Ding Ziming (1907-1997): a maid of constant sorrow
The actress universally recognized as the great tragedienne of China's silent film era is the legendary Ruan Lingyu. But before Ruan came to prominence at the end of the 1920s, the actress most noted for her tragic roles was Ding Ziming丁子明. During a surprisingly brief movie career, only 7 years, Ding Ziming made 18 motion pictures, usually with top billing. She was very popular with Chinese filmgoers, ranking in late-1920s box office appeal with Wang Hanlun and Zhang Zhiyun. In spite of this, she retired unexpectedly from the screen in 1931, walking away at the age of 24. Compared with other top Chinese stars of the silent era, remarkably little is known about her personally, and almost nothing about her post-cinematic life. The key to the enigma may be found in her personality: Chinese film fans and the entertainment press loved to nickname their favorites, and Ding Ziming was dubbed the "bei dan" 悲旦, literally meaning a sorrowful or melancholy girl ("dan" referring to female characters in Beijing opera). To quote the old folk song, a "bei dan" could be called a "maid of constant sorrow." The term had a double meaning in this case, applying to both the majority of Ding's film roles as well as her outlook on life.
Her screen debut was the female lead in the Shenzhou studio's first film, 1925's "Unbearable Memories" (Bukan Huishou 不堪回首), a debut not only for Ding but for the studio, the director, and several other cast members. Ding later secured her fame in the Shenzhou studio's "Disaster for Younger Sister," and her popularity grew with "A Beauty of 16" and "Love and Gold."
[Ding Ziming early in her career]
But even after Ding Ziming became famous, she remained a solitary figure and ever more reclusive. She had none of the trappings of a "star," no attendance at premieres, never seen at the most popular Shanghai night spots, in fact her contacts with the outside world grew less frequent as her popularity increased. At those times she was not in a scene, she would spend her time by herself in a nearby shed (the equivalent of today's trailer), studying her part. When the day's shooting was completed, she would never hang around, leaving by herself and returning alone the next day. She always dressed neatly but simply, never pursuing the latest fashions as did many of the leading actresses of the day. Contemporary critics praised her acting style as natural and unaffected, but the reason for this may have been that she wasn't acting: her portrayals of tragic heroines may have just reflected her own unhappy personality. [right, Ding Ziming around 1930]
After retiring from motion pictures, Ding Ziming disappeared almost completely. Following the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, she was listed as working for the Shanghai Artists Association, and in a 1953 movie which cast several retired and semi-retired filmmakers in small roles, she had one of these. Nothing else is recorded until the announcement of her death in 1997, age 90.
Why did she quit when she did? The usual reasons don't seem to apply in this case. Marriage was sometimes a reason for early retirement, especially for actresses who married wealthy and powerful men who didn't want working wives. But these marriages always received wide press coverage, and there is no record of Ding Ziming even being involved with anyone, let alone marrying. As in Western countries, failure to make the transition to sound was often a factor, but full adoption of sound was still a few years away for China.
It may have simply been disillusionment. Ding had gone into movies with the idealistic hope that she might through her art make a genuine contribution toward rectifying some of the shortcomings and inequities in Chinese society, and she may have come to the sad conclusion that she couldn't do it that way, it was time to try something else. I wish we knew more of her nearly two decades after retirement; I have a suspicion Ding Ziming was involved somehow in politics. She just seems to have been too bright and too dedicated not to be.
Unbearable Memories (He Suyun)
There's a Full Moon Tonight (Zhang Suzhen)
Pearl Tower (Caiping)
Disaster for Younger Sister (He Ailian)
Those Horrible Days (Zeng Shuzhen)
A Moral Obligation (Wang Shuhui)
Love and Gold (Chen Lianzhen)
Tablet of Blood and Tears (Liang Sizhen)
Bachelor Secretary [aka Miss Wei's Profession] (Wei Shuzhen)
A Beauty of 16 (Laibao)
Romance Between Classmates (Wu Ke)
Swordswoman Rescues a Lady (Bu Keren)
Swordswoman in Black (Liu Meihua)
Luoyang Bridge (Guan Shiyin)
Done With one Heart
Heartaches (Lin's wife)
Textile Song (Mrs. Ma)