Top 20 Most Popular Chinese Actors (+ Their Best Movies)
In the cinema as on TV screen, China has always been brimming with talented actors. Chinese actors exude style, charm, and gift. And with every single film or drama, they win us over a little bit more.
But have you been wondering which of the numerous Chinese actors out there is the most popular one in the Chinese-speaking world? Which is the most famous one? And the most successful one?
If the answer is yes, then you’re going to love this post.
I lived in China for most of my life as a movie critic, and watching Chinese movies and dramas has always been a big part of my life. Over the decades, I’ve gotten to know about hundreds of Chinese performers, their life stories, and their career achievements.
In this mega-post, I give you the low down on the 20 most popular Chinese actors whose handsome appearances and stirring performances have melted our hearts and resonated across oceans. From undisputed household names such as Ge You, who was the first Chinese actor to win Cannes’ best performance honors, to rising young stars like Liu Haoran, who has claimed some of China’s top accolades in the ‘2020s, you’ll discover the dazzling lives of the best actors in China today, specifically:
- The story and rise of each actor (and why they’re so popular)
- Their most famous roles and notable performances
- Their absolute must-watch movies and dramas
Please note: Don’t look for Hong Kong actors like Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, or Chow Yun-fat here. Although they’re all exceptionally popular, I wanted this list to focus squarely on famous actors in Mainland China, whose works are primarily based on Mandarin.
Can’t wait to get started? Let’s dive in!
20 Best Chinese Actors That You Need to Know About
These 20 actors are the best and most popular to come out of China, a country that has been gifting the world with inspirational talents for decades.
- Jiang Wen (姜文)
- Ge You (葛优)
- Li Lianjie (李连杰)
- Wu Jing (吴京)
- Chen Daoming (陈道明)
- Huang Xiaoming (黄晓明)
- Chen Kun (陈坤)
- Liu Ye (刘烨)
- Huang Bo (黄渤)
- Wang Baoqiang (王宝强)
- Xu Zheng (徐峥)
- Hu Ge (胡歌)
- Tong Dawei (佟大为)
- Deng Chao (邓超)
- Wen Zhang (文章)
- Shen Teng (沈腾)
- Zhang Yi (张译)
- Li Yifeng (李易峰)
- Yang Yang (杨洋)
- Liu Haoran (刘昊然)
Cultural Note: In Chinese name order, 姓 (xìng) – the family name, always comes before 名 (míng) – the given name, and there is no middle name in a Chinese person’s name. Take the top Chinese actor Jiang Wen (姜文)’s name for example, Jiang (姜) is the last name (family name), and Wen (文) is the first name.
Don’t stop here. Keep scrolling to read up more on these omnipresent and talented Chinese actors. Learn more about their amazing life stories and most influential works. You will also find some movie/drama recommendations!
1. Jiang Wen (姜文)
When it comes to famous Chinese actors, Jiang Wen is the first one to spring to many Chinese people’s minds. Known for his non-conformist style, Jiang Wen is a titan in the Chinese film industry.
Born in 1963 in the industrial city of Tangshan in China’s Heibei Province, Jiang Wen was the eldest son of a military family that relocated to Beijing when he was 10 years old.
Jiang Wen began his acting career both on the stage and the screen in 1984 after graduating from the Central Academy of Drama, China’s foremost acting school.
Jiang Wen first came to public attention in the 1986 film The Last Empress (末代皇后 Mò Dài Huáng Hòu) where he portrayed Puyi (溥仪), the last emperor of China.
In his second film, Hibiscus Town (芙蓉镇 Fúróng Zhèn) (1986), he acted alongside Liu Xiaoqing (刘晓庆), an established older actress. His role as a “bourgeoisie” rightist caught up in the political turmoil of China’s Cultural Revolution earned him the Best Actor Award at the Hundred Flowers Awards (the Chinese equivalent of American Golden Globes).
But it was his role in iconic director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋)’s debut movie Red Sorghum (红高粱 Hóng Gāoliáng) (1987) that brought him international fame. The film won the Golden Bear Award at the 1988 Berlin International Film Festival, and Jiang Wen enjoyed critical and box office acclaim as the star.
Jiang Wen’s other well-known starring roles have included the melodrama Chun Tao (春桃 Chūn Táo) (1989), the romance drama In the Heat of the Sun (阳光灿烂的日子 Yángguāng Cànlàn de RìZi) (1994), the black comedy Devils on the Doorstep (鬼子来了 Guǐzi Lái le) (2000), the art film The Sun Also Rises (太阳照常升起 Tàiyáng Zhàocháng Shēng Qǐ) (2007), the action-crime comedy Let the Bullets Fly (让子弹飞 Ràng Zǐdàn Fēi) (2010), and its semi-sequel Gone with the Bullets (一步之遥 Yí Bù Zhī Yáo) (2014).
In Hollywood, He also starred in the Star Wars anthology film Rogue One (2016) as Baze Malbus.
On television, he appeared in smash-hit TV drama series such as A Native of Beijing in New York (北京人在纽约 Běijīngrén Zài Niǔyuē) (1993) and Heroic Legend of the Chin Dynasty (大清风云 Dà Qīng Fēngyún) (2006).
Besides acting, Jiang Wen has an equally successful career as screenwriter and director, having received various awards in recognition of his remarkable projects: he garnered six Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan for his directorial debut and clinched the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
With numerous significant awards he amassed over his 35+ year film career and having collaborated with China’s most talented directors, Jiang Wen is one of the popular and most influential actors in China to this day and continues to be revered by fans all over the world.
Here are insights into some of Jiang Wen’s amazing films.
- Red Sorghum (红高粱 Hóng Gāoliáng)
Jiang Wen stars opposite Gong Li (巩俐) in this award-winning war romance film with political overtones. The plot focuses on a young bride, Jiu’er (九儿), who is sold to a distillery owner. The movie’s dissemination into Chinese popular culture and the ideology it professes makes it an interesting subject of critical reflection.
- In the Heat of the Sun (阳光灿烂的日子 Yángguāng Cànlàn de RìZi)
Set in the early 1970s, In the Heat of the Sun (literally Days of Lush, Bright Sunshine), the directorial debut of Jiang Wen is about the unique experiences of a group of privileged teenagers who grew up in Beijing’s government and military compounds during the Cultural Revolution. It is told from the perspective of Ma Xiaojun (马小军), a boy nicknamed “Monkey”. Jiang Wen portrayed the grownup Ma Xiaojun.
- Let the Bullets Fly (让子弹飞 Ràng Zǐdàn Fēi)
One of the most successful films of all time in China, this 2010 broad comedy movie written and directed by Jiang Wen himself is set in a lawless town in Sichuan during the 1920s when the bandit Zhang Muzhi (张牧之) (Jiang Wen) arrives posing as its new governor and finds himself in a showdown with the local “godfather”. The film also stars Hong Kong superstars Chow Yun-fat (周润发), Carina Lau (刘嘉玲), and top mainland Chinese actors Ge You (葛优) and Chen Kun (陈坤).
2. Ge You (葛优)
Ge You, often with a bald shaven pate, is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most famous Chinese actors. He is not only the Best Actor winner of Golden Rooster Awards, China’s most prestigious film awards but also the first Asian actor to win Cannes’ best performance honors.
Ge You was born in Beijing in 1957 to actor parents who both worked in film. However, his acting career did not start off all that smoothly. After graduating from middle school, Ge You had to go to the suburbs of Beijing to farm pigs amid China’s Cultural Revolution.
After failing several times to get into an art school, he finally got admitted into the Art Troupe of China’s National Federation of Trade Unions with the skit Feeding Pigs (喂猪 Wèi Zhū) at the interview. He then became a drama actor, spent the next few years playing small roles on stage.
Ge You first gained recognition in 1991, after landing a role in the Chinese drama The Spring Festival (过年 Guò Nián), for which he earned the Best Supporting Actor at the Hundred Flower Awards. He broke out as star on screen with the hit TV series Stories From the Newsroom (编辑部的故事 Biānjí Bù de Gùshì) (1992), China’s first western-style sitcom.
In 1994, Ge You won his first best actor accolades at an international festival by starring in the film To Live (活着 Huó zhe) based on Yu Hua (余华)’s novel of the same name. He became the first Chinese – indeed Asian to win the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
This was followed up with The Dream Factory (甲方乙方 Jiǎ Fāng Yǐ Fāng) (1997), one of the first notable and successful “Hesui Pian” (Chinese New Year-end festive films) produced in mainland China.
And Feng Xiaogang (冯小刚), the renowned Chinese “Hesui Pian” director and box-office king just couldn’t get enough of Ge You! They collaborated in a string of highly successful commercial films including Be There or Be Square (不见不散 Bú jiàn bú sàn), Sorry Baby (没完没了 Méi Wán Méi Liǎo), Big Shot’s Funeral (大腕 Dà Wàn), Cell Phone (手机 Shǒujī), A World Without Thieves (天下无贼 Tiān Xià Wú Zéi), If You Are the One (非诚勿扰 Fēi Chéng Wù Rǎo) and so on.
