The film poet Sun Yu 电影诗人孙瑜

by Lihao “Billy” Yuan.

Sun Yu (B.A. 1925, under the name “Cheng Yu Sun” in the Badger yearbook) came to Wisconsin from Sichuan Province, a province closely associated with the great Tang Dynasty romantic poet Li Bai, and shared his ancient compatriot’s love for language arts. While natural science and political science were the more popular fields of interest for Chinese students at UW-Madison in the 1920s, Sun instead studied literature, published translations and essays in the local literary magazine, and wrote his senior thesis about Li Bai. The future Chinese film director also found ways to watch motion pictures as a Badger, and he did not like what he saw when it came to depictions of Asians in American film. His student experience in Madison thus had a profound influence on his later influential film-making career. As a leftist director in Shanghai, Sun Yu produced such landmark films as the 1934 hit Big Road (大路) and became a leading figure in China’s film revival movement.



Leading Shanghai filmmaker Sun Yu 孙瑜 (originally named Sun Chengyu 孙成璵 1900-1990) was born into a family of salt merchants from Zigong, Sichuan Province. His introduction to the emerging art form of moving pictures was through what the Chinese of the time called “Shadow Opera”(影戏), which he witnessed while visiting Shanghai as a boy.

In 1914, Sun entered Tianjin’s Nankai High School (南开中学)in northern China, where he was a classmate of the future Chinese premier of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Enlai. Sun later attributed his early interest in theater and acting to Zhou’s influence. This was the era when the controversial film pioneer D.W. Griffith was producing and directing some of the first American features. Sun was soon able to watch these in China, including Griffith’s 1919 silent film Broken Blossoms, which was also known as “The Yellow Man and the Girl,” the tragic tale of a Chinese man who lands in the U.S. and falls in love with a white woman. In 1920, Sun entered Beijing’s Tsinghua College (清华学校), where he organized weekly Saturday night campus film screenings and wrote film reviews for magazines. Sun Yu’s reviews were so good that a movie theater in Beijing offered him a long-term free movie ticket.

Sun Yu’s translation of poems by Li Bai.

In September 1923, as a junior, Sun Yu transferred from his studies in China to UW-Madison. Although Wisconsin did not then offer courses about film, as a young man who loved writing and language, Sun happily entered the literature department and took such courses as: Short Stories, Shakespeare, Modern Drama, German, and French. At first, as the only Chinese student in the class, Sun Yu wrote in his memoir that  he tended to sit shyly in the last row: 

Once, in a class on “short stories,” when Ms. Scallon asked the class of sixty students about the theme of a short story, dozens of blue-eyed, blond men and women all gave far-fetched answers. After asking all the students in the class, she finally asked me, “And Mr. Sun?” I answered the theme of the story quickly and correctly on the spot. Scallon sighed and said, “The last one got it right! ” At that time, dozens of classmates looked back at me sitting in the last row. In this case, I had to use the old Chinese trick of “eyes on the nose, nose on the heart”(keeping your head down) to ward off the many glances cast at me.

William Ellery Leonard proved to be Sun’s most influential professor at UW-Madison. He admired Sun Yu’s essays on China, and also his translations of Li Bai’s poetry, declaring Sun Yu one of the best translators of ancient Chinese poetry at the time. With Professor Leonard’s help, Sun Yu translated over eighty Li Bai’s poems. His undergraduate thesis, “English Translations of the Chinese Poetry with a Special Discussion of Li Po” in 1925, was awarded an honorary bachelor’s thesis distinction. Sun Yu’s English translations of Li Bai’s poems and three essays about China are still available in the Wisconsin literary magazine.

Sun Yu’s main form of entertainment in 1920s Madison was watching movies. However, he was disturbed to see the sinister and ugly appearance of typical Chinese characters in American films. Racism in America is something Sun Yu experienced firsthand on campus, which at the time had a popular KKK club. Sun Yu wrote in his memoir about how he was able to talk intimately with American men and women in class, but outside walking along State Street as an Asian proved a different story. He could not greet or walk in the company of American girls, fearing that such behavior would incite the wrath of white males, or even result in a beating.

Sun Yu (at far right) with the Kramer family in Iowa.

However, in Madison, Sun Yu also experienced the kindness of ordinary Americans, especially his landlords, the Martins,  at 1328 Mound Street, a few blocks from campus. The Martins tidied up Sun Yu’s dormitory weekly and often gave Sun Yu strawberries from their garden mixed with sugar and cream, while Mrs. Martin taught Sun to play the piano to ease his homesickness. He also wrote about making friends with the Kramers, a working-class immigrant family, who invited Sun Yu and his Chinese classmates to dinners and drove Sun Yu to the Iowa countryside during vacations, allowing Sun Yu to experience rural Midwestern life. He described how farmers in Iowa reacted with surprise to a Chinese college student studying in the United States. They had known Chinese people in only two contexts – running Chop Suey restaurants or laundries. Through his interactions with ordinary Americans, Sun Yu learned the importance of mutual understanding and building friendships among different races.  

