Although many people outside of Mainland China may not have heard of them, Chinese celebrities play an extremely influential role in pop culture in the People’s Republic. Learning about Chinese celebrities is a great way to hone your Mandarin language skills while gaining insight into modern Chinese society and culture.
In this article, we’ve profiled five of Mainland China’s most influential celebrities, along with some of their most well-known movies, songs and TV shows. Check them out and watch your Chinese improve!
Chinese Celebrities and Mandarin Language Learning
Once you learn to recognize them, you’ll find that Chinese celebrities are everywhere in Mainland China.
Their success in the entertainment industry means that they’re frequently invited to host or perform at big events like the annual Spring Festival gala. In addition to their work as performers, many Mainland Chinese celebrities also serve as influential brand ambassadors. As such, you’re likely to see their faces featured prominently in many domestic ad campaigns.
There are several important reasons why it pays for Chinese learners to know something about Mainland China’s most recent crop of celebrities.
For starters, knowledge of Chinese celebrities will help you participate actively in conversations with native Chinese speakers, especially those belonging to younger generations. Consuming popular, modern Chinese media is also a great way to learn Chinese slang and communicate like a native.
Watching films and TV shows and listening to songs featuring Chinese celebrities will also help you gain a better understanding of modern Chinese culture while improving your Chinese listening skills. If you’re one of the growing number of students looking for ways to learn Chinese online, watching authentic content featuring native Chinese speakers is one of the best ways to practice your Mandarin skills without leaving home.
Mainland China’s Five Most Influential Celebrities
If you don’t live in Mainland China or don’t know much about Chinese pop culture, one way to discover which celebrities are hot in China today is to check out the Forbes China Celebrity 100.
This list, which is published every year, ranks celebrities born in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other countries and territories according to how influential they are as measured by their income, how frequently they’re featured in various popular media outlets, and number of search engine hits they receive.
The 2020 Forbes list features some familiar names, like Taiwan-born Jay Chou (ranked 4th), Angelababy (ranked 16th), and Jacky Chan (91st). However, it’s perhaps more notable for its inclusion of a variety of Mainland Chinese stars that many people outside of the Sinosphere may have never even heard of.
To help get you up to speed on the fast-changing world of Chinese pop culture, we present below the five most influential Mainland Chinese celebrities that you may never have heard of…but should probably know!
Jackson Yee (易烊千玺)
Originally from Huaihua, Hunan, actor, singer and dancer Jackson Yee (易烊千玺 or Yì Yángqiānxǐ in pinyin) was born in 2000. At only 19 years old, he’s the youngest celebrity ever to rank first on the Forbes China Celebrity 100 list. Jackson first gained popularity as a member of the Chinese boy band TFBoys, which was formed in 2013.
More recently, Jackson has made his mark on the movie world as the male lead in the film Better Days (少年的你 shàonián de nǐ). The film, which has received favorable reviews both in China and abroad, tells the story of an unlikely romance between a teenage thug (played by Jackson) and a hard-working honor student (played by actress Zhou Dongyu, who comes in at number 3 below). The film was commended for tackling the social problem of bullying in Chinese high schools.
Xu Zheng (徐峥)
At 48, Xu Zheng (徐峥 Xú Zhēng) is a good deal older than the other celebrities featured here. Born in Shanghai, he started out as an actor, portraying comedic roles in various Chinese TV shows. Later, he began engaging with more diverse aspects of the movie business as a director, producer and screenwriter.
If you’ve been studying Chinese for a few years, you might recognize Xu Zheng as the bald character from several highly accessible Chinese comedies. In 2010, he co-starred with Wang Baoqiang in the Spring Festival road trip comedy Lost on Journey (人在囧途 rén zài jiǒng tú). Watching this film provides a great introduction to various important aspects of Chinese culture such as the annual Spring Festival travel rush (春运 chūnyùn) and the divide between city-dwellers and migrant workers.