Although Ge You does not have a pretty face, he has won the love of numerous audiences with his satire-laden performances and tempered humorous style.
With more than 60 films and 10 television series to his name and numerous awards received, Ge You truly is a giant on the Chinese screen!
Here are some of Ge You’s most notable performances:
- Big Shot’s Funeral (大腕 Dà Wàn)
The 90-minute black comedy centers on world-renowned American director Don Tyler (played by Donald Sutherland), directing a chaotic remake of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor on location in Beijing’s Forbidden City, and You You (尤优) (Ge You), a Beijing cameraman he hired to shoot a “making of” documentary. Fired by his producer, Tyler has a stroke and deliriously asks Yoyo to film him and make him a “comedy funeral” when he dies. The film brought Ge You the 25th Hundred Flowers Awards for Best Actor.
- If You Are the One (非诚勿扰 Fēi Chéng Wù Rǎo)
Released in China as one of the key year-end festive films of 2008, the box office hit If You Are the One centers on an unlikely couple coming together through blind dates. Ge You portrays Qin Fen (秦奋), a funny, honest, single inventor who has never had much luck in the love department until his path crosses with Xiaoxiao (笑笑), a girl who was in agony of her boyfriend’s betrayal. Westerners wishing to get a taste of Chinese-style romantic comedy will be pleasantly surprised.
- To Live (活着 Huó zhe)
Although Ge You is most known for his roles in comedies, he has also had great success in dramatic roles. The most successful one of these is the film To Live directed by Zhang Yimou in 1994. In the film, Ge You plays Fugui (富贵), a rich man’s son and compulsive gambler, from youth to old age spanning the years from China’s 1930s civil war through the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), vividly showing a minor character who has tasted the enjoyment and suffering of the world to the audience, and also brought his acting skills to the fullest.
3. Li Lianjie (李连杰)
Li Lianjie, better known by his stage name Jet Li, is one of the most renowned Chinese film actors in the world. Once considered the heir apparent to the original master Bruce Lee (李小龙), Li Lianjie has garnered global recognition for his superlative martial arts skills and his portrayals of virtuous, humble heroes.
Born in Beijing in 1963, Li Lianjie entered a summer sports program at Beijing Shichahai Sports School when he was only eight years old and was randomly assigned to a wushu (martial arts) class. He then spent half the day training and half the day in school on daily basis before beginning to train full-time.
In 1974 he toured the United States with other young martial artists and even met President Richard Nixon at the White House. That same year Li Lianjie won his first national wushu championship.
In 1979 Li Lianjie retired from the sport due to a knee injury after winning 5 medals for the Beijing Wushu Team at the 4th National Games of China. The fame gained by his sports winnings led to a career as a martial arts film star.
In 1980, Li Lianjie was cast in Hong Kong director Zhang Xinyan (张鑫炎)’s film Shaolin Temple (少林寺 Shàolín Sì) as Jue Yuan (觉远), a young man who learns martial arts from the monks at the famed Shaolin Temple (the legendary birthplace of Chinese martial arts). The film was a smash hit (with two sequels) in the Chinese-speaking world and was credited with reviving interest in Chinese martial arts.
When the movie was released in the Philippines in 1982, the local distributors thought Li Lianjie’s name was too hard to pronounce, so they gave him a stage name – Jet Li.
He followed the success with roles in many films that all turned out to be hits in the 1980s. Then, in director Tsui Hark (徐克)’s 1991 epic film Once Upon a Time in China (黄飞鸿之壮志凌云 Huáng Fēihóng zhī Zhuàng Zhì Líng Yún), Li Lianjie played his most famous character on screen ever, the historical martial arts master Wong Fei-hung (黄飞鸿), who fought against injustice and foreign encroachment at the end of the Qing dynasty. This became one of the greatest roles in Chinese cinema history and he reprised this role in three sequels.
Throughout the 1990s Li Lianjie was the most sought-after actor in China for martial arts films. Then Hollywood called, so the Chinese actor took off to Los Angeles, appearing in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), Romeo Must Die (2000), and The One (2001).
Thereafter his career was divided between China and Hollywood. While continuing to star in big Chinese blockbusters including Hero (英雄 Yīngxióng) (2002), Fearless (霍元甲 Huò Yuánjiǎ) (2006), The Warlords (投名状 Tóu Míng Zhuàng) (2007), and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (龙门飞甲 Lóng Mén Fēi Jiǎ) (2011), he also appeared in Hollywood films Cradle 2 the Grave (2003), Unleashed (2005), The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), actor-director Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (2010) and its sequels (2012 and 2014), and Mulan (2020).
Li Lianjie is indeed one of the most popular Chinese actors in the world, both for his performances and for his active role in promoting Chinese martial arts and wushu culture around the world.
Here’s a little portion of some of Li Lianjie’s best performances:
- Hero (英雄 Yīngxióng)
Li Lianjie plays the lead Nameless in director Zhang Yimou’s Hero, a lavish and complexly plotted martial arts spectacular about assassins trying to kill King of Qin, the first emperor of China. The film was nominated Best International Feature Film at the 75th Academy Awards.
- The Warlords (投名状 Tóu Míng Zhuàng)
In 2007, Li turned his hand to Chinese cinema again, participating in Peter Chan (陈可辛)’s period war movie The Warlords with Andy Lau (刘德华) and Takeshi Kaneshiro. This film, with its focus on dramatics rather than martial arts, garnered Li Lianjie Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards and another nomination at the Taipei Golden Horse Awards.
- The Forbidden Kingdom (功夫之王 Gōng Fū zhī Wáng)
Together for the first time, Li Lianjie and fellow martial arts star Jackie Chan (成龙) joined forces to create the greatest epic of them all – The Forbidden Kingdom. The film, which was a huge commercial success in 2008 is based on the legend of the Monkey King from the Chinese folk novel Journey to the West (西游记 Xī Yóu Jì).
4. Wu Jing (吴京)
Wu Jing is an internationally well-known Chinese actor renowned for his roles in martial arts films and portraying tough action heroes. He is also among a new generation of Chinese action stars turned directors.
Born in Beijing in 1974, Wu Jing began practicing wushu (Chinese martial arts) at Beijing Shichahai Sports School when he was only six years old and won his first national championship at age twelve.
Shortly after, he was asked to join the Beijing Wushu Team, training with Wu Bin (吴彬), the same martial arts master who spotted and coached Li Lianjie (Jet Li).
In 1995, Yuen Woo-ping (袁和平), one of the most influential action choreographers and directors in Hong Kong action cinema came to Beijing to look for a martial artist to star in his new film Tai Chi Boxer (功夫小子闯情关 Gōngfū Xiǎozi Chuǎng Qíng Guān), and Wu Jing got the role under Wu Bin’s recommendation.
The commercial success of the film led Wu Jing to star as the titular character, the legendary Tai Chi Master 杨昱乾 (Yáng Yù Gān) in the popular television series The Tai Chi Master (太极宗师 Tàijí Zōngshī) (1997).
Afterward, he starred in a variety of wuxia fantasy TV series and action films such as Legend of Dagger Li (小李飞刀 Xiǎo Lǐ Fēi Dāo) (1999), SPL: Sha Po Lang (杀破狼 Shā Pò Láng) (2005), and Invisible Target (男儿本色 Nán Ér Běn Sè) (2007), gaining further popularity in the Chinese speaking world.
Wu Jing’s true star rose in 2015, when he co-wrote, directed, and starred in Wolf Warrior (战狼 Zhàn Láng). The military action film was highly praised for its patriotic plot, special effects, action sequences, and the cast’s performances.
Then its sequel Wolf Warrior 2 (战狼2 Zhàn Láng Èr) (2017) kept going and became a phenomenon. It raked in a record of $854 million to become China’s highest-grossing film ever at the time!
In 2019, Wu Jing starred in another mega-blockbuster The Wandering Earth (流浪地球 LiúLàng Dìqiú), which is based on a novella of the same name by Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin (刘慈欣). He put up $8.5 million of his own money to complete the film when financing dried up during the production. The film grossed $700 million worldwide, making it China’s fifth highest-grossing film of all time and the fifth highest-grossing non-English film to date.
Dubbed China’s reigning box office king, Wu Jing is surely one of the most popular and successful Chinese actors in the world today.
Now, let’s check out Wu Jing with some of his best performances:
- Wolf Warrior 2 (战狼2 Zhàn Láng Èr)
The “superhero movie of Chinese style” revolves around a Chinese special forces soldier who ventured into an African warzone and saved hundreds of lives from Western baddies. Wu Jing plays the lead Leng Feng (冷锋) in this 2017 box office smash hit which was also directed by himself.
