She was abducted and sold by her own uncle, and later adopted by strangers as a young child. Throughout her adult life, after attaining fame and fortune, she tried in vain to locate her birth parents. She never found them.
Her death was equally mysterious as her birth. The following is a common story shrouded by the veil of unknown.
Her parents were believed to be either college educators or business owners. Her mother sent the little girl to her grandparents’ place to be looked after when her parents' third child was near full term, where her uncle sold the young girl for money to purchase opium. Her parents searched frantically upon the discovery, but the little girl vanished without a trace.
She was probably sold more than once, until a family with the last name Zhou in Shanghai adopted the six-year-old girl. Her good fortune didn’t last long. In her second year of school she was sold again by her adopted father, who was another opium addict; this time though, she was sold to a brothel. The landlord, Xhe, from whom her adopted parents subleased the house, took pity on her and arranged for her to work as a servant to the owner of a performing group. She also learned how to sing and dance while not working.
One day a piano teacher from another performing group came over as a guest, and overheard her singing. Her voice, as he described, was crisp and sweet and he recognized it as a rare talent. He talked her “owner” into let him take her to his group and be taught by him. She learned zealously on the art of singing, dancing and acting. She had a cute face and petite status, and was well liked by her teachers and peers. This was probably the happiest time of her life.
Her big break came when one day the leading lady of an evening show failed to arrive on time. The owner summoned her to be the replacement, and her voice of a golden canary and the performance of a young and fresh face wowed the crowd. She was given the stage name of Zhou Xuan. The rest, as they put it, was history. The year was 1932, and she was only fourteen.
During the near twenty years of her career, she made 42 movies, recorded more than100 songs—many of them were popular in common household, and some of them are still being performed by singers today. Her movies and concerts were often sold out on the first day when they came out. She was hailed both as the queen of songs and the queen of motion pictures.
If only her personal life was equally perfect and brilliant. But life has its own way of making its mark.
After the group she was working under disassembled, she joined a different group and worked with a fellow performer Yen. He was nine years older than her and perhaps filled the void of a father figure in her life. They married in 1938, but divorced in three years. Both events were headline news. It was reported by friends that he had raised his hands to her during arguments--which I suspect was not the kind of father figure she was looking for.
She fell for a merchant’s son Chu while working in Hong Kong during the late 40s. He captured both her money and her heart, and obviously kept the former and discarded the latter. She went back to Shanghai in 1950 with a broken heart and a soon-to-be-born young son.
Subsequently an art technician in the same film company entered her life and, just when they prepared to get married, he was sentenced to jail for fraud and rape. Soon after the delivery of her second son, she developed mental illness and was institutionalized. She never left the hospital and passed away in 1957, at the age of thirty-nine.
However, this was not how it really was from what I heard.
The version I heard was she was lured back to work in China, while her career in Hong Kong was going well, by a friend who persuaded her with a hidden agenda. Unbeknownst to her, this friend joined the communist party shortly after the revolution. She was persecuted and imprisoned for years before she finally died in the “hospital.” Her fiancé was jailed for guilty by association.
My initial thought was: that was unlikely as she was only an entertainer—there was no point in persecuting her. A recent book I read on the revolution of China and the many, many waves of persecution progressed there changed my mind. If the party was capable of persecuting its founding members, to whom they owed their revolutionary success, and dragging millions of civilian into hell on earth for more than a decade, it would be perfectly capable of sacrificing a mere entertainer.
The reason was--not that they needed one—she was the paramount of the “exploited class” and therefore the crowning example of an “enemy of the revolution.” In the minds of the crazed leaders and blind followers, she had to be attacked, persecuted and eliminated. In a place where evil resides, human life has the value of an ant.
The truth couldn’t be verified, since all information coming out of China is censored. Her own son voiced doubt on her mental illness, but he couldn’t substantiate it either.
Her life may have started and ended in tragedy, but her talents dazzled like a radiant comet in the dark sky. Her songs continue to echo in the hearts of many. Happiness may have eluded her entirely too short of a life, but I hope she had finally found peace in another, more sensible world.