10 Famous Chinese Actors You Oughta Know, Plus Their Most Iconic Movies
With hit movies like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “In the Mood for Love,” Chinese actors have earned fans from all over the world.
In fact, many of them are household names already, with a track record of unforgettable performances.
To get you up to speed, here is the lowdown on 10 popular Chinese actors that you should know, along with the movies that launched them to fame.
- 1. Chow Yun Fat: 周润发 (Zhōu Rùn Fā)
- 2. Zhao Benshan: 赵本山 (Zhào Běn Shān)
- 3. Jet Li: 李连杰 (Lǐ Lián Jié)
- 4. Lü Liping: 吕丽萍 (Lǚ Lì Píng)
- 5. Ge You: 葛优 (Gě Yōu)
- 6. Anthony Wong: 黄秋生 (Huáng Qiū Shēng)
- 7. Zhang Ziyi: 章子怡 (Zhāng Zǐ Yí)
- 8. Andy Lau: 刘德华 (Liú Dé Huá)
- 9. Tony Leung: 梁朝伟 (Liáng Cháo Wěi)
- 10. Gong Li: 巩俐 (Gǒng Lì)
- And One More Thing...
1. Chow Yun Fat: 周润发 (Zhōu Rùn Fā)
Chow Yun Fat has always been very well known in Hong Kong for his gangster action films. Much like Andy Lau, if you like gangsters and guns, Chow Yun Fat plays defining roles in the genre.
He has actually appeared in a handful of Hollywood films as well, with varying degrees of success. But to see him in an excellent Mandarin film without so many guns, try “Curse of the Golden Flower.”
He plays the emperor in ancient China, and he has the presence to fill the shoes of such a grand role. He delivers well, and for sure his experience in some good crime stories translates well here. The story centers around plots and counter-plots by his family and members of the court to overthrow his empire.
- “Project Gutenberg” (2018): 无双 (wú shuāng)
- “Curse of the Golden Flower” (2006): 满城尽带黄金甲 (mǎn chéng jìn dài huáng jīn jiǎ)
- “The Killer” (1989): 喋血双雄 (dié xuè shuāng xióng)
2. Zhao Benshan: 赵本山 (Zhào Běn Shān)
Do you like comedy? Then start right here.
Zhao Benshan is highly talented and very funny and entertaining. He has learned traditional Chinese performance arts, including a type of Chinese sketch conversation comedy called “crosstalk.”
He is a great actor, and if you want to laugh and connect to a heartwarming character but not worry too much about if the film is realistic, then check out his role in “Getting Home.”
The premise of the film is quite ridiculous and he is excellent at making it seem entirely natural and logical for his character to stumble into and out of hilarious and implausible situations. He shows us a character at his wits end more than once, but always tempered by a comedic carefree spirit.
- “The New Year’s Eve of Old Lee” (2016): 过年好 (guò nián hǎo)
- “Getting Home” (2007): 落叶归根 (luò yè guī gēn)
- “Happy Times” (2000): 幸福时光 (xìng fú shí guāng)
3. Jet Li: 李连杰 (Lǐ Lián Jié)
Do not let the limitations of Hollywood action films like “War” (with Jason Statham) or “Romeo Must Die” (with Aaliyah) fool you about the actor Jet Li.
Jet Li is a very popular actor in Chinese martial arts films. As a perfect example, see “Hero.”
He plays the main character, a nameless assassin in ancient China. He gives a very compelling performance, especially in some intense interactions with the other main characters, most notably the emperor, whom he has planned to assassinate. The depth of the character he plays here is a great place to get you started on his work in Chinese films.
- “Mulan” (2020): 花木兰 (huā mù lán)
- “Hero” (2002): 英雄 (yīng xióng)
- “Fist of Legend” (1994): 精武英雄 (jīng wǔ yīng xióng)
4. Lü Liping: 吕丽萍 (Lǚ Lì Píng)
Lü Liping may be understated internationally compared to some of the other names here, but her acting abilities are by no means to be overlooked. It may even work to your advantage if trying to find entertaining Chinese actors without the bombardment of martial arts and gangsters.
But if you want to see a great dramatic performance, watch her in the film “The Blue Kite,” where she delivers great lines and conveys normal emotions intensely. She portrays a character who has to span several decades of tumultuous history in China while experiencing plenty of dramatic upheaval in her personal life.
- “The Sino-Japanese War at Sea 1984” (2012): 一八九四·甲午大海战 (yī bā jiǔ sì · jiǎ wǔ dà hǎi zhàn)
- “The Blue Kite” (1993): 蓝风筝 (lán fēng zheng)
- “Old Well” (1987): 老井 (lǎo jǐng)
5. Ge You: 葛优 (Gě Yōu)
The average Hollywood film enthusiast probably has little idea who Ge You is. But he is one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese cinema, and rightfully so.
Watch him as the main character in “To Live,” which is one of the defining epic films that portray the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
You will see a character who has it all and then loses it all; you will see a character laugh rambunctiously and cry dejectedly; you will see him in life-threatening danger and in moments of perfect contentment. He captures your attention as a remarkable character with his own defeats and triumphs as the tide of the revolution sweeps around him and his family for many years.
