Sun Yu
Sun Yu (1900-1990)

by William M. Drew

     One of the greatest directors in the history of Chinese cinema, Sun Yu was born on March 21, 1900, to a merchant family in the city of Chongqing. After attending Qinghua University in Beijing, he completed his education in the United States. He studied literature and drama at the University of Wisconsin and after graduating went to New York. There he studied cinematography and film editing at the New York Institute of Photography and took Columbia University courses in theatre (from Cecil B. DeMille’s mentor, the celebrated producer-playwright, David Belasco) and scriptwriting. In 1926, Sun Yu returned to China where he obtained work in the Chinese film industry centered in Shanghai. He directed his first film in 1928 and, after working for the Changcheng and Minxin film companies, WILD ROSE (1931)established himself at the Lianhua studio with his third film, Gudaochunmeng (Spring Dream in the Old Capital), a popular box-office hit upon its release in 1930. The next year he directed Yemeigui (Wild Rose), the story of a wealthy painter’s romance with a girl from the countryside. The film set new artistic standards for the Chinese cinema and enabled Sun Yu to continue projecting his personal vision in a remarkable series of silent films he directed for the Lianhua company in the 1930s.

     The period in which Sun Yu emerged as a major director was one of the most turbulent in China’s history, a crisis reflected in his works. At a time when factional differences between Chiang Kai-shek’s increasingly rightist regime and its former allies in the Kuomintang, the Communists, erupted into open conflict and when China was menaced by Japanese imperial aggression, Sun Yu became an eloquent spokesman on film for the progressive left. Yet, unlike their Soviet contemporaries, Sun Yu and other Chinese left-wing directors were not working for the government establishment but rather for a privately-run studio. Partly for this reason, Sun Yu’s work in the 1930s represents a highly independent approach to social problems. And while influenced by Western filmmakers, Sun Yu’s films are also steeped in Chinese cultural traditions. Critic Li Cheuk-To points out in his article on Sun Yu that the strongest aesthetic influence on the director was the great classical Tang Dynasty poet, Li Bai, his idol since his youth. 

     Another characteristic of 1930s cinema in both China and Japan was the very belated conversion to sound. With neither country making many talkies until about 1936, Asian filmmakers in the thirties like Sun Yu developed cinema art in a manner ultimately very different from contemporary trends prevailing in the West, despite their incorporation of techniques and some thematic elements from American and European films.

BLOOD OF LOVE UNDER THE VOLCANO (1932)     Sun Yu’s blending of romanticism and realism, his search for the ideal, and his love of nature are apparent in his 1932 film, Huoshanqinxue (Blood of Love Under the Volcano). The narrative concerns a man’s quest to regain happiness lost to the forces of injustice. In imagery suggestive of Taoist philosophy, the film begins with a portrayal of the idyllic life the hero, a peasant, leads with his family in a Chinese village. But this peace is brutally destroyed by an exploitative landlord who is responsible for the deaths of the hero’s father, brother, and sister. He flees to a Malaysian island, a tropical paradise where he falls in love with a young woman (played by actress Li Lili in the first of several films she made for the director). In the climax, he confronts his enemy, the landlord, who is visiting the island, and avenges his family by throwing him into a volcano. Sun Yu was continually experimenting with cinematic techniques in his works. To film the set of the island’s hotel in Huoshanquinxue, he became the first director in China to build a special crane for moving the camera.

DAYBREAK (1932)     Tianming (Daybreak), Sun Yu’s second film of 1932, depicts an oppression from which there is no escape for the heroine (Li Lili). Set in the 1920s, the film shows its protagonist leaving for Shanghai to find work in a factory after her village is destroyed in a civil war. A nostalgic flashback recalling her happy rural past in the beautiful countryside contrasts with the grime of her life in the city. Sun Yu’s use of the moving camera conveys the crowded living conditions in the city, while he employs dissolves and superimpositions to juxtapose Shanghai’s glitter with its pathetic streetwalkers. The heroine is herself forced into a life of prostitution when her boss’s son rapes her. The film concludes with her execution by a firing squad for helping her cousin, a revolutionary, escape.

LITTLE TOYS (1933)     Sun Yu dramatized the threat China faced from Japanese aggression in his 1933 classic, Xiaowanyi (Small Toys). The heroine (played by the legendary star, Ruan Ling-yu) is an artisan in a village who earns her living by making small toys. This tranquil way of life is destroyed by the collapse of the local economy due to fighting by warlords and foreign economic imperialism. The film depicts her migration, along with her daughter and other refugees, to the city. It concludes with her frantic appeal to passers-by and her direct address to the audience to awaken to the dangers of Japanese aggression, an incursion that had already taken the life of her daughter when the Japanese first attacked Shanghai.

     The director’s next film, Tiyuhuanghou (The Queen of Sport) (1934) is lighter in tone as it relates the experiences of a female athlete (played by Li Lili) who becomes a celebrity after breaking records in sprinting. Again, Sun Yu’s quick dissolves, wipes, and superimpositions help to sustain a mood. But this film, too, contains a social critique of the superficiality of fame and the dangers arising from competition. At the same time, Sun Yu intended Li Lili’s athlete to project a strong, positive image of Chinese femininity that broke with the frail heroines of tradition.

