Your Guide to the Stars: Popular Chinese Movie Stars

Your Guide to the Stars: Popular Chinese Movie Stars
Jul 07, 2011 By Andrea Scarlatelli ,

When you think of Chinese movie stars, who comes to mind? If it takes you a few moments to come up with a name or two, don't worry – you're not alone. While Hollywood film stars seem to have a global recognition, many of those in the Chinese film industry have yet to become household names outside of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But now that you're a bonafide expat, don't you think it's time you familiarise yourself with those actors and actresses who serve as pillars of Chinese pop culture? Read on for a basic guide to the major stars.


Gong Li.
Gong Li. Photo:

1) Gong Li 巩俐
Born in Shenyang, China on December 31, 1965, Gong Li began attending the highly respected Central Academy of Drama in Beijing at the age of 20. While there, she attracted the attention of famed director Zhang Yimou, who cast her as the lead in Red Sorghum, the movie that essentially launched her career. Li collaborated many more times with Yimou over the years (both professionally and romantically) in films such as Raise the Red Lantern, which was nominated for an American Academy Award. Li won the Golden Bear Award at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival and won Best Actress at the 1992 Venice Film Festival for her work in The Story of Qiu Ju. One of her highest grossing films was Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), which grossed $161,510,853 USD worldwide.

Zhang Ziyi.
Zhang Ziyi. Photo:

2) Zhang Ziyi 章子怡
Hailing from Beijing, China, Zhang Ziyi was born on February 9, 1979 and was accepted into the Beijing Dance Academy at 11 years old. After winning the national youth dance championship just four short years later, Ziyi began getting commercial work in Hong Kong. At the age of 18, she enrolled in the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing (the same school Gong Li had attended) and began getting steady movie offers ever since. Ziyi's mainstream movie breakout was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, which made $213,525,736 USD at the box office worldwide. Other famous roles include Rush Hour 2 (2001), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). In 2001, Ziyi won Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Bauhinia Awards. Additionally, she was awarded the Shanghai International Film Festival's Outstanding Contribution to Chinese Cinema Award in 2008.

Joan Chen.
Joan Chen. Photo:

3) Joan Chen 陈冲
A Shanghai native, Joan Chen was born April 26, 1961 and can literally owe her career in films to Mao Zedong – or, more accurately, to Zedong's wife, who noticed Chen's superior rifle skills in school and drafted her into the Shanghai Film Studio's special Actors' Training Program in 1975. There, director Xie Jin cast her as the lead in the cult classic Youth. After graduating from Shanghai International Studies University, Chen resumed film work with her star-making role in Little Flower, which won her the Hundred Flowers Award and skyrocketed her to fame. She left for the United States in 1981 but could not find the kind of success overseas that she had enjoyed in China, although she had a modest crossover hit with Lust, Caution, which made $67,091,915 USD at the box office worldwide. A few years ago, Chen reemerged on the film scene with movies like Jasmine Women and The Home Song Stories, for which she won Best Actress at the Australian Film Institute Awards.

Li Bingbing.
Li Bingbing. Photo:

3) Li Bingbing 李冰冰
Born February 27, 1976 in Harbin, China, Li Bingbing had originally planned on becoming a teacher. Once she found her love of acting, however, she immediately joined the Shanghai Drama Institute and found film work a few short years later. Bingbing's debut came in the movie Seventeen Years, for which she won Best Actress at the Singapore Film Festival in 1999, but it wasn't until she starred in the television series Young Justice Bao that she became a household name – so much so, in fact, that she was voted Most Popular Actress at the 12th Beijing College Film Festival. Known for her action sequences, Bingbing has starred in a variety of “wuxia” television dramas. One of her more famous movies, The Forbidden Kingdom, has made $127,980,002 USD worldwide.

Fan Bingbing.
Fan Bingbing. Photo:

4) Fan Bingbing 范冰冰
Not to be confused with that other Bingbing (see above), Fan Bingbing was born in Qingdao, China on September 16, 1981. After graduating from Shanghai Xie Jin's Star School and the prestigious Shanghai Theatre Academy, she shot to fame at age 16 for her television role in Taiwan's Princess Pearl sitcom. Over the years, Bingbing has racked up countless television and film roles, becoming one of the most recognised faces in Mainland China and winning various awards, including Best Supporting Actress at Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Festival for The Matrimony (2006). As with many other film stars, she eventually began recording music and working as a spokesperson for various international brands. As a testament to her popularity, Forbes magazine listed her number ten in their annual list of China Celebrity 100 in 2010 – this year she rose to number nine, partly due to her role in the popular Buddha Mountain, for which she won Best Actress at the Tokyo International Film Festival. That movie managed to gross $10,244,839 USD at the worldwide box office.