- The Wandering Earth (流浪地球 Liúlàng Dìqiú)
The Wandering Earth, China’s first true sci-fi blockbuster, tells the story of a cursed future in which the sun has become unstable, and humanity’s only hope for survival are the 10,000 jet engines strong enough to dislodge the earth from its orbit and launch it toward the solar system that’s 4.2 light-years away. Wu Jing stars as Liu Peiqiang (刘培强) who left his then four-year-old son to become part of an international space station built to save Earth.
- The Climbers (攀登者 Pāndēng Zhě)
The Climbers dramatizes the real-life expedition of Chinese mountaineers Wang Fuzhou (王富洲), Gonpo (贡布), and Qu Yinhua (屈银华), portrayed by Wu Jing and his fellow actors, who made a historic ascent up Mount Everest’s North Ridge in 1960.
5. Chen Daoming (陈道明)
When Chen Daoming’s name is mentioned, some of the biggest roles in Chinese television spring to mind: Puyi (溥仪), Kangxi (康熙), Liu Bang (刘邦).
Chen Daoming is one of the most renowned and respected actors in China. Best known for his portrayal of emperors and kings of different dynasties, he is dubbed “the Emperor of Chinese TV series”. Let’s take a look back at this famous actor’s incredible life story.
Chen Daoming was born in Tianjin in 1995. He discovered a talent for acting during his middle school years. He tried his luck in Tianjin People’s Art Theater, studying acting and performing regularly on stage and screen.
However, the aspiring actor remained little known to the public until he reached the age of 33. In 1984, he was cast as Puyi (溥仪), the last emperor of China in the period drama The Last Dynasty (末代皇帝 Mò Dài Huángdì). The series, which was aired on Channel One of China Central Television four years later was highly praised and brought Chen Daoming nationwide recognition.
Since then, Chen Daoming has starred in various genres of television series and films, most notably, Fortress Besieged (围城 Wéi Chéng) (1990), My 1919 (我的1919 Wǒ de Yījiǔyījiǔ) (1999), Kangxi Dynasty (康熙王朝 Kāngxī Wángcháo) (2001), Hero (英雄 Yīngxióng) (2002), King’s War (楚汉传奇 Chǔ Hàn Chuánqí) (2012), and Coming Home (归来 Guīlái) (2014). These performances added various awards to his repertoire.
More recently, he had a starring role in the critically acclaimed TV series Joy of Life (庆余年 Qìng Yú Nián) (2019) and My Best Friend’s Story (流金岁月 Liú Jīn Suì Yuè) (2021) with some of the top Chinese actors and actresses of the younger generation like Zhang Ruoyun (张若昀), Liu Shishi (刘诗诗), and Ni Ni (倪妮), as well as being elected chairman of the China Film Association.
With appearances in nearly 40 TV series and 20 films, not to mention nine awards to his name, Chen Daoming is one of the greatest Chinese actors in Chinese entertainment history.
- The Last Dynasty (末代皇帝 Mò Dài Huángdì)
This epic tale of Puyi (溥仪) (Chen Daoming), the last emperor of China, covers the emperor’s entire life from the Qing Dynasty to the Republic, to the Japanese occupation, and finally Communist China. A must-watch if you are into Chinese history!
- King’s War (楚汉传奇 Chǔ Hàn Chuánqí)
This popular period drama is based on the events in the Chu–Han Contention, an interregnum between the fall of the Qin dynasty and the founding of the Han dynasty. Chen Daoming stars as Liu Bang (刘邦), the first emperor of the Han Dynasty who rose from a humble peasant background.
- Coming Home (归来 Guīlái)
The stunningly successful team of Chen Daoming, Chinese actress Gong Li and director Zhang Yimou come together once again to produce another beautiful movie to add to their legacy. In this tearjerking melodrama, Chen Daoming portrays Lu Yanshi (陆焉识), a former political prisoner during the Cultural Revolution who tries to help his beloved wife regain her memory and rediscover their love for each other.
6. Huang Xiaoming (黄晓明)
With an impressively long list of awards and accolades including Best Actor at the Golden Rooster Awards, Hundred Flowers Awards, and Golden Eagle Awards, Huang Xiaoming is one of the best known and most successful actors in China.
Huang Xiaoming was born in Qingdao, Shandong Province in 1977, son of an engineer and an accountant. At age 7, he was chosen by a film producer to star in a drama as a child actor but was dropped later because of his shy and introverted personality.
His ambitions undaunted, Huang Xiaoming auditioned for Beijing Film Academy in 1996 and joined in the same year. He later debuted on TV in 1998, playing the lead in the drama series Love is Not a Game (爱情不是游戏 Àiqíng Búshì Yóuxì).
In 2001, Huang Xiaoming’s breakthrough role came in the three-season period drama series The Prince of Han Dynasty (大汉天子 Dà Hàn Tiān Zǐ) where he played the leading role of Emperor Wu of Han (汉武帝). The series was a huge success, and he went on to star in other popular TV dramas such as Merry Wanderer Tang Bohu (风流少年唐伯虎 Fēngliú Shàonián Táng Bó Hǔ) (2003) and The Return of the Condor Heroes (神雕侠侣 Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ) (2006), establishing himself as a household name in China.
Huang Xiaoming’s talent soon grabbed the attention of Chinese cinematic titan Feng Xiaogang (冯小刚), who cast him in the epic film The Banquet (夜宴 Yè Yàn) alongside superstars Zhang Ziyi (章子怡), Ge You (葛优), and Zhou Xun (周迅). This collaboration marked the beginning of his glittering career on the big screen, and he would go on to work with big names in Chines cinema including Chen Kaige (陈凯歌), Peter Chan (陈可辛) and Wong Jing (王晶).
Let’s check out some of Huang Xiaoming’s most memorable roles on screen throughout the years.
- Shanghai Bund (上海滩 Shànghǎi Tān)
Huang Xiaoming reprised the role of 许文强 (Xu Wenqiang) in this 2007 remake of the 1980 Hong Kong television series The Bund (上海滩 Shànghǎi Tān), which starred his idol Chow Yun-fat (周润发). This became one of the most popular period dramas in Chinese TV history and brought Huang Xiaoming Asia-wide acclaim.
- American Dreams in China (中国合伙人 Zhōngguó Héhuǒrén)
In this 2013 hit film, Huang Xiaoming portrays Cheng Dongqing (程冬青), a student from an impoverished rural Chinese family who aspired to change his fate through education. The success of the film, which is based on the self-development and entrepreneurial experience of Yu Minhong (俞敏洪), founder of New Oriental, the best-known education company in China, brought a new impetus into Huang Xiaoming’s career, and won him the Best Actor award at the 29th Golden Rooster Awards, 15th Huabiao Awards, 12th Changchun Film Festival and 32nd Hundred Flowers Awards.
- The Bravest (烈火英雄 Liè Huǒ Yīngxióng)
The 2019 disaster film is based on a real-life incident, a 2010 oil pipe explosion in China’s north-eastern port city Dalian, and chronicles firefighters’ efforts to save a city from exploding in flames. Huang Xiaoming portrays the heroic Special Brigade Squadron leader who braved fiery heat to save those in the vicinity of the fires.
7. Chen Kun (陈坤)
Born in Chongqing in 1976, Chen Kun started out as a typist, a bartender, a solo singer at nightclubs, and later the China Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble (now China National Song and Dance Ensemble) before being admitted to the prestigious Beijing Film Academy in 1996, where he began formal training in acting.
In his senior year of college, he was cast in Love Story in Shanghai (像雾像雨又像风 Xiàng Wù Xiàng Yǔ Yòu Xiàng Fēng), a period television drama series directed by Zhao Baogang (赵宝刚). Chen Kun gave a powerhouse performance as the lead role Chen Zikun (陈子坤) and rose to fame instantly.
The 2000s were a successful time for him, playing opposite top Chinese stars such as Zhou Xun (周迅), Liu Ye (刘烨), Li Bingbing (李冰冰), and Zhao Wei (赵薇) in popular TV dramas and films including Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (巴尔扎克和小裁缝 Bāěrzhākè Hé Xiǎo Cáiféng) (2002), The Story of a Noble Family (金粉世家 Jīn Fěn Shì Jiā) (2003), The Knot (云水谣 Yún Shuǐ Yáo) (2006) and Painted Skin (画皮 Huà Pí) (2008).
He was repeatedly nominated for some of the most well-known awards in Chinese cinema, winning Best Actor at the Huabiao Awards and Hundred Flowers Awards.
In 2012, the wax figure of Chen Kun entered Madame Tussauds in Shanghai in recognition of his dazzling career, which shows no sign of slowing to this day.
Apart from acting, Chen Kun is also an established singer and a keen writer, having released three albums and written several popular books since 2001. Chen Kun is the first and only actor to make it on to China’s Writers Rich List. It’s not that easy to achieve!
Here are some of Chun Kun’s best:
- The Knot (云水谣 Yún Shuǐ Yáo)
Chen Kun rose to international prominence with the film The Knot playing the lead role Chen Qiushui (陈秋水), a Taiwanese medical student who defects to Mainland China due to Nationalist persecution. While pining for his first love who is still in Taiwan, He is persistently pursued by another girl. The romance film was a huge success and garnered 8 nominations at the 2007 Golden Rooster Awards, including Best Actor for Chen Kun.
