Here’s a list of the most famous Chinese people, past and present.
China is fast becoming one of the most influential and powerful countries in the world.
But if you were asked to reel off the names of some famous Chinese people, could you do that easily?
If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone. Even after living and working in China, I’m still learning about who’s who!
By the end of this article, I’m sure you’ll have a better understanding of the most famous Chinese people.
1. Xi Jinping
I have to start with this man.
Xi Jinping is the president of China. He’s not only the most well-known person in China, but he’s one of the most influential people in the world.
Although Xi has been involved in politics most of his life, as a teenager he worked as a manual laborer on an agricultural commune.
Love him or loathe him, Xi Jinping will be around for a while.
In 2018, the National People’s Congress passed an amendment to the constitution which would abolish term limits for presidents.
This means Xi Jinping can remain in office well into the future.
2. Yao Ming
Everyone in China knows Yao Ming. He’s the most recognizable athlete.
Yao Ming starred for the Houston Rockets in the NBA from 2002 to 2011. He really put NBA on the map in China, making it one of the country’s most popular sports.
A few Chinese have played in the NBA since then, but none have come close to making such a big impact as Yao Ming.
At 7 ft 6 in (2.29 m), Yao is an exceptionally tall individual.
He’s also smart, having completed an economics degree in China after he retired from basketball.
He’s even filmed a documentary about the almost-extinct northern white rhinoceros in Africa.
And, he now owns a winery in the United States selling high-end wine with his name on it.
You can follow Yao Ming on Instagram.
3. Mao Zedong
I’d say Mao Zedong is the most famous Chinese person, even though he passed away in 1976.
Born in Hunan, a province in southern China, he led his country’s communist revolution.
The sweeping reforms he’s best known for are the Great Leap Forward (1958–60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).
These often had disastrous consequences for China’s people and economy. Sadly, millions of people starved to death during this time.
However, Mao is seen as the most revered leader of China, at least in recent times.
If you travel to Beijing, you can take a photo of his portrait at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square.
You can even get up close and personal with his preserved body at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.
Learn more about what makes Beijing famous or read one of my favorite books, Wild Swans, for a personal account of life under Mao.
4. Fan Bingbing
This stunning lady is a famous Chinese film star, model, television producer and singer.
Fan Bingbing has starred in many Chinese language movies as well as foreign-language films.
While she’s certainly not a household name in the US, you may know her from Hollywood blockbusters such as Iron Man 3 and X-Men: Days of Future Past.
In July 2018, Fan was presumed missing following a tax evasion incident. But she surfaced online a few months later, apologizing to the public.
The Chinese authorities ordered her and her companies to pay about US$129 million in taxes and penalties to avoid criminal prosecution. Ouch!
Fan is still one of China’s most influential celebrities and the highest-paid female star.
You can read more about Fan’s disappearing act in Vanity Fair.
Good old Confucius. He’s the father of Chinese philosophy.
During the sixth century BC, it is said that traditional Chinese principles began to deteriorate, resulting in a period of moral decline.
Confucius recognized an opportunity – and an obligation – to reinforce the societal values of compassion and tradition.
His golden rule was based on loving others while exercising self-discipline.
He has lots of famous quotes but my personal favorite is: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
It still rings true hundreds of years later.
6. Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan has been acting and performing since the 1960s. He’s one of the most famous action film stars of all time.
Chan has featured in countless Chinese movies. But you’re probably more familiar with his Hollywood franchises Rush Hour and Kung Fu Panda.
Jackie Chan is one of the highest paid actors in the world. And, he’s multi-talented having released Chinese music.
He even sang at the 2008 Beijing Olympics closing ceremony.
7. Zhang Ziyi
Have you watched the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
If so, you’ve seen the famous Chinese actress, Zhang Ziyi. The movie was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards.
She starred alongside Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 2 but her most critically acclaimed movie is Memoirs of a Geisha. This earned her a Golden Globe nomination for best actress.
In 2021, Zhang Ziyi appeared in her first Chinese TV drama, Monarch Industry. But the series was received so poorly that the cost to watch it was reduced to just a few cents per episode.
While her celebrity status has recently waned, she’s still regarded as one of China’s finest actresses.
You can learn more about the best movies about China here, ranked by yours truly!
8. Jack Ma
Jack Ma is one of the most famous Chinese people on the planet.
He’s the founder of Alibaba, the biggest tech company in China.
