The Tragic Life of Zhou Xuan

Posted by M ws On Wednesday, February 6, 2013 0 comments
Unknown to many, I love Shanghai oldies - thanks to my mom who would play her favourite songs by Bai Guang, Zhou Xuan, Bai Hong etc. In fact, my late mom sported one of Zhou Xuan's hairstyles in the 1950's way before I was born. Apart from the albums from these great songstresses, I also love EMI's "Shanghai Jazz: Musical Seductions from China’s Age of Decadence,” featuring Carrie Chang, Ginger Zheng, Coco Zhao and Fu Hua.

This evening, after finishing my previous post on Fragrance of the Night, I have been reading up on the life of Zhou Xuan.

According to Wikipedia, Zhou Xuan (August 1, 1918 or 1920 – September 22, 1957) was a popular Chinese singer and film actress. By the 1940s, she had become one of China's seven great singing stars. She is probably the most well-known of the seven, as she had a concurrent movie career until 1953.

Tragically, despite her fame and success, she never really found love, not the type that lasted. She had three unsuccessful relationships and I daresay she was treated badly by the men she loved. In 1957, she died in Shanghai in a mental asylum at the age of 39 during the Anti-Rightist Movement. A possible cause of death may be encephalitis following a nervous breakdown. Read more HERE.

Of worthy mention is this post featured in The Chinese Mirror - A Journal of Chinese Film History aptly titled Zhou Xuan: a sad but brilliant legacy.

Excerpt from that post:


F. Scott Fitzgerald famously once said that "there are no second acts in life."


 He was speaking of American life, but for China's top film actress of the late 1930s and 1940s, as well as its most popular singer during much of that era, there appear to have been three:  Act 1 was desperate and Act 3 sad, but Act 2 was glorious.  Zhou Xuan 周旋 (1918 — 1957) was born Su Pu in Changzhou, Jiangsu in 1918 (some sources say 1920).  Her impoverished family soon sold her to a procurer, who placed her in a brothel, to be trained as a courtesan.  But when she was 2 or 3, a Shanghai couple named Zhou saw her and were so charmed by the little girl that they adopted her, giving their daughter the name Zhou Xiaohong.  Her actual birthdate is unknown, and her adoptive parents once stated in an interview that even they did not know her exact age.


She displayed exceptional vocal promise at an early age, and her family had the means to get her some formal training to go with her talent.  In 1931, she joined Li Jinhui's Ming Yue 明月 (Bright Moon) Society, a Shanghai musical company. In her first performance, the 13-year-old sang a song called "The Glory of a Nation," one line of which was ""Contend with the enemy on the battlefield."

Her performance of this song was so well received by audiences that troupe director Li Jinhui changed her stage name to Zhou Xuan (Xuan meaning "contend" or "deal with"). Soon after, Zhou Xuan took second place in a singing competition in Shanghai, and soon rose to become China's top pop vocalist, dubbed by press and public as "the Golden Throat." After acting in several movies in the 1930s, including a star-making role in 1937's "Street Angels," opposite Zhao Dan, she joined the Guohua Film Company in 1938, going on to star in nearly 20 feature films for that company. READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY HERE.

If you are a Zhou Xuan fan, you can access many of her songs AT THIS LINK.

For me, I love her songs because of her haunting voice. The pathos in her tone and treatment of the music is enough to tug at my heart's strings to make me misty-eyed even though I may not always understand what she is singing as her accent is so strong.

You can view a medley of some of her best video clips AT THIS LINK.

This particular song really captures the spirit of Shanghai in the 1930's.

Here's a sample of a 1940's shidaiqu arranged by Zhou Xuan.

IMDB states that Zhou Xuan is estimated to have recorded over 200 songs (114 of them for the movies) and was one of the first Chinese singers to sing with a microphone. Several of her evergreen songs include "Shanghai Night"(Yeh Shanghai) and "When Will You Come Again" (He Ri Jun Zai Lai).

I googled for her images and am saddened by that melancholic expression in her eyes. To have lived, loved and then lost those loves, how painful it must have been for her. To have borne two sons, Zhou Wen and Zhou Wei, born of different fathers must have been challenging for her. Wikipedia mentions the conflict between the two half-brothers and the trying circumstances faced.

According to Zhou Wen's biography, the younger son, Zhou Wei, was the son of Tang Di (唐棣), while the father of Zhou Wen is unknown. Zhou Wei currently lives in Toronto performing at times in the TTC subways, and participating in various musical projects, including teaching. He is known as a flautist.[6][7] He has two daughters, both musicians. The elder of the two, Zhou Xiaoxuan, is a classical pianist trained at Concordia University and now living in Beijing. (from Wikipedia)

Till this day, Zhou Xuan's songs are popular and recorded by many other singers including greats like Taiwanese Queen of Love Songs, Cai Qin, the late Teresa Teng and the late Anita Mui.

As for me, her voice and songs will never be forgotten. I hope she found peace and solace when she passed away. May she always rest in peace.

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