seems to be her destiny. This was indeed a manifestation of her life.
Attempt to transform herself into a ‘New China’ artist
At the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s forced seizure of power, Shangguan Yunzhu was just 30 years old. This is the age when a talented actress can do a lot to bring herself to the dizzy heights of her career. However, she encountered a bottleneck in her career. Her acting roles, style, image, and temperament were not suitable for representing the communist revolution of the “workers, peasants, and soldiers” that the CCP focused on. Shangguan Yunzhu was put in an awkward situation and had no play to perform in. To continue her artistic life, she took the initiative to carry out a “socialist transformation” of herself, hoping to transform herself from an “old Shanghai star” into an “artist of the New China”.
According to the mainland periodical Popular Movies, Shangguan Yunzhu, to wash away the so-called “bourgeois sentiment,” participated in a series of disaster relief, fundraising, and labor force performances, performing dramas reflecting labor conditions and revolution. Around the New Year in 1950, she ate and lived in the theatre, performing 131 consecutive shows at a frequency of two or three times a day. This took a toll on her health and she fainted on stage due to overwork and acute pneumonia. During the “Literary and Artistic Rectification” campaign initiated by the CCP, she “actively reflected on and reviewed her bourgeois thinking,” but this was all in vain.
Shangguan Yunzhu had been “sitting on the bench for three years, but this changed in 1955 when Director Bai Chen ignored the crowd and chose her to play the leading role as a heroic nurse in the film Storm on the Southern Island. In this movie, she completely washed away her previous amorous images of socialite roles and rich wives. She adjusted to her new role well and achieved so-called great ‘success.'”
In January 1956, Shangguan received a note with 11 words written by Shanghai mayor Chen Yi that said: “Comrade Shangguan Yunzhu, please come and meet me.” When she arrived at the designated Sino-Soviet Friendship Building, she saw that Mao Zedong was also there. Chen Yi had set up the “private meeting” for Mao who claimed to be a fan of Shangguan. Subsequently, Mao was said to have met her “in private” six times.
At that time, it was a turbulent period during the “Anti-rightist Movement.” Shangguan was initially targeted and classified as a “rightist” by the film studio, but this was suddenly reversed and she became a “key protected target.” The “targeted rightist” was replaced by another actor.
For a while, Shangguan was forgotten by Mao Zedong. It was for this reason that she is alleged to have personally copied the confession poem Bu Shouzi — Yong Mei by Lu You, a poem that was full of grief and dissatisfaction, and sent it to Mao expressing her loneliness and sadness.
Mao Zedong then wrote a poem by imitating the original Bu Shouzi — Yong Mei and gave it back to her. Who would have imagined that Mao would have used this poem and adapted it into a communist anthem? This poem, touted by the CCP’s literati, was created in this way.
Let’s go back to Shangguan Yunzhu in the early 1960s. She changed roles and leaned in the direction of powerful high officials. She seemed to be reaching the second peak of her career. However, the turning point of fate is always catching people off guard.
In 1966, Shangguan was diagnosed with breast cancer and immediately underwent successful surgery. However, two months later, it was found that she had cancer in her brain and had to undergo another major operation. This time, the environment outside the ward was even more precarious. Her movies Stage Sisters and Early Spring in February had been criticized as “huge big poisonous weeds” in literary and artistic circles. One afternoon, Shangguan, who had not yet recovered, was dragged to the film studio by a group of CCP supporters to criticize her.
Charged with fake crimes
According to Wei Ran, Shangguan’s son, the family’s home had been vandalized at that time; the walls along the corridor were covered in his mother’s name; the door was riddled with holes and was smashed into a honeycomb. Shangguan was burdened with multiple charges of “old society star,” “lifestyle erosion,” “starring in many bad movies,” and other crimes.
Based on the records of Popular Movies: “Shangguan Yunzhu was often beaten by people with thick iron bars wrapped in cloth; she endured endless, humiliating parades, including criticisms and personal insults.” In September 1966, Shanghai Film Studio held a “criticism meeting” during which she was subjected to insults and brutal beatings. The crazy spectators showed their “loyalty” to the CCP and rushed forward to punch and kick her until she passed out.
Shangguan was framed as a “strategic spy lurking under the Kuomintang.” At the beginning of September 1968, the “Shangguan Yunzhu Task Force” controlled by Jiang Qing was set up and successively forced her to write a confession detailing her dealings with Mao Zedong.
At that time, Shangguan was hoping that Mao Zedong would come forward to save her, but the cowardly Mao refused to speak up for her.
On November 22, two uninvited guests came to the Shanghai Film Studio to interrogate Shangguan. They brought her to a small room, interrogated her, and forced her to write a confession. When Shangguan could not answer their questions, they punched, kicked, and even used the sole of their leather shoes to slap her face. After more than two hours, they kicked the dying Shangguan out of the room and ordered her to write the confession clearly by the following day or else she would have to be responsible for the consequences.
In an interview article, Wei Ran described his mother’s horror after being beaten. His mother’s face was swollen, her mouth was bleeding, her eyes were dull, and her whole body was trembling.
A tragic end
When Shangguan Yunzhu returned home that night, her whole body was full of injuries. She was devastated and unable to write the confession that the Task Force wanted. Not able to withstand the endless humiliation and suffering, at 3 a.m. on November 23, 1968, when the night was at its darkest, she jumped out of the window from the fourth floor of her apartment. She died on the way to the hospital. She was just 48 years old then.
Shangguan’s most brilliant years bloomed in Shanghai during the war, but after the establishment of the so-called “New China,” it declined and withered. Shangguan Yunzhu had three marriages and had two sons and one daughter, but at the last moment of her life, no one was at her side. Yao Yao, the only daughter who had been following her, died in a car accident seven years after her death.
During the escalating political movements such as Rectification, Anti-Rightism, and the Cultural Revolution, Shangguan compromised and conceded again and again, and she tolerated humiliation again and again. In order not to affect her so-called pursuit for “self-development,” she even abandoned her husband Cheng Shuyao, who was framed during the Three Antis Campaign (anti-corruption, anti-waste, anti-bureaucracy) and sent to a labor camp.
All her beauty, glamour, talents, background, compromises, and concessions to the CCP were in vain. Shangguan Yunzhu never expected that in the storm, the CCP “destroyed everything,” including traditional human morality, not to mention her dream of becoming a star, and even her life, which could not escape a dark ending. Sadly, she discovered all too late that the CCP eats its own. In the end, however, she was the outright winner. This brave and tormented lady denied the Chinese Communist Party every bragging right; she denied them every opportunity to gloat over her and showed the world that the CCP is an alien abomination.