Nationality: Chinese. Born: Zhao Fengao in Yangzhao, 1914. Education: Attended Technical College of Art, Shanghai, 1931–34. Family: Married twice, children from both marriages, and two adopted sons. Career: 1925—first film appearance at age 11 in Young Master Feng ; also wrote stories and plays for left-wing magazine; publication censored by Kuomintang government; Zhao changed name to Dan ("Red") as political gesture; 1934—by time of graduation, acting regularly on stage and in films; 1937—reputation established by appearances in the films Street Angel and Crossroads ; when Shanghai fell to Japanese, joined touring company performing anti-Japanese plays; 1939—captured by Kuomintang warlord, imprisoned for four years; 1943—returned to stage following release from prison; 1947—film directing debut; 1965—made last film, Red Crag ; at outbreak of Cultural Revolution, arrested and imprisoned for five-and-a-half years; 1973—released; 1976—rejoined Shanghai Film Studio, as teacher; also stage director. Died: Of cancer, in Peking, 19 October 1980.
Young Master Feng
Spring Sorrow of the Pipa
Twenty-Four Hours of Shanghai ; Children of the Century
Homesick for a Mountain Village ; To the North-West ; Bible for Girls
Passionate, Faithful Spirit
The Qingming Festival ; Xiao Lingzi
Shizi jietou ( Crossroads ) (as an unemployed graduate); Malu tianshi ( Street Angel )
Children of China
Faraway Love ; Rhapsody of Happiness
Irrepressible Brightness of Spring ; Wuya yu Maque ( Crows and Sparrows ) (as the peddler, + co-sc)
The Story of a Girl
The Life of Wu Xun
Li Shizhen, The Great Pharmacologist (title role); For Peace
Hai hun ( Soul of the Sea ) (as the sailor)
Lin zexu ( The Opium War ) (as the nobleman); Nie er
Lie Huozhong yongsheng ( Red Crag ) (as the Communist leader)
The Dress Returns to Glory
Bless the Children
An Evergreen Tree ; Precious Green Mountains (+ ro)
Berry, Chris, editor, Perspectives on Chinese Cinema , New York, 1985; rev. ed., London, 1991.
Clark, Paul, Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949 , Cambridge, 1987.
The Annual Obituary 1980 , New York, 1981.
Blank, M., "Le testament de Zhao Dan," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), February 1981.
Chevillard, P.-B., in Positif (Paris), September 1981.
Nacache, J., in Cinéma , October 1981.
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The riches of Chinese cinema still remain largely unknown to the West—otherwise, Zhao Dan would probably rank among the greatest screen actors. In Chinese terms, he might be considered roughly the equivalent of Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper, though far more versatile than either. Gravel-voiced, energetic, warmly likable, Zhao could play comedy without heavy mugging, and serious roles without being ponderous. In his later films he attained an unpretentious nobility, completely removed from the posturing heroics favored during the Cultural Revolution.
Zhao's stage experience included Shakespeare and Ibsen, and he made nearly 30 films before the two which brought him to stardom. Both—not unlike Warner films of the period—blended romantic comedy with sharp-edged social comment. As the unemployed graduate of Crossroads , Zhao was cheerfully optimistic in the face of adversity; for the more somber-toned Street Angel his performance darkened, a note of manic violence creeping into his energy.
Unpopular with both the Japanese and the Kuomintang government for his left-wing beliefs, Zhao was imprisoned by the latter during the war. After his release he continued, undeterred, to make anti-KMT movies, most notably the teeming, exhilaratingly vital Crows and Sparrows , which he also co-scripted. His richly subtle performance as the opportunistic peddler meshed with inspired ensemble playing from the whole cast. Around this time he also started directing, making four competent but unremarkable films.
Increasingly, Zhao was cast as humanely heroic figures: the title role of Li Shizhen , father of Chinese herbal medicine; the sailor disgusted by his superiors' brutality in Soul of the Sea ; patriotically resisting British imperialism in The Opium War ; the imprisoned, tortured Communist leader of Red Crag . This, tragically prophetic, was his last film. Arrested by order of Jiang Qing—Mao's wife, who had acted with Zhao in the thirties—he was imprisoned again for more than five years. Broken in health, he never acted again.