After they formed the Da Zhonghua Film Company at the beginning of 1924, Gu Kenfu, Lu Jie and Bu Wancang placed recruitment ads for actors in Shen Bao, a leading Shanghai newspaper, and borrowed an unused post office box from the paper to use as an address for receipt of applications. After 10 days, they opened the box to inspect the results, but found that out of more than 10,000 photos received, there was not one they could use. Somebody tipped them off that a certain reporter on the newspaper had previously had access to the mailbox for his personal mail, and had gone in and removed some of the most attractive photos for himself. Gu Kenfu confronted the reporter about this, and the latter turned over 10 photos to Gu. One of these was of a young woman named Zhang Zhiyun. She was not especially attractive, but the filmmakers paid particular attention to the stolen photos, and as a result of this closer inspection Zhang Zhiyun was accepted into the studio's new film school. After completion of her training, Zhang was cast as the female lead in the studio's first two movies, "Public Opinion" and "Battlefield Exploits."
Zhang Zhiyun 张织云 (1904-197?) was born Zhang Ahxi (some sources say Zhang Ahshan) in the Guangdong village of Panyu, now part of the city of Guangzhou. Her father died when she was three, after which she and her mother moved to Shanghai. Her appearance in the Da Zhonghua company's first two features brought her to the attention of the Mingxing studio, and this larger and better-funded studio recruited her. Playing the lead in a string of three popular films for Mingxing quickly made her one of what the press termed the Mingxing studio's "Four great dan" [actresses], along with Wang Hanlun, Xuan Jinglin and Yang Naimei. In 1926, the Shanghai magazine "New World" conducted a fan poll, which resulted in Zhang Zhiyun's being named No.1 among Mingxing's four "great dan."
[Zhang Zhiyun in "Why Not Her (1926)]
Zhang Zhiyunin "The Sex Trap" (1927)]
At the peak of her career, Zhang became involved in a romantic relationship with director Bu Wancang, and when he left Mingxing for Li Minwei's Minxin studio, they made a film together, "Why Not Her." Her portrayal of a simple and vivacious country girl caught in a doomed romance deeply moved audiences and solidified her standing as what was now termed the "Queen of Tragedy." But in 1927, vanity led her to make a life-changing, and as it turned out, a bad decision: to everyone's shock, she broke off her relationship with Bu Wancang, and after making two more movies to fufill her studio contract, resigned from Mingxing to marry and go to America with tea magnate Tang Jishan. In the U.S. Tang marketed his tea by exploiting her status as China's "Empress of Movies" in an ad campaign. But in a few years he abandoned her and returned to Shanghai.* Zhang Zhiyun returned to find the country's movie situation had changed enormously: sound had come in, and her dialect was Cantonese, a handicap in Shanghai's Mandarin-only industry. Mingxing cast her as the lead in a sound production, but it was an unsuccessful attempt. After a supporting role in a 1935 film in which she had relatively few lines, she moved to Hong Kong in the hope she could revive her film career where Cantonese was dominant. Although she did find small parts in several films there, she was unable to attain the stature she had enjoyed in the 1920s. As her career tanked, Zhang wrote and published an autobiography, "Tears of Blood," but it did not help salvage her fortunes. She sank into poverty and for a time became a street beggar. The exact date and circumstances are unrecorded, but it is known she died in Hong Kong at some time in the 1970s.
In her movie career, Zhang Zhiyun was the lead in 13 romantic tragedies, and like the tragic heroines she portrayed, she was in the end overwhelmed by tragedy in life.
*If the name Tang Jishan sounds familiar, he was later the lover of Ruan Lingyu, living with her at the time of her suicide in 1935.
A Pitiful Girl
The Newcomer's Family
Orchid in the Empty Valley
Why Not Her
Love and Gold
Sacrifice for Parents
Plum Blossom Falls (I,II,III)
The Sex Trap
The New Young Mistress's Fan