- “Schemes in Antiques” (2021): 古董局中局 (gǔ dǒng jú zhōng jú)
- “To Live” (1994): 活着 (huó zhe)
- “Farewell My Concubine” (1993): 霸王别姬 (bà wáng bié jī)
6. Anthony Wong: 黄秋生 (Huáng Qiū Shēng)
He plays a variety of characters, in dramatic and comedic settings. For an entertaining look at his kind of quirks and wit, look at the film “Secret.”
He plays a teacher at a school and the father of the main character. The film is a love story with some quasi-science fiction premises, but Anthony Wong contributes some grounded realism as well as great comedic moments. He also displays some clever wit in conversing with his son while trying to help with the confusing crisis that is the backstory of the film.
Alternatively, see him in “Mr. Cinema,” where he plays a patriotic man in Hong Kong. He gradually loses some of that fervor, with a great mix of melodrama and comedy.
- “The Sunny Side of the Street” (2022): 白日青春 (bái rì qīng chūn)
- “Secret” (2007): 不能说的·秘密 (bù néng shuō de · mì mì)
- “Mr. Cinema” (2007): 老港正传 (lǎo gǎng zhèng zhuàn)
7. Zhang Ziyi: 章子怡 (Zhāng Zǐ Yí)
Anyone with a sense of good cinema should promptly try to forget that the Asian actress in “Rush Hour 2” is Zhang Ziyi.
Instead, try to watch “The Road Home” to begin with as a basis to form your opinion of this actress.
She plays a young lady in pre-modern China whose village is sent a new schoolteacher. She falls in love with the young man and is required to deliver a performance showing her desperation, frustration and ultimate triumph in winning his attention.
Her enthusiasm and persistence are showcased in a scene where she falls ill waiting in the snow for his return after a trip to the city. She really makes her character come alive, given the story and cinematography.
- “My Country, My Parents” (2021): 我和我的父辈 (wǒ hé wǒ de fù bèi)
- “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000): 卧虎藏龙 (wò hǔ cáng lóng)
- “The Road Home” (1999): 我的父亲母亲 (wǒ de fù qīn mǔ qīn)
8. Andy Lau: 刘德华 (Liú Dé Huá)
If mega-pop star turned actor is your thing, then you should definitely get to know Andy Lau. He has probably the most successful career in Cantopop history and has appeared in what seems like dozens of Hong Kong gangster films. This is for a good reason—he is a very entertaining actor.
But you should really try to see him in a unique Mandarin-speaking film, “A World Without Thieves.”
He plays a thief traveling aboard a long-distance train in China who is thinking about retiring with his girlfriend (and “business” partner). However, a chance for one more score and a showdown with a gang of professional thieves change things dramatically for him.
- “End Game” (2021): 人潮汹涌 (rén cháo xiōng yǒng)
- “Infernal Affairs” (2002): 无间道 (wú jiān dào)
- “Running Out of Time” (1999): 暗战 (àn zhàn)
9. Tony Leung: 梁朝伟 (Liáng Cháo Wěi)
Tony Leung mostly performs in Cantonese-speaking films, and like many Hong Kong actors, he is also a successful Cantopop star.
He has appeared in several popular Mandarin films too. One of them is the epic “Red Cliff” which tells the story of a battle that marked a dynastic turning point in ancient China.
If you like epics, this is a great one, the original is over four hours long. He plays the main character trying to defend the kingdoms of warlords from the imperial army. He gives a skilled and compelling performance, right in the middle of plenty of plotting, alliances, deceptions and strategies.
- “Where the Wind Blows” (2022): 风再起时 (fēng zài qǐ shí)
- “Red Cliff” (2008): 赤壁 (chì bì)
- “In the Mood for Love” (2000): 花样年华 (huā yàng nián huá)
10. Gong Li: 巩俐 (Gǒng Lì)
With a handful of the performers on this list having made the crossover to Hollywood, it is quite surprising that Gong Li has not been more successful in English-speaking films. She has been in several Chinese films that became popular internationally, such as “Raise the Red Lantern.”
However, if you prefer muted, documentary-style storytelling, watch her in the film “The Story of Qiu Ju.” It may not be her like her blockbusters, but it shows her acting skill like no other also. She plays a highly determined pregnant woman from a village who travels to the city to pursue a legal case. It is a very realistic story, and the simplicity of it does not take away from the incredible role she plays.
- “Mulan” (2020): 花木兰 (huā mù lán)
- “The Story of Qiu Ju” (1992): 秋菊打官司 (qiū jú dǎ guān si)
- “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991): 大红灯笼高高挂 (dà hóng dēng long gāo gāo guà)
If entire movies are too much for you to tackle, you can start with clips. The FluentU program uses clips and short videos with subtitles, so you can get started there.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
If you don’t know about all of these actors yet, then definitely check out their films. You’ll find out exactly why they rose to the top while getting to enjoy some of the best shows from Chinese cinema!
And One More Thing...
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