Born in August 15, 1912 in Shanxi Province, Lü Jin’ai came from a family with intellectual curiosity. She was promised a trip to the Great Wall if she graduated at the head of her class in elementary school, which she did. She then entered an elite Christian middle school, the Mingxian Middle School, Taigu County in Shanxi Province. Later she received an American scholarship (tuition plus room and board) to attend a Christian high school, the Beiman High School in Beijing.
Lü’s father kept his promise and took his daughter to the Great Wall. Later she met a high school English teacher from the United States who had a camera and was not shy about using it. He often rewarded his best students with a picture of the student with her report card at the school gate.
But Lü was not satisfied with having her picture taken. She wanted to have a camera of her own. Her teacher noticed his young student’s fascination with his camera and offered to let her use it. Lü shot her first photo when she turned fifteen. He offered her some silver coins to buy film. Since patriotic sentiment ran high at the time, Lü was determined to purchase film made in China. She didn’t realize that there was no such a thing; the Chinese had yet to experiment with making film.
Humiliated, she returned the camera and silver coins to her English teacher, declaring that she would make China’s first film stock. Her teacher told her that she should major in chemistry if she wanted to experiment with film. He also gave her a book on Nobel Prize winner Mme. Marie Curie to encourage her interest in science. Decades later, Lü would eventually realize her dream with the aid of her future husband, Sun Mingjing.
Lü met Sun Mingjing at the physics conference at Jinling University in 1930. Lü’s family was not wealthy, so she had to work her way through college. Sun frequented the college library where she worked. Reels of film shot on the college campus attest to Sun’s fascination with Lü Jin’ai.
On New Year’s Day in 1936, Sun invited her to go sightseeing. Lü shared with him her desire to experiment with making China’s own film stock since imported film was too expensive, driving up the cost of producing films. She wanted to contribute to the development of China’s film industry by making film stock. Lü’s ambition deeply touched Sun. Later, Sun would write: “What a match Sun and Lü make!”
In 1935, Lü and Sun developed a shared interest in a new invention, the television. Sun and Lü worked together day and night to translate an American book on the subject into Chinese. They often quarreled over the proper word usage, but by the time the Chinese version came out in August 1935 they had decided to commit to a long-term relationship and pledged to be married.
Jinling University founded the Department of Educational Cinematography (DEC) in 1936. At the age of 26, Sun became its deputy director. Under his direction, DEC made Solar Eclipse, China’s first film in color, in 1936. Filming an eclipse posed some technical challenges. In preparation, Sun experimented with measuring light temperature. Overjoyed when his experiments succeeded, he caught Lü by surprise as he leaned over to hug her. At the time, sweethearts were not supposed to have physical contact before their wedding.
While away on a major expedition through North China on a filmmaking assignment later that year, Sun wrote to Lü frequently, expressing his love for his adventures and for her.
Though a producer for all Jinling films, Sun was involved with multiple aspects of filmmaking. In Air Defense, both Lü and Sun appeared on camera, demonstrating methods to prevent damage from air raids.
Jinling founded a certificate program in electronic education, the first university level academic film program in Chinese history. Sun and Lü teamed up in offering a variety of production oriented film courses.
With the Japanese advancing, Jinling University was soon be evacuated to Western China, along with most Chinese universities from North and East China. On the eve of the Japanese invasion of Nanjing Sun and Lü were wed in the college chapel. The Dean of Students at the Jinling Women’s College, Minnie Vautrin, who later risked her life protecting local Chinese women from Japanese soldiers during the Rape of Nanjing, presided over their wedding. Vautrin wrote about the wedding in her diary on Sept. 20, 1937: “Went to Lü Gin-ai’s wedding at Twinem Hall. Unfortunately, the bride was late and the first warning sounded before she came. The urgent warning sounded just as the ceremony was finished and we began to hear the low hum of bombers. Never have I said the Lord’s Prayer so fast in Chinese before… ‘
Within a week the newlyweds, with the rest of the university, moved inland to Sichuan Province. Amidst the chaos, Sun and Lü started their life as husband and wife. Since they shared the same fascination with and convictions about the potential of film, their union grew stronger. Sun put Lü’s desire to make China’s own film stock at the top of his agenda, spending countless hours helping her in the lab. Finally, she had a breakthrough. As recounted by their daughter, “Mother started her experiment during their exile in Chongqing in 1939. She continued her lab work in Chengdu after the Chongqing bomb interrupted her experiment. The war had cut off the supply of x-ray film. West China Medical School came to mother for aid. Mother succeeded in producing both x-ray film and film stock for making and teaching motion pictures.