THE HIGHWAY (1934)     Sun Yu climaxed his work in the silent cinema with Dalu (The Highway), filmed in 1934 and released in early 1935. His only concessions to the sound film are the inclusion of striking sound effects and the characters singing songs which express the spirit of the time. Dalu returns to the social urgency of Tianming and Xiaowanyi in its stated purpose of arousing the Chinese people to collective action in the face of impending aggression from Japan. But as with Sun Yu’s other films, Dalu is shaped by deeper concepts that ultimately transcend the immediate social goals. Sun Yu’s attention to characterization in this film continues to express his warmth and humanity and his admiration for strong women, while his imagery is suffused with sensuality and a love of nature. The narrative begins with scenes from the early life of a peasant victimized since childhood by China’s conflicts and, once he grows to manhood, soon swells to include other characters who share his experiences and, like him, embody the Chinese national spirit. Dalu thus becomes a cinematic epic of a nation united in purpose at a time when its very survival was threatened. The story concerns the building of a highway to be used by the army as a defense against a threatened Japanese invasion. The first half of the film delineates the interaction between the six laborers working together on the road and the two canteen girls who befriend them and is dominated by a light-hearted mood. The latter half becomes an exciting, suspense-filled adventure story as the heroes, imprisoned by wealthy landowners collaborating with the Japanese, stage a daring escape with the aid of the canteen girls. In the powerful conclusion, the protagonists are massacred by enemy aircraft firing on them as they work to complete building the road. But their sacrifice has not been in vain since the highway, a symbol of the resurgent Chinese nation, has been constructed. With its joyous humor and intense drama, its sensitivity to characterization, its brilliant technique--as in the elaborate camera movement across the landlord’s table in a banquet scene--Dalu is ranked as Sun Yu’s greatest masterpiece and a film reflecting Chinese aesthetics. As Li Cheuk-To notes, the film’s structure has the cyclical form of classic Chinese novels rather than the linear logic of Western narratives.

     After Dalu, Sun Yu directed five sound films from 1935 to 1941, two of them war films made in Chongqing. In the midst of full-scale war between China and Japan, he was forced to relocate from Shanghai to Wuhan and, then, Chongqing. Following the end of World War II, he spent two years in the United States recuperating from a severe illness. He resumed his directorial career upon his return to China in 1947, but his later work was often hampered by the new, more stringent political controls that emerged as a consequence of the Communist Revolution of 1949. 

     Wuxunchuan (The Life of Wu Xun), Sun Yu’s first film after the war, is the story of an educator trying to bring learning to poor people. Production began in 1948, but the film was not completed until 1950, due to the new political climate which resulted in changes in the script. Finally released in 1951 as a two-part film, Wuxunchuan was criticized by Mao Zedong in an editorial for The People’s Daily. In the stifling totalitarian climate heralded by this attack, Sun Yu’s career was adversely affected. He directed only three more films--Chengfengpolang (Braving Wind and Waves) in 1957, a story about female athletes that recalls his earlier work; Lubandichuanshuo (The Legend of Luban), a 1958 adaptation of a folk tale; and Lady Qin, an opera film made in 1961. Like others who had helped create the Chinese cinema in the silent era and had continued to work in China after 1949, Sun Yu was denounced during the Cultural Revolution, which brought a virtual halt to Chinese filmmaking on the mainland for a decade. Although Sun Yu would never direct again, he survived that tumultuous period and spent his last years working on his autobiography and publishing his English translations of Li Bai’s poetry. He died in Shanghai on July 11, 1990, at the age of 90.

     Sun Yu created a body of work that infuses realistic depictions of China’s contemporary social problems with a highly romantic spirit of idealism and enthusiastic optimism. His classics of the 1930s speak beyond the immediate needs of the time as they portray on film universal human problems. The filmmaker’s "urge to resist all forms of repression" is as apparent in his sensuality as in his arraignment of social inequities. Much like his American contemporaries, John Ford and Frank Capra, Sun Yu was simultaneously radical and traditional, capturing on film the spirit and aspirations of an entire nation. While looking forward to a brighter future, the director valued the lost innocence of his country’s agrarian past, seeking to recapture its ideals at a time when China’s culture was menaced by imperialism and a depersonalizing urbanism and industrialism. With the belated discovery of early Chinese cinema by the outside world, "the poet Sun Yu," as he was called in China in tribute to his passion and lyricism, is taking his place in the pantheon of the world’s great filmmakers.

REFERENCES:   Li Cheuk-To, "A Gentle Discourse on a Genius: Sun Yu," Cinemaya: The Asian Film Magazine, Vol. II, 1991, pp. 53-63;  Derek Elley, "Peach Blossom Dreams: Silent Chinese Cinema Remembered," Griffithiana, October 1997, pp. 127-180; Sun Yu, Yinhuifanzhou: hui yi wo di yi sheng  (Shanghai: Shanghai wen yi chu ban she: Xin hua shu dian jing xiao, 1987); Jay Leyda, Dianying: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1972); Li Suyuan, Chinese Silent Film History, tr. Wang Rui et al. (Beijing: China Film Press, 1997); Yingjin Zhang and Zhiwei Xiao, eds., Encyclopedia of Chinese Films (London: Routledge, 1998).


Chinese films in the 1930s:

A page on actor Jin Yan, the star of Dalu:

A website devoted to Ruan Ling-yu, the great actress who starred in Xiao Wanyi and many other classic Chinese silent films:

Copyright © 2002 by William M. Drew.  All rights reserved.

Published August 10, 2002 by Gilda Tabarez at

This site is intended for educational purposes only.

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