- Painted Skin (画皮 Huà Pí)
In this action-thriller based on one of Pu Songling (蒲松龄)’s classic short stories in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (聊斋志异 Liáo Zhāi Zhì Yì), Chen Kun portrays General Wang Sheng (王生) who rescues a beautiful woman named Xiao Wei (小唯) (portrayed by Zhou Xun) from a band of bandits and brings her home. Later he finds out she is a fox spirit that feasts on human hearts to maintain her attractive, youthful appearance. Also in the movie are top Chinese actresses Zhao Wei (赵薇), Sun Li (孙俪), and Hong Kong action choreographer Donnie Yen (甄子丹).
- The Rise of Phoenixes (天盛长歌 Tiānshèng Cháng Gē)
No matter who you are, you have to rise from the mud to become The Great Phoenix. This time Chen Kun teamed up with Ni Ni (倪妮) in the 70-episode epic period drama which is all about power, desire, lust, and love among people of different kingdoms in ancient China.
8. Liu Ye (刘烨)
With his first Golden Horse Award at age 23, Liu Ye is regarded by many as one of China’s most talented actors. Instead of relying on his good physical appearance to become a teen idol, Liu Ye has chosen the tough path of continuously challenging himself by taking on difficult roles on screen.
From honest, simple, and down-to-earth “farmer-like” roles, weak and melancholic persona, to tough and Casanova roles, Liu Ye has convinced not only the audience but also well-established international directors, of his remarkable acting skills.
Born in Changchun, Jilin Province in 1978, Liu Ye was immersed in the world of the arts from a very young age: his father was a stage lighting technician, his mother works in a film production company.
Liu Ye’s acting talents were apparent right from his first film, Postman in the Mountains (那山那人那狗 Nà Shān Nà Rén Nà Gǒu) (1999). He did the film when he was still a student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the renowned Golden Rooster Awards for depicting a boy from a mountain village who is due to take over his father’s duties as a postman for the villagers.
Shortly after his graduation, Liu Ye’s breakthrough role came in the gay-themed film Lan Yu (蓝宇 Lán Yǔ) (2000), which won numerous awards in various movie festivals throughout the Chinese-speaking world. Liu Yu was highly praised for his bold and outstanding performance as the titular character Lan Yu (蓝宇), a gentle, sensitive homosexual by critics and won Best Actor at Taipei Golden Horse Awards and another nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Three years later, he clinched Best Actor with his role in The Foliage (美人草 Měi Rén Cǎo) (2003) at China’s Golden Rooster Awards.
For evidence of Liu Ye’s versatility as an actor, we don’t need to look further than his performance as a cold-blooded killer in Connected (保持通话 Bǎochí Tōng Huà) (2008), and Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao) in The Founding of a Party (建党伟业 Jiàn Dǎng Wěi Yè) (2011) and The Founding of an Army (建军大业 Jiàn Jūn Wěi Yè) (2017).
Here are some other highly varied roles he has played.
- Dark Matter
Liu Ye’s first Hollywood film was inspired by the University of Iowa shooting in 1991. Starring opposite Meryl Streep, Liu Ye played the role of a Chinese physics postgraduate named Liu Xing whose rising star must confront the dark forces of politics, ego, and cultural insensitivity. Dark Matter won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
- The Last Supper (王的盛宴 Wáng de Shèng Yàn)
This US$15-million historical epic is based on events in the Chu–Han Contention, an interregnum between the fall of the Qin dynasty and the founding of the Han dynasty in Chinese history. Liu Ye was nominated for Best Actor at the 2013 Asian Film Awards for his role as Liu Bang (刘邦), the founding emperor of the Han dynasty.
- Cock and Bull (追凶者也 Zhuī Xiōng Zhě Yě)
Liu Ye won the Golden Goblet Award for Best Actor for his performance as a small-town car mechanic who is unexpectedly involved in a murder case and tries to exonerate himself in this suspenseful crime comedy film.
9. Huang Bo (黄渤)
Huang Bo is one of China’s most popular actors known for his down-to-earth comedic talent as well as his ability to pull in ticket sales.
Born in 1974 in Qingdao, Shandong Province, Huang Bo’s entertainment career started as early as in middle school. Before he became an actor, he was a bar singer, dance instructor, film dubber for years. He even had a band – Blue Sandstorm (蓝色风沙 Lán Sè Fēng Shā).
Huang Bo made his acting debut in 2000, appearing in director Guan Hu (管虎)’s film Get in, and Go (上车, 走吧 Shàng Chē, Zǒu ba). As a young actor, Huang Bo struggled, he had several smalls roles in TV series and very few lines.
In 2006, Huang Bo broke out as star in motion pictures with director Ning Hao (宁浩)‘s low-budget dark comedy film Crazy Stone (疯狂的石头 Fēngkuáng de Shítou), in which he portrayed Heipi (黑皮), a bumbling thief. The film was a smash hit across China, shooting Huang Bo and other cast members to fame overnight.
Huang Bo has since gone on to become one of China’s most popular actors, creating one popular movie role after another – most notably in comedy films Cow (斗牛 Dòu Niú) (2009), which garnered him the Golden Horse Awards for Best Actor, Design of Death (杀生 Shā Shēng) (2012), Lost in Thailand (泰囧 Tài Jiǒng) (2012), Breakup Buddies (心花路放 Xīn Huā Lù Fàng) (2014), Crazy Alien (疯狂的外星人 Fēngkuáng de Wàixīngrén) (2019).
Although largely typecast as a comedic actor, Huang Bo has had great success in dramatic roles. His first dramatic success was for starring in the Huabiao Awards-winning film Dearest (亲爱的 Qīn’ài de) (2014). He played a devastated father whose son was abducted, for which he received praise alongside Best Actor nominations at several film awards.
He later starred in the crime film The Conformist (冰之下 Bīng Zhī Xià) (2017). This performance is repeatedly lauded as one of the best in Huang Bo’s career and for which he earned both the Best Actor at the Shanghai International Film Festival and another Golden Goblet Award.
At only 47 years old, Huang Bo still has a long and successful career waiting for him, but the depth and breadth of his filmography and acting chops are already enough to mark him out as one of the finest and most famous actors in China.
Here are some of Huang Bo’s best performances you don’t want to miss!
- Crazy Stone (疯狂的石头 Fēngkuáng de Shítou)
Crazy Stone is Huang Bo’s breakout film. The 2006 dark comedy film may not be the right one for you to practice Chinese listening as the entire movie is spoken in a mishmash of Chinese dialects, but it’s just so hilarious to watch! The film revolves around an ensemble cast of characters who find themselves at cross-purposes over the fate of a precious jade stone.
- Battle of Memories (记忆大师 Jìyì Dàshī)
In this award-winning science-fiction crime thriller film, Huang Bo portrays Jiang Feng (江丰), a successful writer who undergoes a revolutionary memory restoration procedure to retrieve memories of his failed marriage. However, things go terribly wrong as he begins to have unexplained recollections relating to a series of unsolved murders.
- Crazy Alien (疯狂的外星人Fēngkuáng de Wàixīngrén)
Huang Bo co-starred with top Chinese comedic actors Shen Teng and Xu Zheng in this popular science-fiction comedy film about two brothers hoping to make a fortune from an alien who lands in their lap. A must-watch if you like comedies!
10. Wang Baoqiang (王宝强)
Wang Baoqiang’s success story is so fantastic, you’ll wonder why it hasn’t already been adapted for the cinema.
Wang Baoqiang was born into an impoverished peasant family in Xingtai, Hebei Province in 1982. At age 8, he watched the smash-hit Shaolin Temple (少林寺 Shàolín Sì) (1982) starring Jet Li (李连杰) when the film was shown in his village. This movie inspired the young boy, who was constantly bullied by other kids, to become a Chinese kungfu star one day.
That same year he started martial arts training at the famous Shaolin Temple against his family’s wish.
From the age of 8 to 14, Wang Baoqiang would have to get up at 5 am in winter, and 4 am in summer, running half-marathons and climbing cliffs with 45-degree angles as part of his training. He believed that once he completed the training he could become a film star.
After 6 years Wang Baoqiang hadn’t starred in any films. He decided to head to Beijing and try his luck at the show business with his excellent kungfu skills. He was 14 years old and had only 500 RMB (about 70 US Dollars) in his pocket.
Every morning Wang Baoqiang would wait at the front gate of Beijing Film Studio with others who were attempting to get acting jobs as extras. He did get work as an extra but would only be paid 25 RMB per day (about 3 US Dollars). When the money ran out, he had to work as a laborer on a construction site.
Eventually, at the age of 20, Wang Baoqiang was spotted by director Li Yang (李杨), who gave him his first role as a main character in the independent film Blind Shaft (盲井 Máng Jǐng) (2003).