If you’ve ever been to China, you would have seen people using their phones to pay for stuff with Alipay. This is part of the Alibaba group.
(If you haven’t been to China, here are some great tips before you go).
Jack Ma is well-known across China. In fact, practically everyone knows who he is.
But like Fan Bingbing mentioned above, Jack recently disappeared from the public eye.
Following a speech in late 2020 where he criticized China’s regulators and banks, he wasn’t seen until January 2021.
Ma is one of the world’s richest people with a net worth of over $50 billion.
Learn more about some of the amazing apps they use in China such as Alipay.
9. Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee is a cultural icon.
He grew up in Hong Kong and learned martial arts from a young age.
In the 1970s, he elevated martial arts to a new level of popularity and acclaim, sparking a surge of interest in China and the Chinese martial arts in the West.
He passed away at the young age of 32 from cerebral edema, which is fluid build-up around the brain.
Enter the Dragon was released posthumously, grossing over $200 million at the box office. His legacy continues to this day.
10. Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibet.
He’s known around the world for his messages and teachings about passion, peace and harmony.
Fearing for his life in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India, from where he led a government in exile.
If you’re a Brad Pitt fan, you may have seen Seven Years in Tibet.The film gives you a glimpse of the Dalai Lama’s early life as well as what led him to escape from China.
You can learn more about the Dalai Lama in his bestselling book, The Art of Happiness.
11. Gong Li
Gong Li is a brilliant Chinese actress.
She’s in some classics including Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and one of my all-time favorites, Raise the Red Lantern.
In 2020, Gong Li starred in the Disney remake of Mulan.
The international actress recently tried something different with biographical sports film, Leap. She said it was the hardest role she’s ever played.
It was China’s entry for best international feature film in the 2021 Oscars (it didn’t win).
The Chinese actress changed her nationality to Singaporean in 2008 after she got married to a local, though the pair later divorced.
In 2020, photos of Gong Li’s curvier figure went viral on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), receiving over 850 million clicks. This sparked a backlash against body shaming.
12. Jet Li
Here’s another famous Li in the stable of famous Chinese people.
Li Lianjie, better known by his stage name Jet Li, is a Singaporean actor, producer and martial artist, who was born in Beijing.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he starred in critically acclaimed Chinese martial arts movies such as Hero and the Once Upon a Time in China series.
Then he became big in Hollywood.
His famous fight scenes in early 2000s movies, including Lethal Weapon 4 and Romeo Must Die, made him a household name.
Jet Li’s legendary status even qualified him to join other action stars in The Expendables. He also starred in Mulan alongside Gong Li.
Li is a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism.
13. Qin Shi Huang
OK, we’re back to the dead guys again!
Qin Shi Huang reigned from 221 BC to 210 BC. He was the founder of the Qin dynasty and the first emperor of a unified China.
However, Emperor Qin was known as a cruel leader. He outlawed most forms of religion and even ordered the burning of books.
But he’s not really famous for that.
People know Qin Shi Huang for his elaborate tomb in Xi’an, western China, built to protect him in the afterlife – known as the Terracotta Army.
It is said that about 700,000 people helped construct his tomb of 8,000 soldiers, horses and chariots made of terracotta.
The famous archaeological site was only discovered in 1974. And, in 2020, another 200 sculptures were miraculously found nearby.
If you’re lucky enough to travel to China, make sure you check out the Terracotta Army. I personally think Xi’an is one of the best places to visit in China.
14. Empress Dowager Cixi
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) is the longest ruling woman in China’s history.
She was one of Emperor Xianfeng’s low-ranking concubines. But in 1856, she bore his only son.
This catapulted her into power over the last five decades of the Qing Dynasty.
Empress Dowager Cixi is most famous for the Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion.
Historians are conflicted about Cixi’s reputation. Some have blamed her for the end of Imperial China, while others claim she brought China into a modern age.
Like many other famous world leaders, most of her accomplishments weren’t recognized until after her death.
Learn more about Chinese history with these books.
15. Jay Chou
The multi-talented Jay Chou is Taiwan’s biggest superstar.
He’s a singer, songwriter, rapper, record producer, actor, film director, businessman, and even magician.
Jay Chou is best known for his music though, and you’ll find all his songs on the Chinese music apps. So far, he’s sold more than 30 million records!
This is why many people call him the King of Mandopop.
In 2020, Jay Chou released his own Netflix travel show, J-Style Trip, as well as a new Latin-flavored pop hit.
