Cheat Sheet is your first step to Chinese cultural literacy. In this miniseries we give you all the basics on all of China's contemporary culture makers, from directors, to writers, to visual artists.
You're surrounded by these movie stars every day. They're at the cinema, on the TV, their images are on the subway platform, selling cosmetics and high fashion. They're cultural touchstones in China today, and you probably don't know who the hell half of them are. These are the ones you need to know. Once again, bringing you just enough info so you sound like you know what you're talking about, it's the Cheat Sheet: Mainland Movie Actress Edition.
Zhou Xun (周迅)
Zhou Xun is the only mainland actress who has won the highest recognitions from both inside and outside the Mainland: the Golden Rooster Awards, Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, and The Hong Kong Film Awards. Suffice it to say, Zhou has got some serious acting chops.
Her breakthrough work was Suzhou River, in which she played two entirely different characters in romantic relationships with the same man. It got banned in China. She starred in another banned movie as well, Balzac and the Chinese Seamstress.
Zhou finally made her Hollywood debut in 2012 with Cloud Atlas. She's quite a media darling, too, having been dubbed by CNN as "China’s queen of quirk" and mentioned in the news network's list of Asia’s 25 greatest actors of all time.
Like seemingly every famous Mainland actress, she has also branched out with a singing career and has a few albums under her belt. Her most recent work is Red Sorghum, a TV adaption of the famous Mo Yan novel. You can stream it here.
Tang Wei (汤唯)
Tang Wei's career began in fits and starts. At the outset, she had been a model, a stage actress, and even a beauty queen. But she didn't get much attention until she got a starring role in Lust, Caution, Ang Lee's steamy story of love and espionage in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Her standout performance as the spy and seductress Wong Chia Chi earned her much critical acclaim. Her deeply explicit nude scenes, unfortunately, earned her a two-year suspension in China, during which time she was forbidden from acting or celebrity endorsements.
She made good use of the time off, studying theatrical performance and English in the UK, and then got herself a Hong Kong passport. In 2014, she married Korean director Kim Tae-yong, who worked with her on the 2011 film Late Autumn. Tang’s latest work is The Golden Era, in which she plays the famous Chinese author Xiao Hong. You might also recognize Tang's face from ubiquitous ads throughout China, endorsing products from Pantene shampoo to SK-II cosmetics.
Zhao Wei (赵薇)
Zhao Wei became a pop culture icon after playing the leading role in the record-breaking TV show Princess Pearl. It was a unique, groundbreaking female character for Chinese television. Her career continued to thrive after she played the lead role in another popular television series, Romance in the Rain. After that, she appeared in several commercial Chinese cinematic releases, like Chinese Odyssey, Red Cliff, and the Painted Skin series (opposite Zhou Xun).
In 2013, she made her directorial debut with So Young. It hit 700 million rmb at the box office, making her the first female Chinese director to gross over a hundred million on opening weekend. The following year, she played in the critically acclaimed Dearest, a true story about a countrywoman who accidentally becomes the mother of an abducted child.
Yao Chen (姚晨):
In the past few years, Chinese e-commerce websites Yihaodian and Ganji managed to plaster Yao Chen's face in nearly every Shanghai metro station. Remember this incessant aural assault from a few years back? That's her.
But don't hate the player; hate the game. She's the real article and is wildly popular in China. Last year, she made TIME's 100 most influential people list. Yao made her first big splash in 2005 with the low budget historical comedy series My Own Swordsman. By 2008 she was cast in the spy series Lurk. This got Yao some critical acclaim and some cred as a serious actress.
Anyone who follows her on Weibo knows that she’s not your typical Chinese beauty either. She was an early adopter of the social networking site, and rather than posting duck-faced selfies like many of her peers, Yao used it as a soapbox for expressing strong opinions about current events and society. Her honest, down-to-earth sentiments got her the largest following on Weibo for a spell.
Her filmography is comparatively scant, but her 2013 action film Firestorm might be worth checking out. Her most recent work, Divorce Lawyers, in which she plays a powerful lawyer unwillingly involved in an affair, became one of the most popular TV shows in 2014, too.
Zhang Ziyi (章子怡)
If you don't know this face, please come out from under the rock you've been living under for the past 15 years and join the rest of humanity. Zhang Ziyi is arguably the most recognizable actress in China.
Zhang’s breakout work was in director Zhang Yimou's 1999 film, The Road Home. Her status as a "Mou Girl" (谋女郎, a phrase to describe young lead actresses in Zhang Yimou’s movies) became official. Zhang achieved international stardom with her role as the feisty Jen Yu in Ang Lee's big-budget film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. From there, she landed major roles in big Hollywood productions like Rush Hour 2, Hero, 2046, Memoirs of a Geisha. Her most recent work is The Grandmaster, in which she plays Gong Er, a female martial artist who falls in love with legendary kung-fu master Ip Man.
