The Most Influential Chinese Actresses of All Time

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Last Updated on December 20, 2023 by China Underground

Screen Queens: The Most Influential Chinese and Hongkongese Actresses in Film History

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Chinese cinema, with its origins in the early 20th century, has evolved through various historical and cultural phases, each marked by distinctive storytelling styles and cinematic techniques. In this journey, actresses have played a pivotal role, not only in reflecting the changing societal landscapes but also in shaping the artistic identity of Chinese films. Their performances, ranging from the silent film era’s emotive subtlety to the modern era’s complex narratives, offer a window into the diverse facets of China’s rich cultural tapestry. As we trace the development of this vibrant industry, it becomes evident how these actresses have contributed to both the national cinematic heritage and its global resonance. The careers of these fifteen actresses, spanning different periods of Chinese film history, illustrate a progression of themes, styles, and representations, mirroring the broader transformations within the Chinese society and its cinematic expression. Their works stand as milestones, marking the evolution of film as a medium in China, and their legacies continue to influence new generations of filmmakers and audiences alike.

Top 15 Chinese Actresses of All Time

Ruan Lingyu (阮玲玉):

Love and Duty
Love and Duty

A luminary of the silent film era, Ruan Lingyu, often hailed as the “Greta Garbo of China,” made an indelible mark in the 1920s and 1930s. Her performances in classics like “The Goddess” (神女), “New Women” (新女性), and “Love and Duty” (恋爱与义务) showcased her profound emotional depth. Ruan’s life, marked by both fame and personal tragedy, culminated in her untimely demise at 24, leaving a lasting legacy in Chinese cinema.

Zhou Xuan (周璇):

Zhou xuan
Zhou Xuan

An icon of the 1930s to 1950s Shanghai cinema, Zhou Xuan’s talent transcended acting, making her a renowned singer. Her memorable roles in “Street Angel” (马路天使), “The Wandering Songstress” (天涯歌女), and “Hua Mulan” (花木兰) are celebrated for their emotional resonance. Zhou’s contribution to film and music solidified her status as a cultural symbol in China.

Lin Dai (林黛):

Representing the golden era of the 1950s and 1960s, Lin Dai, a star of the Shaw Brothers Studio, was lauded for her versatile acting skills. Her performances in films like “Diau Charn” (刁蛮公主), “Love Without End” (不了情), and “The Blue and the Black” (蓝与黑) demonstrated a remarkable range, from lighthearted roles to tragic figures. Her sudden passing at a young age added to her legendary status.

Nancy Kwan (关家蒨):

Nancy-Kwan-and-Bruce-Lee
Nancy Kwan, Bruce Lee and Sharon Tate

Nancy Kwan gained recognition in the 1960s, starting with “The World of Suzie Wong” (苏西黄的世界) and “Flower Drum Song” (花鼓歌). Her performances broke racial barriers in Hollywood and challenged stereotypical portrayals of Asian women in cinema. Kwan’s influence extended beyond her acting, contributing significantly to the visibility of Asian actors in Western films.

Law Lan (罗兰):

Law Lan, also known as Helena Law, is a veteran Hong Kong actress renowned for her roles in horror films and television dramas. She is widely recognized for her portrayal of eerie and supernatural characters, notably in the “Troublesome Night” (阴阳路) series. Law’s extensive career in the entertainment industry spans several decades, making her a familiar and respected figure in Hong Kong cinema and television.

Michelle Yeoh (杨紫琼):

Image from the movie "Everything Everywhere All at Once"
Everything, Everywhere, All At Once © 2022 AGBO − All right reserved.

Michelle Yeoh, a Malaysian actress of Chinese descent, has been a prominent figure in both Chinese and Hollywood cinemas since the 1990s. Her roles in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (卧虎藏龙), “Tomorrow Never Dies,” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” showcase her unique blend of martial arts skills and acting prowess. Yeoh’s international success has made her one of the most recognized Asian actresses in the world. Recently she also starred in the criticalm acclaimed movie Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.

Carina Lau (劉嘉玲):

Carina Lau has left an indelible mark on Hong Kong cinema with her captivating performances since the 1980s. She shone in Wong Kar-wai‘s “Days of Being Wild” (阿飛正傳) and mesmerized audiences in the visually stunning “2046.” Lau’s role in “Infernal Affairs II” (無間道II) showcased her depth, portraying a character that resonated with viewers for its complexity and emotional resonance.