In the summer of 1925, Sun Yu graduated from UW-Madison. He gave up the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree, choosing instead to travel to New York to study photography. He took classes in commercial photography, portrait photography, and cinematography at the New York Institute of Photography. At the same time, he joined the recently opened “Screenwriting” course at Columbia University, where he was instructed in cutting-edge directing and split-screen techniques, and visited the David Belasco Theatre to observe rehearsals. (Belasco, 1853-1931, was considered America’s most distinguished playwright and producer and was the first to adapt the short story “Madame Butterfly” to the stage.) A stellar student, Sun Yu received A’s in all of his courses and returned to China in August 1926.

Sun Yu returned to a film industry still in its infancy: domestic films were crude and mostly unsuccessful, while Hollywood films monopolized Chinese theaters. To change this situation, Sun Yu joined the newly established United Photoplay Service(联华电影公司) in 1930 and directed its first film, Spring Dream of an Old Capital(故都春梦). The film is a tragedy about an old intellectual during the Beiyang warlord era that offered a harsh critique of corruption. This film marked the beginning of the “National Film Revival Movement 国片复兴运动,”  which had the slogan, “Promote art, propagate culture, inspire the people, and save the film industry.”

The Chinese male as depicted (using a non Chinese actor) by D.W. Griffith in “Broken Blossom” (at left), and by Sun Yu in “The Big Road.”

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, an unprecedented crisis for China, was also a momentous event in Sun Yu’s life and led to the first peak of his film career, through the groundbreaking patriotic film The Big Road (大路). Released in 1934, the film is about a group of young workers who build a national defense highway during wartime and eventually die heroically. Critiques hailed it for showing the world strong bodies and the vigorous spirits of Chinese youth, an intentionally complete contrast to the sickly, opium-addicted Chinese depicted in Western films, like the ones Sun Yu had disliked back in his student days in Madison. In addition to the plot, the film’s most significant highlight was its theme song, “Song of the Great Road,” (大路歌) written by Sun Yu and composed by Nie Er 聂耳, who also composed China’s current national anthem. This melody was popular among the working class and patriotic students of the time.

After the war against Japan began in 1937, Sun Yu retreated with other filmmakers from Shanghai to Chongqing, China’s wartime capital. During the harsh wartime period and the Japanese bombing campaign, Sun Yu lost one of his daughters and was afflicted by illness. However, he still managed to complete two war films. In the summer of 1945, Sun Yu made a second trip to the United States to promote Chinese anti-Japanese war films, but the day after he arrived in New York, Japan announced its unconditional surrender. Sun Yu joined millions of Americans in Times Square for an all-night revelry.

Poster for “The Life of Wu Xun”

By 1947, Sun Yu had returned to Shanghai to begin filming another masterpiece, The Life of Wu Xun (武训传), about a beggar in the late Qing Dynasty who used his earnings to run a school for poor children. During filming, the Chinese Communist Party gained power in mainland China. Sun Yu initially thought this film, about the education of the underclass, would suit  Communist tastes. (Sun Yu showed a copy of The Life of Wu Xun to Zhou Enlai before the film’s release and received Zhou’s approval.) However, the film was heavily criticized by the CCP propaganda machine, which accused Sun of using an old-fashioned figure’s “act of kindness,” to promote “reformism” and deny the party’s revolutionary line. The criticism of The Life of Wu Xun became the first CCP political movement against the arts since the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China. Sun Yu soon became the PRC’s first “banned film director.” 

Sun was forced to stop producing and was brutally persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). He died of illness in Shanghai in 1990, five years after The Life of Wu Xun finally made it past CCP censors, but before its actual release in 2005 in Shanghai. In 2011, Sun Yu was posthumously named by the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival Executive Committee in Taiwan as one of the top 50 Chinese directors in cinema history. His film The Big Road was named one of the top 100 Chinese films in cinema history.



UWDC (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection):

  1. Sun Yu’s translated poems of Li Bai and three essays about China in digitalized Wisconsin Literacy Magazine.

Memoirs and collected works:

  1. Sun, Yu. 银海泛舟-回忆我的一生Sailing on Silver Sea – Memories of My Life.) Shanghai: Shanghai literature & art publishing house, 1987

Secondary Sources:

  1. Neri, Corrado. “Sun Yu and the early Americanization of Chinese cinema” In Media, Popular Culture, and the American Century  In Borderlands, 227–248. New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing, 2011.
  2. Wu, Jun.从形式探索到幻觉形成:电影本体变革中的孙瑜早期电影 (“From Formal Exploration to the Accomplishment of Illusions: The Early Works of Sun Yu in the Transformation of Film Ontology,”)  Journal of Shanghai University no. 6 (2018): 45-54.

Movie-watching links: 

  1. Sun Yu’s films with English subtitles on Youtube:
  2. “Song of the Great Road”