From 1931 to 1937, Hu Ping was a well-known left-wing film star and film critic (“Progressive Star”). Her abrupt withdrawal from the film industry in 1937, after the Chinese-Japanese War in Shanghai (also known as the “8.13 Incident”), led to repeated mentions in the wartime and post-war press about her, most of which portrayed her as a “fallen” actress. Among various queries about her possible whereabouts was one brief, positive review entitled “Thinking of Hu Ping,” which recalled her as a talented young actress active before the war, and noted that “since the anti-Japanese war ended successfully, most of the actors and actresses returned except the versatile Hu Ping. It’s so puzzling why nothing is heard about her” (Xiangshui). As a film star with a close connection to the Chinese left-wing cinema movement, Hu Ping is not completely forgotten today and is mentioned several times in Chinese Film Development History, the most widely read film history textbook in China, first published in 1963. The book credits her as an actress in more than a dozen silent and sound films and as the scenario writer of A Tragic Tale About My Sister/姊妹的悲剧 (1933), and notes her involvement with the League of Chinese Left-Wing Dramatists (Cheng et al. 185, 244, 272, 297). However, at the same time, Hu remains an obscure figure who, due to a lack of information about her, rarely attracts focused or in-depth scholarly attention today, except for the occasional journalistic interest in her (e.g., Ge 2007). Thus, in order to trace the contours of Hu’s film and journalistic career, this profile uses Chinese periodicals from the 1930s and 1940s, memoirs by contemporary playwrights and writers, Chinese Film Development History, and online sources as its main references.
Hu Ping was born Hu Ying in either 1910 or 1913 in Changsha, Hunan Province, China. Her father, Hu Yinglin, was a proofreader for the New Hunan Newspaper (湖南新报) and was able to provide financial support for her education, though presumably with some difficulty (“Brief Autobiography”). After primary school, Hu attended either Changsha Provincial Girls School, Changsha Zhounan High School, or Ri Xin Women’s Fine Arts School, depending on different sources (Qi Ni; “Stars and Talented Women”; “Brief Autobiography”), and worked as a part-time waitress at the Far East Café Shop. In 1929, while still a student, she was asked by Zuo Tianxi (左天锡), co-founder of a school theatrical troupe called Frozen Rain Drama Troupe, to play a role in “Suzhou Night Talk” (“苏州夜话”) by the progressive playwright Tian Han (田汉). This experience aroused her interest in stage acting. She joined the troupe and appeared in other plays, such as Tian’s “Death of A Famous Actress” (“名优之死”),“Trash Can” (“垃圾桶”), and “Will to Life” (“生之意志”), as well as two Japanese plays, “Eros,” by Mushanokoji Saneatsu, and “Father Returns,” by Kikuchi Kan, in December 1929 and February 1930, respectively.
Hoping to have an acting career, Hu moved to Shanghai in the summer of 1930 accompanied by Xiang Peiliang (向培良), a dramatist and friend of Tian Han. There, Hu attended Shanghai Art School and joined the South China Society (1927-1930), which was led by Tian. However, due to the group’s call for a people’s revolution during their staging of Tian’s adaptation of “Carmen,” the troupe was banned by the authorities. Hu then joined the Purple Song Drama Troupe and traveled to the city of Xiamen to stage “Nora” there for three days, playing the role of Kristine Lind (“Brief Autobiography”). After coming back to Shanghai, she and two friends founded their own theater troupe and staged the musical “Wang Zhaojun” (“王昭君”), in which she played a supporting role. Unfortunately, audiences were unfamiliar with the new musical theater art form and the production was a failure. The troupe dissolved soon after (Ma). Hu continued her stage career, however. In the early spring of 1931, she joined Big Road Drama Troupe. According to the 1935 article “Hu Ping’s Stage Life” in Qing Qing Cinema, she co-starred with Zheng Jun (郑君里), a well-known Chinese stage and film actor and director, in the play “The Men on the Kenk” by Alfred Sutro, and the “audience [was] deeply moved and even shed tears” (Fusheng). Through roles like this, Hu started to build a reputation in Shanghai, becoming known as an excellent actress. In this period, she also joined the League of Chinese Left-Wing Dramatists, which operated from 1931-1936, and became closely connected to a group of talented and pro-proletariat playwrights and dramatists.
In 1931, Hu transitioned into film acting with a starring role in Hero on the Sea/海上英雄 (1931) for Youlian Film Studio, a company famous for its martial arts films in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She then starred in Love Story of Forest Outlaws/绿林艳史 (1932) for Bai Hong Film Studio, but neither the name of the studio nor the title were included in her filmography in Chinese Film Development History. I also came across a very brief news item stating that she was going to play a seductive vamp in Three Riders/三骑士 for Fudan Film Studio (Niu), but I have not been able to find any further information about this project.