Anita Mui (梅艷芳):

Bronze statue of Anita Mui in Hong Kong
Bronze statue of Anita Mui in Hong Kong

Anita Mui, known as the “Madonna of Asia,” was not only a legendary pop singer but also a talented actress in the Hong Kong film industry. Her remarkable acting career includes memorable performances in films like “Rouge” (胭脂扣), “The Legend of the Condor Heroes” (射鵰英雄傳之東成西就), and “A Better Tomorrow III” (英雄本色III夕陽之歌). Mui’s unique blend of charisma and emotional depth brought a special dynamism to her roles, making her an unforgettable icon in both music and film.

Rosamund Kwan (關之琳):

Rosamund Kwan, a significant figure in the 1980s and 1990s Hong Kong cinema, is best known for her roles in the “Once Upon a Time in China” series. Her film career includes highlights like “Peking Opera Blues” (刀馬旦) and “The Swordsman” (笑傲江湖). Kwan’s performances, often characterized by a blend of elegance and strength, have left a lasting impression on her audience, solidifying her status as a distinguished actress in Hong Kong’s cinematic history.

Karen Mok (莫文蔚):

Karen Mok

Karen Mok, a multifaceted artist, has made significant contributions to both the music and film industries. She is well-known for her roles in “Fallen Angels” (堕落天使) and “Shaolin Soccer” (少林足球), showcasing her versatility as an actress. Alongside her acting career, Mok is also a celebrated singer, with a distinctive style that has earned her numerous awards and international recognition.

Cecilia Cheung (张柏芝):

Cecilia Cheung

Cecilia Cheung, known for her versatility and charm, gained popularity with films like “King of Comedy” (喜剧之王) and “Fly Me to Polaris” (星愿). Her performance in “Lost in Time” (忘不了) received critical acclaim, highlighting her ability to portray emotionally complex characters. Cheung’s career encompasses a variety of roles in both drama and comedy, making her a notable figure in the Hong Kong film industry.

Brigitte Lin (林青霞):

Chungking-Express
Chungking Express by Wong Kar-wai

Brigitte Lin, active since the 1970s, is renowned for her ethereal beauty and compelling performances. She starred in an array of significant films, including “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain” (新蜀山剑侠), “Chungking Express” (重庆森林), and “The Bride with White Hair” (白发魔女传). Lin’s transition from romantic leads to complex, often androgynous roles in the 1990s further showcased her adaptability and depth as an actress.

Maggie Cheung (张曼玉):

Maggie-Cheung-In-the-mood-for-love
In the Mood for Love

An actress of great versatility, Maggie Cheung’s career spans from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Her roles in “In the Mood for Love” (花样年华), “Centre Stage” (阮玲玉), and “Hero” (英雄) are notable for their emotional depth and complexity. Cheung’s international acclaim, including awards at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, highlights her status as one of the most prominent Chinese actresses in global cinema.

Gong Li (巩俐):

Image from the movie "Raise the Red Lantern"
Raise the Red Lantern © 1991 China Film Co-Production Corporation − All right reserved.

Gong Li, a central figure in Chinese cinema since the late 1980s, is known for her collaborations with director Zhang Yimou. Her powerful performances in “Red Sorghum” (红高粱), “Raise the Red Lantern” (大红灯笼高高挂), and “The Story of Qiu Ju” (秋菊打官司) exhibit her extraordinary talent and screen presence. Gong Li’s international recognition includes awards and accolades at various film festivals worldwide.

Faye Wong (王菲):

Faye Wong is a celebrated singer and actress, renowned for her unique vocal style and artistic independence. In cinema, she is best known for her roles in “Chungking Express” (重庆森林) and “2046,” both directed by Wong Kar-wai. Her ethereal presence and performance style have left a lasting impact on both the music and film industries in Asia. As a singer, Wong has achieved widespread acclaim and a dedicated fanbase, noted for her innovative approach to music.

Valerie Chow (周海媚):

Valerie Chow, also known as Rachel Shane, gained recognition in the 1990s. She is best known for her role in “Chungking Express” (重庆森林), directed by Wong Kar-wai. Her performances in various Hong Kong films have been marked by a blend of charisma and talent. Though less active in recent years, her contributions to Hong Kong cinema in the 1990s are well-remembered.

Zhang Ziyi (章子怡):

Image from the movie "The Road Home"
Road Home © 1999 Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia − All right reserved.