The film was based on real cases of murder and extortion in a Chinese coal mine. Wang Baoqiang naturally fit the role of a young miner and received the Best New Performer award at Taiwans’ Golden Horse Film Festival as well as two Best Actor Awards in France and Thailand.
Even though the film was not a martial arts film and Wang Baoqiang was not offered the role he dreamed about, this lucky break lead the aspiring actor to more opportunities in the Chinese film industry.
Everything changed when he met iconic director Feng Xiaogang (冯小刚): Wang Baoqiang would star in his 2004 new year film A World Without Thieves (天下无贼 Tiān Xià Wú Zéi), playing opposite big shots in Chinese showbiz including Andy Lau (刘德华), Rene Liu (刘若英), Ge You (葛优) and Li Bingbing (李冰冰). He received several critical awards for his performance as Sha Gen (傻根), a naive village boy. The movie shot Wang Baoqiang to fame overnight.
Following the massive success, Wang Baoqiang solidified his popularity by starring in two military dramas Soldiers Sortie (士兵突击 Shìbīng TūJī) (2006) and My Brother’s Name is Shunliu (我的兄弟叫顺溜 Wǒ de Xiōngdì Jiào Shùnliū) (2009). The TV series had great influence over many aspects of Chinese people’s lives and its value went beyond that of a TV series.
As the leading actor, Wang Baoqiang became one of the most popular actors in China, appearing on the front pages of all major newspapers. And his signature smile was seen on numerous magazine covers and social platforms.
To this day, Wang Baoqiang shows no sign of slowing. Here are some of his best in the last decade.
- Mr. Tree (Hello! 树先生 Shù Xiānsheng)
A satirical yet delightful tale about a village idiot (Wang Baoqiang) who might just be a prophet. Wang Baoqiang won multiple awards for his performance in this 2011 comedy including Best Actor at the Vladivostok International Film Festival in Russia, Asia Pacific Screen Awards, New York Chinese Film Festival, and Italy Asian Film Festival.
- Kung Fu Jungle (一个人的武林Yí Gè Rén de Wǔlín)
Wang Baoqiang ’s Kung Fu Jungle is a real treat for action fans. The Shaolin-trained Chinese star delivers on both the drama and the action here. The best action sequence is left for the final fight, which is staged on a highway where massive, heavy trucks are speeding by. It is breathtaking to watch Wang Baoqiang and Donnie Yen roll and tumble between the vehicles as they attempt to kill each other.
- Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案 Tángrén Jiē Tàn Àn)
In this hilarious comedy-mystery buddy film, Wang Baoqiang plays the role of a bumbling detective named Tang Ren (唐仁) who lives in Chinatown in Bangkok. He teams up with his nephew Qin Feng (秦风) (Liu Haoran), a talented teenager who has astonishing memory and perception, to solve a series of mysterious cases.
11. Xu Zheng (徐峥)
Best known for his acting in comedic roles, Xu Zheng is one of China’s most popular actors, directors, and film producers. His work spans film, television, and theater; his creative range extends from comedy to dark comedy to drama; and his films have had both commercial success and social impact.
Xu Zheng was born in Shanghai in 1972. After graduating from Shanghai Theatre Academy in 1994, he acted on stage for years and came to national prominence with the wacky comedy TV series Sunny Pig (春光灿烂猪八戒 Chūn Guāng Cànlàn Zhū BāJiè) in 2000, in which he starred as Zhu Bajie (猪八戒), a dimwitted pig who wanted to become a human being.
Sunny Piggy received high ratings nationally, paving way for other popular TV and film productions such as Li Wei the Magistrate (李卫当官 Lǐ Wèi Dāng Guān) (2001), Love Through Different Times (穿越时空的爱恋 Chuānyuè Shíkōng de Àiliàn) (2002), Crazy Stone (疯狂的石头 Fēngkuáng de Shítou) (2006), Call for Love (爱情呼叫转移 Àiqíng Hūjiào Zhǔanyí) (2007), and Lost on Journey (人在囧途 Rén Zài Jiǒng Tú) (2010).
Xu Zheng has also been trying his hands at film-making since 2003 and has been massively successful.
In 2012, Lost in Thailand (泰囧 Tài Jiǒng), Xu Zheng’s first hit film, which stars himself and Wang Baoqiang (王宝强) raked in over US$200 million from about 40 million people to become the highest-grossing domestic film in China’s history at the time.
Shot mainly in Thailand, the film caused such a surge in Chinese tourism to the country that the Thai Prime Minister invited Xu Zheng to a private meeting in Bangkok to thank him personally.
Dying to Survive (我不是药神 Wǒ Búshì Yào Shén) (2018), another blockbuster he produced and starred in grossed $453 million and remains one of the highest-grossing films at the Chinese box office today.
Throughout his acting career, Xu Zheng has won over ten critical awards including Best Actor at the Chinese American Film Festival, Changchun Film Festival, and Golden Horse Awards.
Being one of the most influential entertainers in China, Xu Zheng was ranked 2nd by Forbes on its China Celebrity 100 List in 2020.
Let’s take a look at some of Xu Zheng’s best films.
- Lost on Journey (人在囧途 Rén Zài Jiǒng Tú)
This comedy road film is an amusing yet realistic portrayal of the issues prevalent in Chinese society during the chaotic Chunyun (春运) when everyone wants to reunite with their family for the Chinese New Year celebrations. Xu Zheng plays the role of Li Chenggong (李成功), a pompous businessman who is stuck with a naive and gullible migrant worker on his journey. The duo experienced a never-ending streak of bad luck as they try to make their way to Wuhan.
- The Great Hypnotist (催眠大师 Cuīmián Dàshī)
In this mystery thriller, Xu Zheng portrays Dr. Xu Ruining (徐瑞宁), a famous psychiatrist who uses hypnotherapy to treat his patients. However, the seemingly normal hypnotherapy turns into a battle of wills when he tries to treat a feeble-looking woman who claims to see dead people.
- Dying to Survive (我不是药神 Wǒ Búshì Yào Shén)
The 2018 dark comedy film Dying to Survive, which Xu Zheng co-produced and stars in is based on the real-life story of Lu Yong (陆勇), a leukemia patient who was arrested in 2013 for smuggling cheap but unlicensed cancer drugs from India for 1,000 devastated sufferers in China. The film is more than just a box office. It struck a chord among the Chinese public, stirred a national conversation, and accelerated government efforts to lower the cost of cancer drugs.
12. Hu Ge (胡歌)
Hu Ge is one of the finest and beloved Chinese actors in recent years, and it isn’t surprising. He is incredibly handsome, and he has also challenged his talent by playing diverse roles in different genres.
Born in 1982, Hu Ge is a native of Shanghai. He received his first training in performing arts in a local performing arts school when he was a kindergarten kid and became a part-time TV host on Shanghai TV Education Channel at age fourteen. He also appeared in dozens of TV commercials between middle and high school years before being admitted to the prestigious arts institute Shanghai Theatre Academy.
While attending college, Hu Ge rose to prominence portraying Li Xiaoyao (李逍遥), the lead role of wuxia fantasy drama Chinese Paladin (仙剑奇侠传 Xiān Jiàn Qí Xiá Zhuàn) (2005), a TV adaptation of the action RPG The Legend of Sword and Fairy. This series, and several others, made Hu Ge widely popular among young audiences and brought him several performing arts awards.
However, Hu Ge’s acting career was interrupted by a severe car accident in 2006. His assistant died in the crash while he sustained serious facial injuries.
After going through multiple surgeries and almost a year of healing process, he returned to the set of The Legend of Condor Heroes (射雕英雄传 Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn) (2008) where he had left off, playing the iconic role Guo Jing (郭靖).
He was highly praised for his portrayal, then, his next two series, Chinese Paladin 3 (仙剑奇侠传3 Xiān Jiàn Qí Xiá Zhuàn Sān) (2009) and The Myth (神话 Shénhuà) (2010), both became smash hits.
Hu Ge went on to star in popular TV series and films in the 2010s: Xuan-Yuan Sword: Scar of Sky (轩辕剑之天之痕 Xuānyuán Jiàn zhī Tiān zhī Hén), Life Revelations (生活启示录 Shēnghuó Qǐshì Lù), Sound of the Desert (风中传奇 Fēng Zhōng Chuánqí), to name a few.
In 2015, Hu Ge starred in two blockbuster TV dramas – The Disguiser (伪装者 Wěizhuāng Zhě) and Nirvana in Fire (琅琊榜 Lángyá Bǎng). He snagged a double victory by claiming both the Best Actor and the Most Popular Actor award at the Golden Eagle Awards.
Hu Ge is not only an incredible actor but has also launched his singing career! He made his debut as a singer in 2006 and has released three albums so far. He has sung the theme song in many of his TV series and films.
As of 2022, Hu Ge has over 72 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, making him one of the most influential actors in China and the Chinese-speaking world.