A bit of juicy celeb gossip for you: Zhang’s current boyfriend is this dark and brooding rock star named Wang Feng. Wang confessed his affections for Zhang during a 2013 concert and the Chinese media and internet was all aflutter.
Fan Bingbing (范冰冰)
China first got a glimpse of a young Fan Bingbing in the late 90's, when she appeared in the classic television series Princess Pearl. In the early 2000's, her striking looks got her major roles in marginal mass-audience Chinese films like Cell Phone (2003), The Twins Effect II (2004), and A Battle of Wits (2006). Meanwhile, her face was plastered on buses and billboards all over China, advertising everything from cosmetics to flat-screen TVs.
In 2007, though, she turned a corner with a role in the controversial, low-budget drama Lost in Beijing. In it she plays a massage parlor worker who gets impregnated by her boss and soon becomes a bargaining chip between her lower-class boyfriend and the wealthy father of her illegitimate child. The film's explicit nature was deemed too hot for China, and the film was eventually banned. And there is nothing like being in a banned film to boost your acting career.
Hollywood's growing cooperation with China's film industry has been good to Ms. Fan as well, with a minor role in 2013's Iron Man 3. Last year, she inched ever closer to the Hollywood limelight as the badass mutant Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It's clearly paid off. For the past two years, she's been at the top of Forbes' China Celebrity list, beating out megastars like Andy Lau and Jay Chou.
Fun fact: Fan recently starred in the big-budget TV series The Empress of China, but the program was cancelled in late last year due to the racy, low-cut Tang dynasty costumes she wore. Shortly thereafter, the show returned and to television with Fan's cleavage cropped out of the picture. Viewers were pissed.
Li Bingbing (李冰冰)
Li Bingbing's career trajectory has closely mirrored that of Fan Bingbing, and for obvious reasons, they're often mistaken for each other. Filmmaker and insufferable douchebag Brett Ratner once even made the mistake publicly on his Twitter account.
But unlike Fan, Li tends to play stronger female characters. Her career also started in the late 90s with major roles on TV series, like the hit show Young Bao Qingtian, in which she played a heroine with fierce kung-fu skills. She was the lead actress in 2011’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, opposite Hugh Jackman. One of her best works, however, is the 2009 spy thriller The Message. More recently, she's appeared in Hollywood blockbusters, like Resident Evil: Retribution and Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Sun Li (孙俪)
Local girl made good, Sun Li and her husband Deng Chao (邓超) can be seen frequently in ads around town. They became well known for both appearing in the popular TV show Happiness as Flowers in 2005, playing a couple, and got hitched in real life in 2011. Throughout her career, Sun Li has appeared in mostly quality shows like Romantic Life (2004), Drawing Sword and the mainland remake of Hong Kong’s Once Upon a Time in Shanghai. In 2011, she played the female lead: Zhen Huan in the hit local show Empresses in the Palace. It achieved major success in both the Mainland and overseas, securing her an Emmy nomination in 2014.
Gao Yuanyuan (高圆圆)
Gao got recognized after an appearance in a television commercial. In spite of no formal dramatic training, her enthralling innocent look made a strong first impression on directors. One of her earlier films, Beijing Bicycle (2001), was the winner of the Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin Film Festival.
Since then, though, she's appeared more often in romantic comedies and more commercially viable films. In 2002, The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, a popular TV series adapted from a famous novel by Jin Yong, exposed her to an even wider audience. With the help of the Nanjing Massacre-themed film City of Life and Death (2007), Gao managed to shake the "pure and innocent" persona she had become known for and rose to ever greater fame, but with fame also came a severe case of depression. In recent years, Gao has opted for lighter fare, mostly chick flicks.
Yang Ying, a.k.a. Angelababy, was born in Shanghai but later moved to Hong Kong to develop her career. She got an early start, acting in commercials and modeling as a cover girl for teen magazines. She soon became a fashion icon, especially popular among teenagers.
She started her film career in 2009, playing mainly supporting roles in historical fantasy dramas and chick flicks that don’t require much talent to pull off, like 2009's Hot Summer Days, 2011's A Simple Life, and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, and, most recently, the kung-fu blockbuster Rise of the Legend.
Nevertheless, according to Tencent Finance News, she's quite an earner, grossing several hundred million rmb at the box office. She's recently diversified her brand as well, with a chain of cafes called Baby Cafe. She’s currently in a highly publicized relationship with Mainland leading man Huang Xiaoming.