Born as Ruan Fenggeng (阮凤根) in Shanghai, Ruan made her first film at the age of 16 for the then prominent studio, the Mingxing Studio. Her first big break came in 故都春梦 (Spring Dream of an Old Capital or Reminiscences of Beijing, 1930). A massive hit, it was her first major work after signing for the newly-formed Lian Hua Studio.
Thereafter Ruan worked intermittently with the company's directors on a series of films. Ruan's best works came after 1931, starting with the melodrama Love and Duty, directed by Bu Wanchang. With Three Modern Women (三个摩登女性, 1932; dir: Bu Wanchang), she started her collaboration with a group of talented leftist directors. In Little Playthings (小玩意, 1933), a film by Sun Yu, Ruan played a long-suffering toymaker. Her next film, Shennü (神女, The Goddess, 1934; dir: Wu Yonggang), is often hailed as the pinnacle of Chinese silent cinema, with Ruan's portrayal of a sympathetic prostitute one of the classics of the era. Later that year, Ruan made her last film, New Women (新女性), with director Cai Chusheng, where she played an educated woman forced to death by an unfeeling society.
Under massive pressure from street tabloids, retaliating for a scathing depiction of them in New Women, Cai was forced to make extensive cuts to the film. Ruan's private life was mercilessly hoarded upon and her on-going law-suit with her first husband a source of vindictive coverage. Faced with these and with intense private problems, Ruan poisoned herself in Shanghai on March 8, 1935. She was 25.
A complete print of the presumably lost Love and Duty (1931) was discovered in the 1990s in Uruguay.
See also: Cinema of China