Recommended to watch in:
- The Disguiser (伪装者 Wěizhuāng Zhě)
In this 2015 hit espionage drama, Hu Ge portrays Ming Tai (明台), a rich and naive young master of the Ming household, who is trained to become a spy for the KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) to fight Wang Jingwei (汪精卫)’s leadership of Japan’s puppet regime in China. The series was nominated for “Outstanding Drama” at the 30th Flying Apsaras Awards.
- Nirvana in Fire (琅琊榜 Lángyá Bǎng)
After starring in The Disguiser, Hu Ge jumped straight into the lead role Mei Changsu (梅长苏) in the big worldwide hit wuxia drama. Nirvana in Fire was considered a social media phenomenon, generating 3.55 billion posts on Weibo that praised its characters and storyline.
- The Wild Goose Lake 南方车站的聚会 (Nánfāng Chēzhàn de Jùhuì)
The story of the fast-paced manhunt thriller follows Hu Ge’s small-time gangster Zhou Zenong (周泽农), who went into hiding in the town’s shadows after killing a cop by accident and now became the target of both police forces and for-hire mobsters with a handsome prize on his head.
13. Tong Dawei (佟大为)
Born in 1979 in Fushun, Liaoning Province, Tong Dawei is one of the most popular Chinese drama actors of his generation.
After his TV debut in Brother’s Wife (娘嫂 Niáng Sǎo) (1999), he gained attention with his performance in Jade Goddess of Mercy (玉观音 Yù Guānyīn) (2003) in which he played alongside top Chinese actress Sun Li (孙俪). The TV series garnered him Audience’s Choice for TV Drama Actor at the 22nd Golden Eagle Awards.
Following this, Tong Dawei was cast in several supporting roles before his high-profile appearance as Lu Tao (陆涛) in the 2007 smash-hit drama series Struggle (奋斗Fèndòu) based on the popular novel by Shi Kang (石康). Tong Dawei’s character resonates with the thoughts of the young Chinese generation.
Over the years, Tong Dawei has strengthened his popularity by collaborating with top Chinese film directors such as John Woo (吴宇森), Zhang Yimou (张艺谋), and Peter Chan (陈可辛), and some of the best actors in the industry including Christian Bale, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Huang Xiaoming (黄晓明), Zhang Ziyi (章子怡), and Zhao Wei (赵薇). In 2012, he received the Most Popular Actor Award at the Chinese Film Media Awards in recognition of his performance.
Many of Tong Dawei’s projects challenge the topics of unequal power in relationships and traditional gender norms in China, for example, Lost in Beijing (苹果 Píngguǒ) (2007), Dearest (亲爱的 Qīn’ài de) (2014), and Tiger Mom (虎妈猫爸 Hǔ Mā Māo Bà) (2015), where Dawei broke patriarchal stereotypes by playing a supportive husband and father involved in primary childcare.
More recently, Tong Dawei had a starring role in the popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma (小舍得 Xiǎo Shèdé) 2021, the third installment of the “Little” franchise.
- Struggle (奋斗 Fèndòu)
Watch Tong Dawei’s career-defining performance as he portrays Lu Tao (陆涛), an aspiring young man fresh out of college in this 2007 mega-hit television series. The plot follows Lu Tao and his friends’ aspirations and struggles. Their challenges exemplify some of the life choices faced by China’s Post-80’s generation after graduation from college.
- Flowers of War (金陵十三钗 Jīnlíng Shí Sān Chāi)
In this Golden Globe Awards-nominated war epic, Tong Dawei starred alongside Christian Bale and top Chinese actress Ni Ni (倪妮). To better portray the male lead Major Li, who died as a hero to save a lost friend during China’s anti-Japanese war, Tong Dawei underwent military-like training and lost 16 pounds. The film was the highest-grossing Chinese language film of 2011. And Tong Dawei became the first Chinese actor to walk the red carpet of the Golden Globe Awards.
- Tiger Mom (虎妈猫爸 Hǔ Mā Māo Bà)
Tong Dawei reunited with Zhao Wei (赵薇) in the 2015 television series Tiger Mom, which focuses on the tiger parent phenomenon of modern Chinese society. Tong Dawei won Best Actor at the 17th Huading Awards for playing the lead Luo Su (罗素), a liberal “Cat Dad” in opposition to the “Tiger Mom” portrayed by Zhao Wei.
14. Deng Chao (邓超)
Deng Chao is one of the most influential names in the Chinese film industry. Throughout the last two decades, he has become all four of an internet fixation, a box office star, a popular singer, and a successful director.
Deng Chao was born in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province in 1979 into a middle-class family. From a very young age, he had a dream of becoming a superstar. He attended the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing where he excelled in drama and performing arts.
Deng Chao started acting right from his academy days. He got his first break in stage play Cui Hua, Serve Suancai (翠花上酸菜 Cuìhuā Shàng Suāncài) when he was in his third year of study.
Deng Chao then segued into an acting career on screen, appearing on the TV series The Joy of Spring (欢乐青春 Huānlè Qīngchūn) (2001) and the film When Love Loses Its Memory (当爱情失去记忆 Dāng Àiqíng Shī Qù Jìyì) (2002).
Deng Chao first attracted serious critical attention with his performance as the Shunzhi Emperor (顺治皇帝) in the period drama series The Young Emperor (少年天子 Shàonián TiānZǐ) (2003), and he went on to star in several hit series, including Happiness as Flowers (幸福像花儿一样 Xìngfú Xiàng huā’ér yíyàng) (2005) and Yang Kangxi (少年康熙 Shàonián Kāngxī) (2005).
These successes won him opportunities to star in some big-budget movies, including renowned director Feng Xiaogang’s film Assembly (集结号 Jíjié Hào) (2007), Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (狄仁杰与通天帝国 Dí Rénjié Yǔ Tōng Tiān Dìguó) (2010) by Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark, and American Dreams in China (中国合伙人 Zhōngguó Héhuǒ Rén) (2013) by Peter Chan.
Deng Chao reached a summit of his profession with his performance in The Dead End (烈日灼心 Liè Rì Zhuó Xīn) (2015), which garnered him a Golden Rooster Award as Best Actor. In a short time, he has established himself as one of the finest Chinese actors of his generation.
Due to his success on the big screen, CBN Weekly named him the third most commercially valuable celebrity in China and the most lucrative actor on China’s big screen.
In addition to acting, he made his directorial debut in 2014’s The Breakup Guru (分手大师 Fēnshǒu Dàshī), a romantic comedy movie starring himself and Yang Mi (杨幂).
Deng Chao has been married to top Chinese actress Sun Li (孙俪) since 2010, and the couple has a son and a daughter.
Here are some of Deng Chao’s notable films in recent years.
- The Mermaid (美人鱼 Měi Rén Yú)
In this romantic comedy fantasy film, Deng Chao plays a playboy businessman who falls in love with a mermaid that had been sent to assassinate him. The Mermaid broke the box office sales record for a romantic drama film and became the ninth-highest grossing Chinese film to date.
- Duckweed (乘风破浪 Chéng Fēng Pò Làng)
The film shows a strained father-son relationship and how they both resolve the issues in their relationship. Deng Chao plays the role of the son Xu Tailang (徐太浪), a rebellious car racer who hates his father but eventually develops gratitude towards him. This Deng Chao starred movie grossed more than one billion Chinese Yuan within a month of its release.
- Looking Up (银河补习班 Yínhé Bǔxí Bān)
Looking Up is a touching story about a father’s close and pedagogical relationship with his son. The narrative stretches from the son’s unconventional childhood to his meditative moments while in space as an astronaut. Deng Chao stars as the father.
15. Wen Zhang (文章)
Wen Zhang was first noticed when he appeared in the youth drama Romantic Life (与青春有关的日子 Yǔ Qīngchūn Yǒu Guān de Rìzi) (2006), which was adapted from Wang Shuo (王朔)’s popular novel Playing for Thrills (玩的就是心跳 Wán de Jiù Shì Xīn Tiào).
And it didn’t take long for him to gain fame nationwide. In 2007, he starred along with Tong Dawei (佟大为), Ma Yili (马伊琍) and Li Xiaolu (李小璐) in the iconic urban romance drama Struggle (奋斗 Fèndòu). The series gained unexpected acclaim from China’s post-80’s generation audiences and was seen as a milestone in Chinese TV production for its innovative break-away from the traditional style of Chinese television drama.
Dwelling Narrowness (蜗居 Wō Jū) (2008) brought another hit title for the young talent the next year. The series, which focuses on the ongoing real estate bubble in China and the impact it has on youths and their ambitions, was a major hit with the audiences. It sparked heated discussion among youths online and attracted attention from foreign media sources.
Since those times Wen Zhang has also starred in many critically panned box office hits, most notably, Ocean Heaven (海洋天堂 Hǎi Yáng Tiān Táng) (2010), Love Is Not Blind (失恋33天 Shī Liàn Sān Shí Sān Tiān) (2011), Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (西游·降魔篇 Xī Yóu · Xiáng Mó Piān) (2013), Gone with the Bullets (一步之遥 Yí Bù Zhī Yáo) (2014).