In 1932, Hu joined Star Film Company. There, she played supporting roles in Revival of National Spirit/国魂的复活 (1932), Adventures on Battle Ground/战地历险记 (1932), Cosmetics Market/脂粉市场 (1933), Prospects/前程 (1933), and Romance in Spring/春水情波 (1933), and starred in Love and Life/恋爱与生命 (1932) and A Tragic Tale About My Sister/姊妹的悲剧. As Chinese cinema went through the slow transition from silent to sound filmmaking, these films were all still silent except for Cosmetics Market. Heavily influenced by the guiding tenets of the League of Chinese Left-Wing Dramatists and other pro-Communist writers, most of these films were concerned with the suffering and pain of ordinary people. Consciousness-raising around women’s issues was also a repeated theme, and these films often focused on women’s struggles for independence.
In was within this context that Hu wrote her only film script: A Tragic Tale About My Sister. According to the original scenario, published in Star in 1933, this now lost film tells the story of Yu Ying, a poor village girl whose older brother and father, suffering from the hardships of rural life, die at the hand of the bullying landlord Wang Ruilin. Yu Ying and her younger brother, Ying Sheng, then flee to Shanghai to make a living working in a factory. While Ying Sheng gets involved in a worker’s strike and is put into prison, Yu Ying is dismissed from the factory and has to support herself, first as a housemaid and then as a dancer. She falls in love with a rich young man named Youlin who ultimately betrays her and even plans to give her away as a gift to a warlord. Miserable, Yu Ying then finds out that Youlin is the son of the landlord Wang Ruilin. Recalling the death of her older brother and father, she is furious and seeks revenge. She consequently attempts to murder Youlin while he is drunk one night, but, ultimately, gets arrested for attempted murder (Hu, “Script Story,” 3-4).
In this melodramatic story, Hu shows sympathy for the poor and tries to portray the cruel side of rural life in China in the early 1930s: the high price of land leasing, the low price of silk, vexatious taxing, and natural disasters like floods or drought. A Tragic Tale About My Sister echoes another film produced that year, Spring Silkworm (1933), made by the same studio, which tells the story of the hardships faced by a family of silk growers. While there is no information regarding how Hu came up with the story for A Tragic Tale About My Sister, she was publicly credited as the scenario writer of this film (Hu, “Script Story,” 3; Tu 22), and she was praised as a female screenwriter on par with Ai Xia (艾霞), who wrote and starred in A Modern Woman that same year (“Passionate and Bold Hu Ping”). The fact that this was Hu’s only script led to some doubt about her authorship, and a later news article even claimed that the script was written by Hu’s lover, Hou Feng, since Hu did not come up with any scripts after they split up (“Old Stories of Screen Stars”). However, Hu is not alone in creating only one piece of work; numerous Chinese women filmmakers in the 1920s and 1930s produced only one film. For instance, China’s first woman screenwriter Pu Shunqing (濮舜卿) only wrote Cupid’s Puppet/爱神的玩偶 (1925), director Xie Caizhen (謝采貞) only made Orphan’s Cries/孤雏悲声 (1925), and Ai Xia only wrote A Modern Woman, which perhaps suggests how challenging it was for Chinese women to maintain behind-the-scenes roles in the film industry at that time.
Interestingly, Hu was reportedly planning to direct A Tragic Tale About My Sister herself, but her proposal was rejected by Star Film Company. According to a 1933 article in Ling Long, Wang Jiting, an actor at the studio, was appointed to be the director, which angered Hu, who announced her plan to leave the company when shooting was complete (“Anecdotes About Chinese Film”). Another news report stated that the company was carefully searching for a qualified director for the film and that Hu was going to be the assistant director (Suzhoulao). Based on these different versions of the story, it could be inferred that there was some sort of negotiation between Hu and the studio concerning the position of director. According to Chinese Film Development History, the film was co-directed by Gao Lihen, one of the studio’s important directors, and Wang Jiting (Cheng et al. 244, 542). No official record confirms Hu’s credit of assistant director on this project, and there is no indication that she tried to direct another film. Soon after production completed, she left the Star Film Company for the newly established Yi Hua Film Company.
