Stage or film stars have perhaps always been closely associated with suicide, just as with alcoholism and narcotics. It would be nice to imagine that the fans who who mourned them or read their death notices (with mountains of PR fotos) in the tabloids were stirred mainly by admiration or regret for the passing of a major talent. There was always that side, of course, but public jealousy and sadism were what sold the most newspapers, as did also the tangled web of courtroom testimony and never quite complete police post mortems. There was always the urge to suspect something BIG was being swept under the rug by those with money and political connections. Jim Garrisons were always on the prowl in such cases as much as with gangster murders.
But sometimes the unexplained surprise of a seemingly happy and famous stage-or film star brutally killing herself indeed raises issues of broader social concern, no matter the inevitable poverty of evidence.
Many issues relating to the upbringing of a poor girl (housemaid) in a older male kinsman’s very wealthy home and (therewith exposure to attempted or actual seduction, prompted criticism of the institution of adoption (“fostering”), which seems to have been the startpoint for Lingyu’s emotional confusion and (later on) inability to extricate herself from the dangers of the love triangle. The strain seems to be what killed her, or rather, caused her to kill herself with a bottle of sleeping pills, leaving behind the famous 4-character line: “gossip is fearful thing!”. (人言可畏).
The operatic self-immolation in Shanghai of the famous silent-film star Ruan Lingyu (1910-1945), was one such case, but it shrivels in proportion to the socio-echoing of another (today much lesser known) suicide by a superstar Shaoxing opera (Yueju) female-role-player (huadan) named Xiao Dangui (1920-1937), who swallowed a fatal dose of lysol in her upscale French Concession apartment on Oct. 13, 1947, just when her ambitions for a renovated Shaoxing opera were being fulfilled. But the “just when” is no paradox: from the still partially embargoed court-trial archival evidence, it seems likely that her death was not only “instigated” by mental cruelty and threat, but prompted by underworld threat then botched attempt at disfiguring and/or blinding her. And behind that, some think, was the KMT “Society” Dept. (social morals inspectorate) whose function was to keep ad hoc social movements from gaining to much popularity – which of course placed the opera stage square in their oversight.