He is the recipient of several major awards, including a Hundred Flower Award for Best Actor, and many more nominations.
Being one of the most popular actors in China, Wen Zhang’s personal life has always received significant media attention. His marriage with top Chinese actress Ma Yili (马伊琍), who is eight years older, in 2008 and a 2014 exposure of an affair with actress Yao Di (姚笛) both smashed Chinese social media records.
Well, let’s put that aside and take a look at Wen Zhang’s amazing acting skills.
- Love is Not Blind (失恋33天 Shī Liàn Sān Shí Sān Tiān)
The award-winning romantic comedy film tells the story of a heartbroken wedding planner, who after a painful split from her boyfriend for seven years, finds surprising help from a colleague she usually loathes – Wang Xiaojian (王小贱), portrayed by Wen Zhang. The film is a huge commercial success and garnered him Best Actor at the 31st Hundred Flower Awards.
- Little Daddy (小爸爸 Xiǎo Bàba)
The touching drama series Little Daddy, which was directed by Wen Zhang himself, tells the story of a young, sell-centered Beijing-based car mechanic Yu Guo (雨果) (portrayed by Wen Zhang), who discovers that his estranged ex-girlfriend has died and left him with a son in the USA, of whose existence he was not aware. The sudden arrival of the boy drove him out of his selfish world into a journey of love.
- Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (西游·降魔篇 Xī Yóu · Xiáng Mó Piān)
Wen Zhang starred as the young Tang Sanzang (唐三藏) in Stephen Chow’s fantasy blockbuster Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which broke records to become the highest-grossing Chinese movie at the time. The film is a loose comedic reinterpretation of the 16th-century novel Journey to the West (西游记 Xī Yóu Jì).
16. Shen Teng (沈腾)
In the past few years, Shen Teng, a milestone actor of Chinese comedy, has become the driving force for audiences to enter the cinema in China.
Born in 1979 in Heilongjiang Province, Shen Teng is considered by many the best comedic actor in China today.
Known for his bold and energetic performance, Shen Teng spent the first decade of his career as a stage actor collaborating with Mahua FunAge Studio after graduating from the Drama Performance Department of the P.L.A Academy of Art in 2001.
Despite his not-so-impressive appearance, the audience always notices his existence immediately whenever he starts talking on stage. He was promoted to director position the second year and began to direct his own plays.
Along with Mahua FunAge, Shen Teng gradually became a well-known name in the field of stage comedy-drama domestically, even performing on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala – the world’s most-watched television program a couple of times.
However, the influence of stage play is limited. Shen Teng’s dream didn’t stop there, as he began to try his hands in the field of films.
Fortunately, the first film he starred in – Goodbye Mr. Loser (夏洛特烦恼 Xià Luò Tè Fánnǎo) (2015), with a cast of largely non-film comedians, was a gigantic sleeper hit in China and was fueled by explosive word of mouth. As the leading character, Shen Teng won the Gold Aries Award for Best Actor at the Macao International Film Festival and landed on the iconic spot in China’s entertainment billboards overnight.
Since then, Shen Teng has starred in a number of box-office sensations including Heart for Heaven (一念天堂 Yí Niàn Tiāntáng), Never Say Die (羞羞的铁拳 Xiūxiū de Tiě Quán), Hello Mr. Billionaire (西虹市首富 Xīhóng Shì Shǒu Fù), Pegasus (飞驰人生 Fēi Chí Rénshēng), Crazy Alien (疯狂的外星人 Fēngkuáng de Wàixīngrén), Hi, Mom (你好, 李焕英 Nǐhǎo, Lǐ Huànyīng), and Four Seas (四海 Sì Hǎi).
These top-selling movies have garnered Shen Teng many more awards and nominations and made the actor an entertainment icon in the Chinese-speaking world.
Without further ado, let’s check out some of Shen Teng’s best performances!
- Goodbye Mr. Loser (夏洛特烦恼 Xià Luò Tè Fánnǎo)
In this 2015 blockbuster comedy film adapted from Mahua FunAge’s stage play of the same name, Shen Teng portrays a middle-aged loser who is transported back to his high school years to fix his mistakes. The film contains many references to Chinese popular culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including cameo appearances and depictions of well-known pop stars of that era.
- Never Say Die (羞羞的铁拳 Xiūxiū de Tiě Quán)
The comedy film Never Say Die which is adapted from the popular stage drama of the same name thrashed Jackie Chan’s Kungfu Yoga (功夫瑜伽 Gōngfū Yújiā), and Donnie Yen and Andy Lau’s Chasing the Dragon (追龙 Zhuī Lóng) in 2007 and became China’s biggest comedy ever. It tells the story of a male boxer who switches bodies by accident with a female journalist after the two are struck by lightning. Shen Teng portrays Zhang Zhuyu (张茱萸), a self-proclaimed kungfu master who trains the two to unearth a big conspiracy within the boxing world.
- Hi, Mom (你好, 李焕英 Nǐhǎo, Lǐ Huànyīng)
The 2021 comic fantasy film Hi, Mom has grossed over US$822 million at the box office, making it the highest-grossing film of the year, and the second-highest-grossing Chinese-language film of all time in China. Adapted from a popular TV sketch, it tells the story of a young Chinese woman who travels back in time to the 1980s and befriends her late mother. Shen Teng plays the male lead Shen Guanglin (沈光林), factory manager’s privileged son with whom the girl wants to set her mother up in the hope of giving her a better life than she had the first time around.
17. Zhang Yi (张译)
You may have seen him most recently as the lead in Zhang Yimou’s latest spy thriller film Cliff Walkers (悬崖之上 Xuán Yá Zhī Xià), but this was by no means Zhang Yi’ first major role.
Zhang Yi was born in 1978 in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province. He has always wanted to become a newscaster since childhood, yet was unsuccessful in his attempts to attend the Beijing Broadcasting Institute (currently named the Communication University of China) for various reasons.
He developed an interest in stage acting after enrolling in an acting class at the Harbin Theatre Academy at his family’s suggestion and was later accepted by the Beijing Comrade-in-Arm Modern Drama Troupe at age 20.
There, he began making appearances on stage and screen, however, none of Zhang Yi’s performances struck a chord in the audience until he starred in the 2007 hit drama Soldier Sortie (士兵突击 Shìbīng Tūjī). His powerful performance as Shi Jin (史今), commander of Section 3, in the series left a deep impression on the audiences.
Two years later, after portraying a limping young student-turned-soldier named Meng Fanliao (孟烦了) in the popular military war drama My Chief and My Regiment (我的团长我的团 Wǒ de Tuánzhǎng Wǒ de Tuán), Zhang Yi garnered critical acclaim and won his first acting award at China Video Awards.
In 2012, Zhang Yi’s popularity increased tremendously with his portrayal of Shi Xiaomeng (石小猛), a poor country guy dreaming to become successful in China’s capital city, in the smash-hit TV series Beijing Love Story (北京爱情故事 Běijīng Àiqíng Gùshì) co-starring top Chinese actress Tong Liya (佟丽娅).
Zhang Yi has continued to star in many blockbuster films and TV series since then and has become one of the best actors in China today.
Let’s take a moment here to admire Zhang Yi’s incredible acting skills in these high-profile projects.
- Dearest (亲爱的 Qīn’ài de)
Zhang Yi co-starred with Zhao Wei (赵薇), Huang Bo (黄渤), and Tong Dawei (佟大为) in this 2014 feature film on kidnapping in China. Zhang Yi won Best Supporting Actor at the 30th Golden Rooster Awards for his acting as a father desperate to find his abducted son.
- Operation Red Sea (红海行动 Hónghǎi Xíngdòng)
Zhang Yi’s most commercially successful film. The 2018 blockbuster action war film is based on the evacuation of foreign nationals and almost 600 Chinese citizens from Yemen’s southern port of Aden in the 2015 Yemeni Civil War. Zhang Yi portrays Yang Rui (杨锐), team leader of the 8-person Jiaolong Assault Team deployed for the mission. The film has grossed $579 million, making it the sixth-highest-grossing film ever in China.
- The Sacrifice (金刚川 Jīngāng Chuān)
This 2020 war drama film unfolds a little-known chapter of history above the surging Geumgang River at the final stage of the Korean War. Zhang Yi plays the lead second lieutenant Zhang Fei (张飞) of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army in this film.
18. Li Yifeng (李易峰)
Li Yifeng had his start in showbiz through the 2007 talent show My Hero (加油! 好男儿 Jiāyóu！Hǎo Nán’ér) on Dragon TV. Though he finished only in eighth place, he was the most talked-about contestant throughout the competition and naturally won the Most Popular Contestant award. He debuted as a singer in the same year, releasing his first EP Four Leaf Clover (四叶草 Sì Yè Cǎo).