At Yi Hua, Hu starred or co-starred in Flames/烈焰 (1933), Women/女人 (1934), and The Golden Times/黄金时代 (1934), her last three silent films. In these, she played women who were charming, daring, and strong-minded—character types that are more often than not considered to be “fallen” women. In Flames, she played a woman named Ah Zhen who abandons her boyfriend for a rich man (Zheng and Guiqing 2659-60). In The Golden Times, she played Tao Li, a beautiful and vain young woman who ends up becoming a warlord’s concubine (Zheng and Guiqing 2955-56). In Women, however, she played Jin Ling, a strong-willed and independent young woman who is expelled from school for fighting against an injustice toward her female classmate, eventually becoming a gynecologist (Zheng and Guiqing 2957-58). In 1933, the Yi Hua Film Company was attacked by the “Blueshirts,” a political organization supported by the Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party), for its pro-Communist films that advocated for a class struggle between the rich and the poor. It became increasingly difficult for the left-wing filmmakers to work at the company. However, Hu stayed and acted in four more sound productions. She then moved to the Xinhua Film Company and was cast in four more talkies, among which The Phantom Lover/夜半歌声 (1937) and Youth on the March/青年进行曲 (1937) were the most successful and mark the peak of her stardom.
As a well-known writer, Hu regularly published articles in newspapers and magazines over the course of her film career. In these articles, she told stories about the struggles she faced in her acting career and expressed her tender feelings about the world and her life in a fresh and natural style. She also wrote about the cinema, arguing that it was an art form that should reflect the reality of life rather than avoid it. Unsurprisingly, her ideas about cinema were in line with Marxist-oriented left-wing thinking. For example, in “The Task of Cinema in My Point of View,” she wrote:
[I]n the contemporary society which is so chaotic and disconcerting, cinema shouldn’t be an entertainment for the leisured class, but should be an instrument for [the] masses to cry out. Therefore, the stories and descriptions of cinema should go deep into the life of the people, delicately and accurately represent their situation, point out a correct way-out for them. And this is exactly the mission for the modern cinema. (4)
Similarly, in “Chinese Cinema From Now ON,” she reiterated this belief that film should not only be entertainment but also an instrument for educating people: “Standing in the position of revolution, we naturally take film as the phonograph for the oppressed. It can be used as an instrument to inspire and awaken people and teach the oppressed to rebel against their enemy” (46). Seeing the rapidly developing economic crises around the world and the ways that imperialist countries exploited their colonies, Hu worried that China, a semi-colonial country and a potentially large market, was also in danger of being exploited. She wrote, “Undoubtedly, we are going to take film as an anti-imperialist weapon. We are going guide the people to be aware of the ugliness of the imperialism, to fight against the carving up China by imperialists by exposing their conspiracy” (46). For her, film was the best weapon for a developing nation to fight against imperialism and feudalism.
In an article entitled “About National Defense Movies,” Hu supported the 1936 call, made by leading left-wing writers and artists, for an anti-Japanese national defense film (国防电影). She agreed with many that the cinema could be used as a weapon for national liberation. (In answer to this call, a few anti-Japanese war films were produced, such as Blood on Wolf Mountain [狼山喋血记, 1936] and Soaring Aspiration [壮志凌云, 1936].) In her article, Hu also pointed out the importance of creating appealing cinematic products since the Chinese film industry was still subject to market and commercial forces at that time (14).
What happened to Hu Ping after the “8.13 Incident” remains a mystery today. She stayed for a short time in Wuhan and then disappeared from public view after the city was occupied by the Japanese army in October 1938 (“Progressive Star”). There are numerous and contradictory descriptions of her later life. She reportedly either married a Hong Kong merchant (“Film Star Hu Ping ”) or a professor at Hu Nan University (“Hu Ping Becomes a Professor’s Wife”). Other sources suggested she either became the mistress of a military officer in Yunnan (Huang 285-56) or a Buddhist nun (Qing). Pan Jienong, a famous screenwriter, recalled seeing Hu in the arms of Xu Kan, the Minister of Food of the Kuomintang government, on the street in Chengdu in 1942 (189-91). And Fei Ge reported in 2007 that Hu lived anonymously until the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s in her hometown of Changsha (D2).
While we do not know what happened to Hu, it is clear that she was a product of a particular moment in Chinese history, when there was a move for women’s liberation in education, the economy, and the arts in the 1920s and 1930s, which made it possible for her to pursue a theater and performance career. Actively involved in left-wing politics in the 1930s, she was an independent and bold figure on screen and on the page with her critical writing. Known as the “Red Girl” because she often dressed in red from head to toe, she was also a fashion icon, embodying with her chosen color both the revolution and urban modernity. In this way, as in her short but prolific film career, Hu epitomized the complex economic, political, and cultural forces that shaped mainstream Chinese cinema during both the late silent and early sound eras.