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.
By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of the most prominent people.
Make sure you continue reading to the bottom for an explanation as to why there aren’t many females on the list.
Alright, let’s jump into the list of the most famous Chinese people!
1. Xi Jinping
If you don’t watch the news, you’ve probably never heard of this guy.
Xi Jinping, pictured above, is the president of China and one of the most powerful people in the world.
Although he 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, he’ll 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 beyond 2023.
Learn more about him in the book, Xi Jinping: The Backlash.
2. Yao Ming
Everyone in China knows Yao Ming. He’s the country’s 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.
A few Chinese have played in the NBA since then, but none have come close to making such a big impact than 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 Napa Valley selling high-end wine with his name on it.
Learn more by following 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).
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.
4. Fan bingbing
This stunning lady is a famous Chinese actress, model, television producer and singer.
Fan Bingbing has starred in many Chinese movies as well as foreign-language films.
While she’s certainly not a household name in the US, you may know her from Hollywood movies 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.
Fan is still one of China’s most influential celebrities and the highest-paid female star.
Learn more about Fan’s disappearing act in Vanity Fair.
Good old Confucius. He’s the father of Chinese philosophy.
During the sixth century B.C., 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.
Learn more about Confucius by reading The Analects. Imagine how intelligent you’ll sound at your next dinner party!
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 blockbuster franchises Rush Hour and Kung Fu Panda.
Jackie Chan is one of the highest paid actors in the world.
He has even released Chinese music, and sang at the 2008 Beijing Olympics closing ceremony.
Learn more about Jackie Chan.
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 10 Academy Awards.
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.
Learn more about the best movies about China.
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.
Learn more about Chinese martial arts styles.
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.
Learn more about the Dalai Lama in the 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.
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.
Learn more about Gong Li’s outstanding movies.
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.
Learn more about Jet Li in the video above.
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.
Learn more about the spectacular Terracotta Army.
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.
She’s 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.
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 – people call him the King of Mandopop.
He’s sold over 30 million records and is huge in East Asia.
In 2020, he released his own Netflix travel show, J-Style Trip, as well as a new Latin-flavored pop hit.
Chou is a man who loves nice cars. He has a collection of 20 different cars including a McLaren Senna, one of only 500 made, which cost a staggering US$2 million.
Learn more by following Jay Chou on Instagram.
16. 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 has said that he won’t work with actresses who have had plastic surgery.
Learn more about Zhang Yimou’s complicated relationship with Chinese censors.
Other notable Chinese people
Some other key people include:
- Deng Xiaoping, a leader who helped open up China in the 1980s
- Sun Tzu, a general and military strategist in ancient China who wrote The Art of War
- Dilraba Dilmurat, a rising star actress of Uyghur ethnicity
- Ma Huateng, known as Pony Ma, a Chinese billionaire who runs tech company Tencent.
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 many families.
I’ve only just scratched the surface on this issue, but you can see how the status of Chinese men has an impact on the role of women and their place in the world.
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!
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. You may also like the one I wrote about famous Chinese foods.
Or, inform yourself with some brilliant documentaries about China. Lots of thought-provoking viewing!