Hu Die (1908–1989)

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Hu Die (1908–1989)

Chinese movie star who won the Best Actress award at the Asian Film Festival in 1960 and a Special Achievement award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival in 1986. Name variations: Hu Tieh; Hu Baojuan; Butterfly Wu; Miss Butterfly; Pan Baojuan. Pronunciation: Hu TiEh. Born Hu Baojuan in 1908 (some sources cite 1907 but 1908 is documented), in Shanghai, China; died in Vancouver, Canada, on April 23, 1989; daughter of Hu Shaogong (a railroad inspector); attended Zhonghua Film School, 1924; married Eugene Penn (Pan Yousheng), a Shanghai manufacturer, in 1936 (died 1958); children: son Jiarong; daughter Jiali.

Made first silent film, Changong (War Achievement, 1925); made first sound film, Genu hongmudan (Singing Peony, 1931); visited Europe (1935); moved from Hong Kong to Chongqing (1943–44); lived in Hong Kong (1948); won Best Actress award for her role in Houmen (Back Door, 1960); retired (1966); moved to Taiwan (1967); moved to Vancouver (1975); won a Special Achievement award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival (1986); published her memoirs (1986).

Had leading role in about 70 films: Qiushan yuan (Autumn Fan's Sorrow, 1926); Bai she zhuan (Legend of the White Snake, 1927); Baiyun ta (White Pagoda, 1927); Genu hongmudan (Singing Peony, 1931); Kuang lu (Torrents, 1933); Zimui hua (Two Sisters, 1935); Yongyuan di weixiao (Smile Forever, 1937); Jianguo zhilu (The Way of a Nation, 1944); Jinshou tiantang (Beautiful Paradise, 1949); Houmen (Back Door, 1959); Kuer liulangji (Adventure of a Poor Orphan, 1963); Mingyue jishi yuan (When Will the Moon be Round Again?, 1966).

Before the 1920s, there was pervasive discrimination against women entertainers in traditional China. The emergence of film marked a gradual change in attitudes toward female performers, when some distinguished actresses enjoyed an unprecedented popularity. Acting became an art, and the profession received respect. One of the early "stars" was Hu Die, whose achievements in many ways encouraged other women to pursue careers in the performing arts.

At the time of Hu Die's birth in Shanghai in 1908, China was on the threshold of a transformation. Soon the 1911 Revolution brought down the decadent Manchu regime, while the May Fourth movement initiated a social and cultural revolution in 1919. As the political order fell into disintegration, Shanghai, the largest treaty port under Western protection, became an international commercial center. Matched only by Tokyo as the most prosperous city in the Orient, Shanghai was the capital of fashion, where the latest styles from Paris and new films from America were on display. To the younger generation, it was a city of excitement, a city of new opportunities and new ideas. Many successful careers began in this cosmopolitan setting.

Hu Die was born Hu Baojuan, the only child of Hu Shaogong, a Cantonese who worked as a railway inspector in northern China. Because of her father's employment, she spent a large part of her childhood in Tianjin, Beijing, and other northern cities. In 1924, the family finally settled down in Shanghai, and, at 16, she was ready to start a career. An advertisement in a local newspaper recruiting potential actresses for training caught her attention. Under the name Hu Die, a homophonous term for "butterfly," she wrote to the Chinese film company and was invited to study in the Zhonghua Film School for nine months. She made her screen debut in Changong (War Achievement), and a star was born.

In 1926, Hu Die was assigned a leading role in the film Qiushan yuan (Autumn Fan's Sorrow). That same year, she switched to another company and made several films, including Fuqi zhi mimi (A Husband and Wife's Secret) and Bai she zhuan (Legend of the White Snake). Afterward, she joined the Star Motion Picture Company. Under the able management of Zhang Shichuan, this company continued to expand, and its growth was due in part to the popularity of her films.

In a few years, Hu Die was a celebrity in the Chinese film world, and one of its most highly paid actresses. Her movies were highly acclaimed by critics. Many writers attribute her success to beauty and talent, but she was also a dedicated worker who brought a higher level of sophistication to her performances. Though most of her films were based on simple themes—historical plays or family issues—her mastery of the art won audience and critical applause.

Hu Die's career spanned two different periods in the history of motion pictures—from silent films to sound. In 1931, she was one of the first actresses who played in a sound film in China. She reached the pinnacle of her career in 1935 when her picture Zimui hua (Two Sisters) brought her the accolade, "Movie Queen of China."

In February 1935, Hu Die was chosen to represent China at an international film congress in Moscow, organized by the Soviets. She then visited Western Europe. The following year, she married Eugene Penn (Pan Yousheng), a Shanghai manufacturer. His company later specialized in the making of enamelware with a butterfly trademark, and Hu Die helped promote the product.

The couple left for the British colony of Hong Kong after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. When Japan occupied the colony in December 1941, Japanese authorities put Hu Die under close watch and tried to persuade her to make propaganda films. She demurred and succeeded in escaping. She and Penn fled to Chongqing, Sichuan, where they stayed until the end of the war. In this period, she appeared in one film, Jianguo zhilu (The Way of a Nation).

After the war, Hu Die and her husband returned to Shanghai. On the eve of the Communist takeover, they relocated to Hong Kong where Penn ran his own manufacturing company. Between 1948 and 1958, Hu Die worked side by side with her husband, promoting his business. When Penn died in 1958, Hu Die returned to the screen. Two years later, she won the Best Actress award at the Asian Film Festival for her role in Houmen (Back Door). She played supporting roles in a few more films before her retirement in 1966. Hu Die moved to Taiwan in 1967 and remained there for eight years. After her children settled in Canada, she moved to Vancouver to live with them.

Hu Die's memoirs were published in 1986. That same year, she was presented with a Special Achievement award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival, but her health was failing, and she could not make the trip. Hu Die suffered a stroke and died in 1989, at age 81. The story of her success has become legend, inspiring a generation of young girls to seek careers in the film world.


Feng, Li. Yinhou Hu Die (Hu Die the Movie Queen). Beijing: Zhongguo wenlian, 1997.

Hu Die. Hu Die huiyilu (Memoirs of Hu Die). Beijing: Xinhua chubanshe, 1987.

Zheng, Renjia. "Hu Die," in Chuan-chi wen-hsueh, Taiwan (Zhuanji wenxue). Vol. LIV, no. 6. June 1989, pp. 146–150.

suggested reading:

"Hu Tieh." Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. Edited by Howard L. Boorman and Richard C. Howard. NY: Columbia University Press, 1968. Vol. II, pp. 154–155.

Henry Y.S. Chan , Associate Professor of History, Moorhead State University, Moorhead, Minnesota