The actress who Chinese moviegoers knew as Wang Hanlun(王汉伦 Wáng Hànlún) was born Peng Jianqing(彭剑青 Péng Jiànqīng) in 1903 in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. Her early life had much in common with that of Songlian(颂莲 Sòng Lián), the protagonist of Zhang Yimou’s(张艺谋 Zhāng Yìmóu) 1991 movie “Raise the Red Lantern”(大红灯笼高高挂 dàhóng dēnglóng gāogāo guà), a character played by Gong Li(巩俐 Gǒng Lì). The tragedy cast a shadow on her life.
The youngest of seven children, Peng Jianqing was by all accounts her father’s favorite, and although the family was strict and traditional in keeping with the times, her father sent her to an excellent private institution, St. Mary’s School for Women in Shanghai. However, her father died when she was 16, imperiling the Peng family’s financial position. In keeping with feudal tradition, the eldest brother became clan head, and he and his wife opted for the most common means of disposing of superfluous daughters at that time: young Jianqing was pulled from school and a marriage was arranged for her, in this case an alliance with a man named Zhang, a coal mine operator in the Northeast China province of Liaoning(辽宁 liáoníng). Her depression at this sudden shift in her personal situation grew worse when she discovered her husband was continuing a relationship with a mistress he had before the marriage, but when she confronted him about it he dismissed her objections, saying the “it’s not unusual for a man of means to have 3 or 4 wives, so don’t trouble yourself about it.” Zhang’s company was a joint Sino-Japanese enterprise, and when Peng Jianqing accompanied her husband on a business trip to Shanghai, she learned something more about Mr. Zhang, that his collaboration with the Japanese went beyond the economic sphere to the political: he was actively assisting the Japanese in their encroachment into Northeast China that in less than a decade would result in full Japanese domination of the region, and establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo. When she accused him of being a traitor, Zhang struck her. She could take no more and demanded a divorce, to which his reply was “If you leave me, you’ll be crying the rest of your life.” But she left him and remained in Shanghai. Her family’s disapproval of her action forced her to make other living arrangements: she moved in with a distant relative and began to eke out a living, first as a teacher and later as an English language typist.
Zhang Shichuan(张石川 Zhāng Shíchuān) sought for its heroine, a wealthy family’s shao nainai (少奶奶), or “young mistress,” the eldest son’s daughter-in-law and thereby heiress apparent to first lady of the clan. Peng agreed to audition.
The Mingxing company at that time had just been organized, and actually had no studio, no location, just a small kiosk that served as an office. After Peng Jianqing and Zhang Shichuan were introduced, he took her to a rural area outside Shanghai where the company did its filming, and had her express a range of emotions in front of the camera. Afterwards, the company offered her a contract as an actress, with payment of 500 yuan per month, plus a 20 yuan per month travel allowance.
However, this happy turn in Jianqing’s fortunes brought quite the opposite reaction from her family. Her eldest brother, now the family head and the one who had represented the family in arranging his sister’s disastrous marriage, demanded that she rescind the contract immediately; when she refused, he filed legal charges against his sister, accusing her of actions which were under Chinese law “contrary to women’s discipline, in violation of family rules, corruptive of family morals and insulting to ancestors”.
Legally, the young woman’s non-compliance with her brother’s wishes could have resulted in her being ordered back to Suzhou for punishment by her family. The status of women in China at that time was so low that a woman could be put to death for violating clan rules, which was indeed the fate of the adulterous third wife in “Raise the Red Lantern”. Peng Jianqing’s problem was complicated by the fact that movies were not yet accepted by most people in China.
Nearly a decade had passed since Yan Shanshan(严珊珊 Yán Shānshān) had been the first woman to appear on screen, but only a handful of women had yet dared to appear on screen, something still regarded as socially unacceptable behavior, especially for a young lady from an upper-class family. So there were enormous pressures on Peng from both family and society. The crisis was resolved when she suggested a compromise: the aspiring young actress would change her name from Peng, and would never make her birth name known to the public. The family accepted this, and she adopted Wang Hanlun as her screen name. The surname derived from her belief that tigers are fearless and tigers have the Chinese character for king on their foreheads, so she changed her surname to Wang. She liked the English name Helen, so she adopted the similar Chinese name Hanlun.
Wang Hanlun died On August 17, 1978, in the hospital of Shanghai.