Since her debut in the late 1990s, Zhang Ziyi has become one of the most recognized faces in Chinese cinema. Her performances in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (卧虎藏龙), “House of Flying Daggers” (十面埋伏), and “The Grandmaster” (一代宗师) have earned her critical acclaim and a host of international awards, cementing her status as a global cinema icon.

Fan Bingbing (范冰冰):

Image from the movie "Lost in Beijing"
© 2007 Laurel Films − All right reserved.

Fan Bingbing, active since the late 1990s, is known for her roles in both Chinese and international films. Her performances in “Cell Phone” (手机), “Lost in Beijing” (苹果), and “I Am Not Madame Bovary” (我不是潘金莲) have been praised for their depth and versatility. Beyond her acting career, Fan is a fashion icon, regularly appearing on international red carpets.

Shu Qi (舒淇):

Shu qi, taiwanese actress, images, filmography, bio

Starting her career in the 1990s, Shu Qi quickly became known for her natural acting style and versatility. Her notable roles in “The Transporter,” “The Assassin” (刺客聂隐娘), and “If You Are the One” (非诚勿扰) showcase a range that spans from action to romantic comedies, making her a well-regarded figure in both Asian and international cinema.

Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨):

Rising to fame in the 2010s, Zhou Dongyu has quickly established herself as one of the leading actresses of her generation. Her performances in “Under the Hawthorn Tree” (山楂树之恋), “Soul Mate” (七月与安生), and “Better Days” (少年的你) have been acclaimed for their emotional authenticity, earning her numerous awards and recognition in the Chinese film industry.

Zhou Xun (周迅):

Image from the movie "Suzhou River"
Suzhou River © 2000 Coproduction Office − All right reserved.

Zhou Xun, an actress with a diverse range of roles, first gained attention in “Suzhou River” (苏州河) and “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” (巴尔扎克和小裁缝). Known for her depth and versatility, she received acclaim for her performances in “The Banquet” (夜宴) and “Painted Skin” (画皮). Zhou’s contributions to Chinese cinema are marked by her ability to bring complex characters to life.

Ni Ni (倪妮):

Since her debut in the 2011 film “The Flowers of War” (金陵十三钗), Ni Ni has been recognized as a talented and versatile actress. Her roles in “Love and Destiny” (宸汐缘), “The Rise of Phoenixes” (天盛长歌), and “The Enigma of Arrival” (抵达之谜) display a compelling blend of strength and sensitivity, making her a notable figure in contemporary Chinese cinema.

Liu Yifei (刘亦菲):

Image from the movie "Mulan"
Mulan © 2020 Walt Disney Pictures − All right reserved.

Known as the “Fairy Sister” in China for her delicate beauty, Liu Yifei’s career, spanning from the early 2000s, includes significant roles in “The Forbidden Kingdom,” “The Assassins” (铜雀台), and Disney’s live-action “Mulan.” Her performances, characterized by grace and depth, have made her a beloved actress in both China and abroad.

Tang Wei (汤唯):

Tang Wei, who gained international fame with her debut in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” (色,戒), has since become a prominent actress in Chinese cinema. Her roles in “Finding Mr. Right” (北京遇上西雅图), “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (地球最后的夜晚), and “The Whistleblower” (吹哨人) demonstrate her ability to portray complex characters with nuance and intensity.

Zhao Tao (赵涛):

Zhao Tao, a frequent collaborator with director Jia Zhangke, is recognized for her roles in films like “Unknown Pleasures” (任逍遥) and “Still Life” (三峡好人). Her performances are noted for their authenticity and emotional depth, particularly in “A Touch of Sin” (天注定) and “Ash Is Purest White” (江湖儿女). Zhao’s work predominantly explores contemporary social issues in China, reflecting a keen understanding of her characters and their environments.

Zhao Wei (赵薇):

Zhao Wei

Zhao Wei, one of China’s most beloved actresses, rose to fame in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Her performances in “My Fair Princess” (还珠格格), “Shaolin Soccer” (少林足球), and “Dearest” (亲爱的) showcase her range from historical dramas to contemporary roles. Zhao’s successful transition to directing and her ongoing contributions to the industry solidify her status as a multifaceted talent in Chinese cinema.

Topics: Influential female actors in Chinese cinema, leading ladies of Hong Kong film, historical impact of Chinese actresses, prominent Hongkongese actresses in film, transformative roles by Chinese movie stars, enduring legacies of Hong Kong cinema icons, biographies of Chinese and Hongkongese actresses.

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