It didn’t take him long to transfer from a singing career into acting. In 2009, Li Yifeng debuted with the TV drama series The Prince of Tennis 2 (加油! 网球王子II Jiāyóu! Wǎngqiú Wángzǐ Èr).
Since that time he has starred in a range of Chinese dramas and movies: Bounty Hunter (赏金猎人 Shǎng Jīn Lièrén) for the fans of the suspense genre, The Return of a Princess (千金归来 Qiānjīn Guīlái) for melodrama lovers, Sunny Happiness (幸福最晴天 Xìngfú Zuì Qíng Tiān) and Lovesick (恋爱恐慌症 Lian’ài Kǒnghuāng Zhèng) (2011) for those who want to run away from the real world and dive into a romantic comedy.
In 2014 his iconic role in Swords of Legends (古剑奇谭 Gǔ Jiàn Qí Tán), where he portrayed the protagonist Baili Tusu (百里屠苏), sky-rocketed his popularity!
The good-looking and talented actor is also incredibly famous for his acting in another popular drama, The Lost Tomb (盗墓笔记 Dào Mù Bǐjì). There, Li Yifeng starred as the lead role of Wu Xie (吴邪). The series was so successful in China that he was named the “Most Commercially Valuable Celebrity” by CBN Weekly in 2015.
Here are some of Li Yifeng’s career-defining performances! Take a look!
- Swords of Legends (古剑奇谭 Gǔ Jiàn Qí Tán)
In this fantasy wuxia drama set during the Tang Dynasty, Li Yifeng portrays a young and quiet swordsman name Baili Tusu who is infected by the aura of an ancient demonic sword known as the Sword of Burning Solitude after his whole tribe was massacred. After ten years of training, he embarked on the journey to search for the murderer who killed his family and destroyed his village.
- Sparrow (麻雀 Máquè)
The 2016 spy war drama starring Li Yifeng and top Chinese actress Zhou Dong Yu (周冬雨) was a smash hit in China. It’s the highest-rated war drama even to this day with a peak rating of 2.486 and 11 billion views online. Li Yifeng won the Best Actor award at the China TV Golden Eagle Award for his performance as the titular character, an undercover agent for the Communist Party, code-named “Sparrow”.
- Animal World (动物世界 Dòngwù Shìjiè)
Starring Li Yifeng, Michael Douglas, and Zhou Dongyu, the 2018 Chinese action-adventure film is based on the manga Kaiji by Nobuyuki Fukumoto. Li Yifeng plays the lead role of Zheng Kaisi (郑开司), a young man stuck in a dead-end job with millions of debts who dreams of slaying monsters and gets sucked into a deadly game of rock-paper-scissors.
19. Yang Yang (杨洋)
Yang Yang is an internationally well-known Chinese actor. Starting his career at the age of 16, now he is one of the most popular and wanted, and most expensive actors in the Chinese film industry!
Referred to as one of the first “traffic stars” in China’s new digitally-empowered fandom culture, the handsome Chinese star started his acting career playing the lead role of Jia Baoyu (贾宝玉) in the Chinese period drama The Dream of Red Mansions (红楼梦 Hóng lóu mèng) (2010), for which he won the Best New Actor at the BQ Celebrity Score Awards.
Yang Yang continued to build up his filmography, featuring in other highly popular series and films such as Legend of Goddess Luo (新洛神 Xīn Luò Shén) (2013), The Four (少年四大名捕 Shàonián Sì Dà Míng Bǔ) (2015), The Lost Tomb (盗墓笔记 Dào Mù Bǐjì) (2015), and The Left Ear (左耳 Zuǒ Ěr) (2015).
He went on to star in the youth romance drama Love O2O (微微一笑很倾城 Wēiwēi yí Xiào Hěn Qīngchéng) based on Gu Man (顾漫)’s novel of the same name. The drama was an international hit and is the most-watched Chinese modern drama till today, with 25.2 billion views online.
Following the airing of Love O2O, Yang Yang experienced a huge surge in popularity and successfully broke into the mainstream.
Yang Yang has also played the lead role in I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过 Cóng Nǐ de Quán Shìjiè Lù guò) (2016), which is recognized as the biggest box-office hit for Chinese romance films. He was hence named as one of the top 10 Chinese celebrities with the most commercial value by CBN Weekly.
In 2016, Yang Yang became the first artist to be featured on the China Post postage stamp, and he has a wax statue displayed at Madame Tussauds Shanghai as well as in Beijing.
Here are more details on some of Yang Yang’s most popular works:
- The Lost Tomb (盗墓笔记 Dào Mù Bǐjì)
Yang Yang next starred with Li Yifeng in the hit action-adventure drama The Lost Tomb based on the internet novel of the same name. The Lost Tomb was the most-watched web drama of 2015 with over 2.8 billion views, and Yang Yang gained acclaim from novel fans and audience for his portrayal of Zhang Qiling (张起灵), a mysterious character who rarely speaks and always seems to be in a daze.
- Love O2O (微微一笑很倾城 Wēiwēi yí Xiào Hěn Qīngchéng)
Adapted from Gu Man (顾漫)’s popular novel of the same name, Love O2O tells the story of how a young gaming expert named Xiao Nai (肖奈) (Yang Yang) fell in love with his in-game wife Bei Weiwei (贝微微), an adorable but dorky college girl. As history unfolds, the couple and their friends go through many adventures together in the game and real life.
- You Are My Glory (你是我的荣耀 Nǐ Shì Wǒ de Róngyào)
Another adaptation from Gu Man’s popular novel of the same name, the 2021 urban romance drama tells the story of an aerospace engineer Yu Tu (于途), portrayed by Yang Yang, after his unexpected reunion with his former high school classmate, the now shining actress Qiao Jingjing (乔晶晶) (Dilraba Dilmurat) in a mobile game.
20. Liu Haoran (刘昊然)
You may not have heard of Liu Haoran, or Turbo Liu as he’s called outside of China, but he’s already seen as one of the prominent faces of the new generation for Chinese cinema.
Born in 1997, Liu Haoran is the youngest Best Actor nominee in the history of the Hundred Flowers Awards, which is one of the three most prestigious film awards in the Chinese-speaking world.
Trained at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, one of China’s most prestigious performing arts institutes, Liu Haoran’s boy-next-door appeal and acting skills are wildly appreciated in the country. Some foreign media outlets dubbed him the “Chinese Timothée Chalamet”.
Liu Haoran was born in Pingdingshan, in the eastern province of Henan to an ordinary middle-class family. At the age of 11, he was admitted into the middle school branch of the Beijing Dance Academy and moved to the capital city all alone to attend boarding school. As a result, he is fiercely independent and incredibly mature for his age.
At age 16, he was discovered by director Chen Sicheng (陈思诚) via open casting for the role of Song Ge (宋歌) in his directorial debut film, Beijing Love Story (北京爱情故事 Běijīng Àiqíng Gùshì). The film was an instant success, earning Liu Haoran a Best New Actor nomination at the 2014 Beijing College Student Film Festival.
Following the success, Chen Sichen continued to cast Liu Haoran in his second film Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案 Tángrén Jiē Tàn Àn) (2015) opposite Wang Baoqiang. The film was a gigantic hit, and Liu Haoran’s performance as Qin Feng (秦风) catapulted him into superstardom. The 2018 sequel, in which he reprised the role, is now ranked sixth in the entire Chinese box office history, grossing over US$544 million worldwide.
Since then, Liu Haoran has left many memorable roles and performances on the big and small screens such as in Legend of the Demon Cat (妖猫转 Yāo Māo Zhuàn), The Twins (双生 Shuāng Shēng), My People, My Country (我和我的祖国 Wǒ Hé Wǒde Zǔguó), Four Seas (四海 Sì Hǎi), and Nirvana in Fire 2 (琅琊榜之风起长林 Lángyá Bǎng Zhī Fēng Qǐ Chánglín), winning multiple film awards and establishing himself as one of the best actors in China among the younger generation.
But hey, the fast-rising star of Chinese cinema is only 24 years old and this is just the beginning of the long and successful career awaiting him!
Wanna see this young talent’s performance? Check out these movies!
- Legend of the Demon Cat (妖猫传 Yāo Māo Zhuàn)
Liu Haoran lost about 10KG in three weeks as he was trying to land the lead role of Bai Long (白龙) in director Chen Kaige’s epic ghost film The Legend of the Demon Cat (2017). He’s been able to maintain his weight since. This proved to be a turning point in his career, as the loss of baby fat showed that he had the potential for more mature roles and a much broader acting career than he was originally typecast.
- Coffee Or Tea? (一点就到家 Yì Diǎn Jiù Dào Jiā)
A celebration of youth, friendship, and finding your place in the world, the popular comedy film starring Liu Haoran revolves around three big-city guys who travel to a remote, ancient village of Yunnan to escape their problems and chase their wildest dreams.
That’s it! The list of the best, most popular, and most influential actors in China whose movies continue to have a lasting impact on cinema! So, tell me, who is your favorite Chinese actor now?
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