Module 5: New Women (1935)

Ruan Lingyu in New Women 1935

What is the reality women face in Chinese society? What should it be? This “problem film” dramatizes the perils facing women seeking a public role in society, especially a predatory news media that treats them like commodities for public consumption. A film inspired by the recent suicide of actress Ai Xia (who appears in Spring Silkworms), the film became a sensation when lead actress Ruan Lingyu committed suicide on March 8, 1935–International Women’s Day.

This module corresponds to chapter 6 in the book Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949.

The film:

Xin nüxing
Alternative English titles: New WomanNew Female
Produced by: United Photoplay Services, Ltd. (Lianhua yingye gongsi 聯華影業公司) (second studio)
Director: Cai Chusheng 蔡楚生
Screenplay: Sun Shiyi 孫師毅
Year of release: 1935
Cast: Ruan Lingyu 阮玲玉, Zheng Junli 鄭君里, Yin Xu 殷虛, Wang Naidong 王乃東
English subtitles translated by Eileen Cheng-yin Chow

Video lecture 1: Sensational New Women

11 minutes


  • Plot summary
  • A film inspired by an actress’s suicide…and followed by the suicide of its star, Ruan Lingyu
  • Marketed as a “problem film” about “the woman question” – really, an array of questions about what the lives of women were and should be in modern China
  • Trends in the public visibility of women in modern China, and their representation in popular culture
  • A visually sensational film: wipes, split screens, matte shots, and other types of superimposition

Video lecture 2: Visual and Sonic Symbolism

15 minutes


  • Double standards and triple lives: the symbolism of mirrors, photographs, and toys
  • Wei Ming vs. Aying: Representing one type of new woman as flat and passive, and another as a three-dimensional bodily force
  • Silenced women: music and singing as plot and symbolism; muted cries
  • “I want to live!”: a dubbed sound-on-disk film made on the cusp of the talkies era
  • How to interpret the film’s ambiguous ending?

Learn more:

Scenes from New Women

This encounter between Wei Ming, Mrs. Wang, and Aying (Ah Ying) is suggestive of the personalities of the three “new women”:

Yu Haichou’s boss agrees to publish Wei Ming’s novel only after he sees her photograph:

Yu Haichou rejects Wei Ming’s advances in her apartment, inadvertently sending her into the arms of playboy Dr. Wang:

A flashback, made with superimposition, shows Wei Ming’s memory of how she met Dr. Wang, as she rides in his car to a Shanghai nightclub:

Parallel editing contrasts play and work, around the clock:

Wei Ming experiences hallucination and vertigo during a cabaret performance:

Aying and her students sing the “Song of the New Women”:

Aying beats the stuffing out of Dr. Wang, who has pursued Wei Ming to her apartment:

Comparisons with other films

Ruan Lingyu also plays a single mother in dire straits in Goddess (1934):

Actor Yin Xu, who plays Aying, appears in a similar role as a physically strong woman in Sports Queen (1934):

Compare the mirror kiss scene in New Women to this one in Trouble in Paradise (1932):

The Cheat (1931) also features the use of a doll to represent women – here in the hands of a male sexual predator:

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