Lü used the film stock to take a picture of her and their young son. Lü joined the Jinling faculty as the university moved inland, helping Sun establish majors in the study of photo chemistry and film archives. As Lü and Sun continued to immerse themselves in teaching and lab experiments throughout the 1940s, Lü’s mother, Guo Xiuqing helped rear their children. The anti-Japanese war dragged on, and refugee life became increasingly difficult.
After the Japanese were defeated in 1945, Jinling University and Women’s College made their way back to Nanjing. Sun shot his second film about Nanjing in 1948. Perhaps to trace changes or reminisce about the past, the scenes in this film were almost the same as those that appeared in his first film before the war, including the shots of his wife. They had been young sweethearts twelve years ago. Now they had three children. Sun photographed the happy family attending Christmas Eve services in December 1948. He had turned thirty-seven that year. Little did he know that 1948 would mark the end of his film career.
That spring of 1948, Jinling Women’s College was at the height of its development. More than 470 students were enrolled and the teaching faculty was at its strongest. The main building, the science building, the humanities building, the library, the musical hall and the four dormitories had been newly rebuilt. Both faculty and students worked hard to build the curriculum and took great pride in being part of the beautiful campus.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the class of 1951 would be Jinling Women’s College’s last. On the graduation certificate, the seal on the diploma had already been changed to read, “The Education Department of the Northeast Military and Political Committee.” That year, Jinling University and the Women’s College briefly were combined and one year later, both were abolished in a wave of educational restructuring aimed at cutting China’s higher education ties with the missionary system. The faculty, facilities and campus of the University and College were merged, respectively, into Nanjing University and the new Nanjing Normal University.
When the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, Lu and Sun chose to stay in China instead of leaving for the United States. In 1952, Sun Mingjing and his entire department were merged with the newly founded Beijing Film School (which later became Beijing Film Academy, the BFA). Like many of his contemporaries, Sun was labeled a “rightist” during the political campaign of 1957-58, and prohibited from engaging in any film -related activities. During the Cultural Revolution, the academy itself was shut down.
After the Cultural Revolution, Sun resumed his teaching and many of the leading technical workers in China’s revived film industry were former students of Lü Jin’ai’s photochemistry classes.
Sun passed away quietly in 1992, at the age of 81. His wife followed him ten years later. Sun and Lü are survived by one daughter, Sun Jianqiu, an English professor and Shakespeare scholar, and three sons Sun Jiansan, a photographer and former professor at BFA; Sun Jianhe, a college lecturer in computer science; and Sun Jiantong, an artist. All now are retired. The oldest daughter, Sun Jianyi, was a film lab technician and passed away in 2007.
Though love letters with news and photos that Sun wrote to Lü during his long journeys of 1937 and 1939 were confiscated and destroyed by the Red Guards in 1966, in 1982, a worker cleaning a closet at the Beijing Film Academy came across a bag behind a door labeled “Sun Mingjing’s materials.” Inside were several hundred negatives and letters that were published in 2004 by the Shandong Pictorial Press edited by Sun Jianqiu.
- Ying Zhu, “Sun Mingjing and Lü Jin’ai: Pioneers of Chinese Educational Films,” in Salt and Light: More Lives of Faith That Shaped Modern China, edited by Carol Lee Hamrin with Stacey Bieler (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 143-162.