Although she had a highly successful film career, Xuan Jinglin (宣景林) had a very bad start in life, with a sad and bitter childhood. She was born in Shanghai, the youngest of six children (five girls and one boy) of a newspaper deliveryman. The father died when she was four months old, leaving his widow and children, already poor, in desperate straits. The only income they had was what little money her uncles, the mother's brothers, were able to give them. Jinglin received some education when a school operated by a Christian church waived the tuition for her to attend classes. But this also turned out to be a bad experience for the little girl, as her affluent classmates teased her unmercifully about her family's poverty and her hand-me-down clothes, and she often came home in tears. When the uncles died one after another, Xuan Jinglin's mother had no recourse but to sell her youngest daughter to a brothel, in effect sentencing her to an abysmal, and probably short, life of degradation. Jinglin suffered this existence for some years, dreaming of escape. She thought her dream had come true when one of her clients fell for her. This young man was Wang Gongzi, scion of a wealthy shipowning family, and although he wanted to marry her, his father resolutely opposed his son marrying a prostitute. Her hopes for a normal future dashed, Jinglin returned to the brothel.
But fate suddenly gave her a second chance. In 1925, China's national film industry was developing rapidly, and the numerous movie studios popping up in Shanghai were in urgent need of talent. Someone, perhaps a considerate client, introduced the attractive teenager to writer/director Zheng Zhengqiu, who as chance would have it was looking for someone to fill a supporting role in an upcoming film, a pretty girl, but one who could project a villainous nature. After interviewing Xuan Jinglin he cast her in the role, a one-movie deal. Although the film, "The Last Conscience" has been lost, we know from contemporary reviews that her character was that of a backbiting, conniving and rude sister-in-law. We also know her success was such that on Zheng Zhengqiu's recommendation the Mingxing studio signed her to a 3-year contract. She had important roles in four more movies in 1925, and was well-received by audiences, so much so that when in 1926 the "New World" magazine of Shanghai held a reader vote for the "Empresses of Film," Xuan Jinglin was voted one of the "Four Great Ingenues" of Chinese film, along with Zhang Zhiyun, Yang Naimei and Wang Hanlun. The unwilling teenage brothel inmate had at last escaped the abyss.
In her first two years in movies, Xuan Jinglin held leading roles in more than 10 films, usually playing ingénues or young married women. But in her last film of 1926, director Zhang Shichuan cast her as an old woman, a successful bit of creative casting which in hindsight probably made the difference between Xuan having a relatively short movie career as an ingénue and a much longer one as a character actress. In 1931, Xuan made another successful transition, moving from Mingxing to the Tianyi film studio to play the lead in a sound film, "Spring Comes on Stage," a backstage romance patterned after American musicals, with musical performances interspersed between romantic and comedy scenes. It created a public sensation. (Technically, this was not a sound film as we came to know the term: the soundtrack was recorded on wax disks, with music and dialogue synchronized with the action onscreen.)