Jackie Chan,
Jackie Chan, Photo:

1) Jackie Chan 成龙
Perhaps the most famous name to come out of Asia, the question might be who hasn't heard of Jackie Chan? Born in Hong Kong on April 7, 1954, Chan was promptly enrolled by his parents in the China Drama Academy when he flunked out of primary school. He quickly became a master at (surprise!) martial arts, and became a member of the elite “Seven Little Fortunes,” a group comprised of the school's most promising students. Working as a stuntman in Bruce Lee films such as Fist of Fury, Chan quickly made a name for himself on his own right by starring in mega hits like The Young Master (1980) and Police Story 3: Super Cop, for which he was nominated for Best Actor at the 1993 Hong Kong Film Awards. Success in the Western film scene came slowly, but his 1995 cult hit Rumble in the Bronx provided the push needed (he also happened to win Best Action Choreography for this movie at the Hong Kong Film Awards). Rush Hour, coming out just three years later, launched him into stratospheric popularity. Chan continues to crank out hits to this day, with Rush Hour 2 raking in $347,325,802 USD at the worldwide box office.

Chow Yun-Fat,
Chow Yun-Fat, Photo:

2) Chow Yun-Fat 周润发
Born in Lamma Island, Hong Kong on May 18, 1955, Chow Yun-Fat had a difficult childhood. Living in a house with no electricity, he helped his mother peddle goods on the street and worked in the fields before quitting school at age 17 to earn money through odd jobs. When he was 25 years old, Yun-Fat answered a newspaper ad for a local television station, which resulted in his star making role on series The Bund. His career took off rapidly and included a move to Hollywood in the 1990's for roles that he hoped would break the Asian stereotypes that Hollywood so loves. Unfortunately, movies that did so were box office failures, so Yun-Fat eventually embraced the stereotype and starred in blockbusters such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), both of which garnered him Best Actor nominations. His biggest blockbuster to date came in 2007 when he starred in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Despite the fact that the Chinese government cut out all of Yun-Fat's scenes (they didn't like the fact that he played a pirate), the film grossed $963,420,425 USD worldwide.

 Jet Li
Jet Li

3) Jet Li  李连杰
Another of China's big names, Jet Li was born on April 26, 1963 in Beijing, China. He was first noticed at age eight for his remarkable skills at wushu. He eventually joined the Beijing Wushu Team and won 15 gold medals and one silver medal at various championships. Li's skills have been put to good use in his films, starting with his 1982 debut in Shaolin Temple. This movie (and its two sequels) helped spark renewed interest in the temple itself, located in Dengfeng, China. Li's breakout Hollywood role came in 1998's Lethal Weapon 4, which led to his first starring role three years later in the cult hit Romeo Must Die. Since then, Li has had work in many popular mainstream action films, such as The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) and The Forbidden Kingdom, which made $127,980,002 USD worldwide. An interesting factoid – Li turned down the role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that eventually went to Chow Yun-Fat because he had promised his wife he wouldn't take any film roles while she was pregnant.

Andy Lau
Andy Lau

4) Andy Lau 刘德华
Born on September 27, 1961 in Hong Kong, Andy Lau grew up in a household with no indoor plumbing. Despite various hardships, he graduated from Kowloon's Ho Lap College where he picked up the lifelong hobby of Chinese calligraphy. After joining a television studio's training programme, Lau was cast in The Emissary in 1982. This role led to more acting opportunities in television, music videos, and movies. His first role came in Once Upon a Rainbow, but he gained much of his popularity playing bad guys with hearts of gold in movies like As Tears Go By (1988) and A Moment of Romance (1990). Some people say Lau is simply a pretty face, an accusation not helped much by his other career as a Canto-pop singer, but the fact is the man knows how to get people to the movie theater – he was given the “Number One Box Office Actor 1985-2005 Award” in 2005, for having grossed $1,733,275,816 HKD at the box office in over 100 movies. He's found modest success overseas as well, in Infernal Affairs (2003) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), which made $92,893,945 at the worldwide box office.

Ge You

5) Ge You葛优
Commonly considered the most recognisable actor in Mainland China, Ge You was born in Beijing on April 19, 1957. This will come as no surprise when you realize that he is equally deft at both comedic roles (Be There or Be Square) and heavy dramatic ones (Farewell My Concubine). His 1994 hit drama, To Live, (for which he won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival) was famously banned by the Chinese government due to its “critical portrayal of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government” - the director, Zhang Yimou, was even barred for two years from making films because of it. You frequently collaborates with director Feng Xiaogang and is credited with establishing a more modern picture of China's “everyman” in his various comedies, such as 2001's Big Shot's Funeral, for which he won Best Actor at the Hundred Flowers Awards. One of his most famous comedies is perhaps If You are the One 2, which grossed $76,070,352 USD worldwide.

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Keywords: Movie stars China guide to Chinese movie stars famous actresses China Chinese actors


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