After Lost on Journey, Xu Zheng made his directorial debut with the smash hit Lost in Thailand (人再囧途之泰囧 rén zài jiǒng tú zhī tài jiǒng), in which he also co-starred, again alongside Wang Baoqiang. This film was instrumental in increasing the popularity of Thailand as a vacation destination for Chinese tourists.
Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨)
Zhou Dongyu (周冬雨 Zhōu Dōngyǔ) is a 28-year-old Chinese actress who was born in Shijiazhuang, Hebei. In recent years, she has garnered increasing recognition across Asia as a talented actress, winning both the Golden Horse Award (Taiwan) for best leading actress and the Hong Kong Film Award for best actress.
In 2010, Academy Award winning director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋 Zhāng Yìmóu), known for his role as director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, picked Zhou Dongyu to star in his film Under the Hawthorn Tree (山楂树之恋 shānzhā shù zhī liàn). At the time, Zhou Dongyu had no acting experience, but her masterful portrayal of an educated girl sent down to live in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution helped her establish a reputation as a talented actress to watch.
More recently, Zhou Dongyu’s performances in Soul Mate (七月与安生 qīyuè yǔ ānshēng) and Better Days (少年的你 shàonián de nǐ) have also been met with critical acclaim.
Lay Zhang (张艺兴)
Multi-talented 29-year-old Lay Zhang (张艺兴 Zhāng Yìxìng) is a singer, rapper, songwriter, actor, dancer, director and record producer. Born in Changsha, Hunan, he got his start as a member of the South Korean-Chinese boy band Exo, based in Seoul.
After his time as a K-pop singer, he launched a solo career in Mainland China. In 2018, he made his U.S. debut, performing at Lollapalooza and releasing an album that ranked 21st on the Billboard 200. In addition to his work as a singer, Lay has also acted in both television shows and movies, even appearing with Jackie Chan in the movie Kung Fu Yoga (功夫瑜伽 gōngfū yújiā). As a performer whose career has spanned several different countries and cultures, Lay’s music tends to display a mixture of cultural influences. Many of his songs contain both English and Chinese lyrics. He’s also known for including traditional Chinese musical elements and references to aspects of traditional Chinese culture such as the Chinese zodiac in his songs. For example, the name and lyrics of his hit song Sheep (羊 yáng) are references to the fact that he was born in the Chinese Year of the Sheep.
Yang Mi (杨幂)
Actress, singer and businesswoman Yang Mi (杨幂 Yáng Mì) was born in Beijing in 1986. The 34-year-old began acting at the age of 4, when she played a young princess in a historical drama set in the Tang Dynasty. Despite her early start, she didn’t achieve mainstream popularity until after 2010. In the years since then, she has appeared in a variety of different TV shows and movies, released her own album, and started her own production company, Jay Walk Studio.
Yang Mi is known for performing in historical roles. She shot to popularity after appearing in the TV series Palace (宫锁心玉 gōngsuǒxīnyù), a Qing Dynasty historical drama, and has also acted in several wuxia (武侠 wǔxiá) dramas. Her classical good looks also led to her being cast as Wang Zhaojun (王昭君 Wáng Zhāojūn), one of the four beauties of ancient China.
Despite her penchant for portraying historical beauties, Yang Mi has also acted in a variety of modern horror, science fiction, romance and comedy films and TV shows like Beijing Love Story (北京爱情故事 běijīng àiqíng gùshì) and Reset (逆时营救 nì shí yíngjiù).
Let the Chinese Pop Extravaganza Begin!
The next time you have some extra time on your hands, check out the celebrities above and explore some of their work. Although little-known outside of Mainland China, many of them are quite talented and you may find yourself falling in love with their unique performance style. Who knows, maybe you’ll even become the newest member of China’s 追星族 (zhuīxīngzú; adoring fans/groupies).
Whether you just started learning Chinese or have been studying for years, exploring the world of Chinese celebrities is a great way to add some spice to your language learning journey.