Jay is a man who loves nice cars. He has a collection of 20 vehicles including a McLaren Senna, one of only 500 made, which cost a staggering US$2 million.
16. Li Jiaqi
Widely known in China as ‘Lipstick King’ or ‘Lipstick Brother’, Li Jiaqi is one of China’s biggest influencers.
The entrepreneurial Chinese shot to fame a few years ago for famously selling a record number of lipsticks to his adoring and cashed-up fans during a livestreaming event.
Since then, he’s continued to sell an insane amount of makeup, reportedly earning him millions each month.
But like a couple of other people on this list, Li Jiaqi is not without controversy. He mysteriously disappeared for a few months in mid-2022 after he presented a cake that resembled a tank on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
In a fairly conservative China, Li Jiaqi pushes the boundaries with his flamboyancy and passion for products which have historically been a feminine mainstay.
17. Zhang Yimou
Zhang is China’s greatest ever filmmaker.
He’s directed some of the best movies to come out of China including Raise the Red Lantern, To Live and House of Flying Daggers.
Having said that, fantasy action film The Great Wall, featuring Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe, is absolutely terrible in my opinion!
With a 50/50 split between English and Mandarin dialogue, it’s blatantly obvious that the movie was made to capitalize on both Chinese and American audiences.
It was a box office bomb with an audience score of only 42% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Zhang Yimou recently directed Cliff Walkers, a spy thriller set during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, stoking feelings of Chinese nationalism.
The 71-year-old controversially said that he won’t work with actresses who have had plastic surgery.
If you ever visit Yangshuo (near Guilin) in China’s picturesque south, you’ll probably end up seeing Impression Sanjie Liu. It’s an outdoor theatrical and light show directed by Zhang.
Yes, it’s all one word, and no, it’s not her real name.
Described by Vogue as the Kim Kardashian of China, Angelababy has more than 100 million fans on Weibo, China’s version of X (formerly Twitter).
So what’s she actually famous for?
Well, Angela Yeung Wing (that’s her real name) is an actress and a model. She’s been in loads of Chinese language movies and TV shows which you’ve probably never heard of.
The English film she’s in that may ring a bell for you is Independence Day: Resurgence, back in 2016.
As well as teaming up with luxury brands for endorsement deals, Angelababy is known in China for having one of the most expensive weddings.
Her special day cost a whopping 200 million yuan (around US$27 million).
19. Lin Dan
After Yao Ming, Li Dan is the next most well-known sportsperson in China.
He’s regarded as badminton’s greatest player of all time, or GOAT.
Over two decades, the champion player won two Olympic gold medals, five World titles and 666 career wins.
Li Dan retired at the age of 37 in 2020, bowing out with pain and injuries.
20. Deng Xiaoping
If you were born before 1980, you may have heard of this guy.
Deng Xiaoping is an ex-president of China who helped open the country in the 1980s. This was a mammoth task, having taken over the reins from Chairman Mao Zedong.
Involved in politics – and political struggles – for most of his life, Deng is best known for the market reforms that allowed to China to transition from a purely communist economy to a market economy with ‘Chinese characteristics’.
In terms of cult-like status, Deng Xiaoping pales in comparison with Mao Zedong.
21. Sun Yat-sen
Here’s another key figure in Chinese politics who’s well known in China but also around the world.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen was a Chinese revolutionary who played a key role in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty.
Born in 1866 in China’s southern Guangdong province, Sun received his education in Hawaii and Hong Kong before becoming involved in revolutionary activities in his motherland.
Sun’s Three Principles of the People, which emphasized nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood, became the foundation of the Republic of China (now known as the People’s Republic of China).
Sun served as the first provisional president of the Republic of China from 1912 to 1913.
22. Zhong Shanshan
Currently, China’s wealthiest citizen is a guy named Zhong Shanshan.
You would be forgiven thinking he’s a tech guru or mining magnate.
Zhong Shanshan has become rich for selling bottled water. Yes, water.
(Want more fun facts about China? Visit this page.)
An elementary school drop-out turned business tycoon, Zhong Shanshan is the chairman and founder of Nongfu Spring.
It’s the go-to bottled water brand in China, a country where tap water is unsafe to drink.
Zhong also has a controlling interest in a bio-pharm company that makes diagnostic tests for infectious diseases.
