Xuan Jinglin (née Tian Jinlin) (1907–22 January 1992) was born in Shanghai. Her father sold newspapers, and her mother was a homemaker. She was one of five children and the youngest of three sisters.
Sources differ as to the extent and origins of the family’s poverty, and the level of Xuan’s education. This isn’t helped by contradictory statements Xuan herself made on these subjects.
Some accounts say she received very little education and was barely literate, while others claim she was taught at home and had an English tutor. As for the poverty, some say the family were always poor, and others claim the troubles only started after her dad’s death.
At age fifteen, Xuan had a disastrous, scandalous relationship with an older man who turned out to already have a wife. Every time she turned to her mother for advice, she advised Xuan to break things off.
Accounts differ on whether her mother sold her to a brothel at this age, or if Xuan herself ran away from home with the help of a sympathetic aunt. She upped her age by one year when she presented herself at the Nanjing brothel, and reinvented herself as Sai Zhaozhun.
After two weeks of getting up to twenty customers a day, Xuan refused an offer from the head of the local tax service. She returned to Shanghai, where she continued brothel prostitution.
Eventually, she bought a house and started operating out of that. One of her customers turned out to be her former sweetheart Wang, who convinced her to quit prostituting.
Destiny called in 1925, when Zhang Shichuan, one of the founding fathers of Chinese cinema, cast her for a small role in The Last Noble Heart. He remembered seeing her in an amusement park many years ago, and put out an order to track her down.
Xuan claimed he bought her out of the brothel for 2,000 yuan, though this again contradicts the other account claiming she’d already voluntarily quit prostituting. At any rate, the director was deeply impressed with her acting, and signed her to a contract.
Zheng Zhengqiu, the other founding father of Chinese cinema, created the stage name Xuan Jinglin based on her nom de prostitution and a Shanghaiese transliteration of Lillian Gish’s name.
Xuan settled down with Mr. Wang, who worked as a bank clerk. After The Mistress’s Young Fan (1928), she temporarily left acting to devote herself to family life. Everyone around them approved of the relationship this time, except her parents-in-law.
Mr. Wang was pressured into breaking up with her yet again, this time forever.
In 1931, she returned to the screen. Though Asia remained silent much longer than the West, China was nevertheless experimenting with sound. All their sound films were shot in Putonghua (Mandarin). This required Xuan to learn a new language and unlearn her strong Suzhou accent.
Xuan went on to great success during this second wind of her career, after the long, hard effort to perfect her Mandarin. A 1935 illness forced her away from the screen again, and then WWII precluded anyone from moviemaking.
Her eponymous Xuan Jinglin Road Company toured China during the war, giving musical performances. In 1949, she returned to the screen, one of very few Shanghaiese actors permitted to keep acting after Mao’s takeover. Unlike many others, she never compromised herself under the Japanese occupation.
Her films were sporadic after her return to the screen. Her final one was in 1964.