With an estimated net worth of more than $60 billion, Zhong is only slightly richer than Ma Huateng (known as Pony Ma) who heads up one of China’s biggest tech companies, Tencent.
23. Dilraba Dilmurat
Dilraba is one of the most popular actresses from mainland China. And she’s unique because of her Uyghur ethnicity.
Born in Xinjiang province, Dilraba began her career as a model before transitioning to the small screen. People really started to take notice of her in the popular drama Diamond Lover in 2015.
Dilraba has won numerous awards for her acting, including the Best Actress award at the China TV Drama Awards in 2018.
She also has a large following on social media, with millions of followers on platforms like Weibo and Instagram.
24. Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu was a general, military strategist, and philosopher in ancient times.
He’s best known for his book, The Art of War, which is still widely read and studied today, which is why you may have heard of him.
Essentially, the book is about military tactics that emphasize the importance of understanding your enemy, adapting to changing circumstances, and using deception and surprise to gain an advantage.
But Sun Tzu’s teachings aren’t limited to the battlefield, and have been applied to a wide range of fields, including business, politics, and sport.
25. Karry Wang
How could I not end this list of famous people with a cheesy pop star?
Wang Junkai (王俊凯), better known as Karry Wang, was part of three-member boyband TFBoys.
This insanely popular Mandopop trio disbanded in August 2023, following a 10-year streak of hit records including their breakout song, Manual of Youth.
Still in his 20s, Chongqing-born Karry Wang has already starred in a number of Chinese TV shows and movies. Time will tell if his star continues to rise.
Why are there more famous Chinese men than women?
Although Mao Zedong famously said “Women hold up half the sky”, in reality Chinese women have a lower social status than Chinese men, even to this day.
Roles of power and leadership have been predominantly held by Chinese men for centuries in a classic patriarchal society.
Women’s movement was hampered with the ancient practice of foot binding, and in more recent times, women were subjected to forced sterilization under the One Child Policy.
While gender equality is an official state policy and attitudes are slowly changing, baby boys are still preferred over baby girls in some families.
I’ve only just scratched the surface on this issue, but you can see how the status of Chinese men has had an impact on the role of women and their place in the world.
A quick travel tip
Are you traveling to China soon? If so, don’t forget the internet is censored when using Wi-Fi.
To access all your favorite websites and apps (like Facebook, Instagram, Google, Gmail, WhatsApp, etc), you’ll need to get a VPN before you arrive. Otherwise, the signup page will be blocked in China.
Check out this page before you fly over there. It’ll make your trip easier and more enjoyable.
Now you know some famous Chinese people
Now that you know a bunch of famous Chinese people, you’re going to smash it at the next trivia night.
(Speaking of trivia, check out my fun China quiz questions!)
But seriously, learning about famous Chinese people is a good way to expand your horizons and appreciate other countries and cultures.
As China’s voice gets louder, you’re bound to hear more about noteworthy Chinese people from all walks of life.
If you feel I’ve missed an obvious choice, please let me know in the comments.
I hope you liked my article on famous Chinese people. Next, read about the famous people banned from China. Some names might surprise you.
More famous Chinese stuff
Keep exploring The Helpful Panda:
Main image credit: Yuganov Konstantin on Shutterstock.
FAQ about famous Chinese people
Are there any famous people from China?
There are plenty, many of whom are unknown outside of China. The most famous include Confucius, Mao Zedong, Jackie Chan and more recently, Xi Jinping.
Who is the most famous Chinese person?
In present-day China it’s Xi Jinping, but the locals also know and admire figures like Mao Zedong and Yao Ming. The younger generation love idols like Angelababy and Karry Wang.
Who is the most famous Chinese man?
It’s Mao Zedong, but there are other famous Chinese men in history including Confucius and Emperor Qin Shi Huang, and more recently, Xi Jinping.
Who is the most famous Chinese woman?
It’s Fan Bingbing. She’s a movie star, model, television producer and singer. Although she fell out of favor over a tax evasion incident, everyone still knows her.
Who is the richest person in China?
It’s bottled water king, Zhong Shanshan.
Who are the most famous Chinese philosophers?
Confucius and Laozi (Lao Tzu) are the most famous. Confucius is known for his moral teachings, known as Confucianism, while Laozi founded philosophical Taoism and wrote the famous text, Tao Te Ching.
Who are China’s most famous poets?
The most famous are Li Bai and Du Fu. They have long since passed away, but their legacy of famous poems from ancient China remains.