3 Top Performing Arts Schools in China: The Popular Opinions

Beijing Film Academy, The Central Academy of Drama, and Shanghai Theatre Academy are among the top performing arts universities in China that supply the entertainment industry new talents every year. 

Through decades of development, these schools’ unique characteristics are implicitly or explicitly demonstrated by their notable alumni. It’s inevitable for netizens to compare these schools in many aspects and gradually form their opinions.

The schools have various departments such as dance, dubbing, MC, etc. but this article will give attention to the popular opinions on their directing and acting departments. The purpose of this article is to briefly show C-netizens’ common beliefs about the schools’ characteristics which don’t necessarily hold true for all alumni and students of the mentioned schools. These points shouldn’t be valid to generalize everyone in a community.

Beidian / Beiying (北电 / 北影) – Beijing Film Academy (北京电影学院)

Notable alumni: Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tang Guoqiang, Jiang Wenli, Xu Qing, Faye Yu, Huang Lei, Huang Bo, Zhao Wei, Huang Xiaoming, Chen Kun, Huang Shengyi, Liu Yifei, Yang Mi, Yuan Shanshan, Zhu Yilong, Jing Tian, Zhang Ruoyun, etc.

Notable 90s-00s alumni: Zheng Shuang, Tan Songyun, Zhang Yishan, Yang Zi, Li Xian, Gulinazha, Zhou Dongyu, Guan Xiaotong, Guo Junchen, Zhou Ye, Karry Wang, Leo Wu, Song Zu’er, Chen Feiyu, Zhang Zifeng, etc.

The ground zero of quality movies & legendary movie directors

Beidian is said to be a great place that equips you with skills and opportunities to have a career in the movie industry. The school is well-known for its reputation on the big screen and its talented movie directors.

The Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers emerging in the mid-late 1980s were said to revolutionize the Chinese movie industry by bringing Chinese films to international attention for the first time. Most of them had graduated from the Beijing Film Academy. Outstanding works by Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Zhang Junzhao, Li Shaohong, Wu Ziniu, etc. were not only recognized by Chinese cinema-goers but also by the Western critics and media. Their works won numerous awards from international festivals such as Berlin International Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and nominations from the Academy Awards.

The Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers: Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Zhang Junzhao, Li Shaohong, Wu Ziniu, etc.

Some of the most influential movies produced by the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers:

  • One and Eight (1983, Zhang Junzhao)
  • The Black Cannon Incident (1985, Huang Jianxin)
  • The Horse Thief (1986, Tian Zhuangzhuang)
  • Red Sorghum (1987, Zhang Yimou)
  • Children (1987, Chen Kaige)
  • Ju Dou (1989, Zhang Yimou)
  • Raise the Red Lantern (1991, Zhang Yimou) 
  • The Story of Qiu Ju (1992, Zhang Yimou) 
  • Farewell My Concubine (1993, Chen Kaige)

In terms of movie directors, Beidian has been producing stable output. Their well-known alumni including the Sixth Generation Chinese filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, Guan Hu, Cao Baoping, Wang Quan’an, Lou Ye, Ning Hao, etc. also have great track records of quality films with success at the box office.

Superstars with high commercial value

“Actors come from Zhongxi, Superstars come from Beidian” is a popular statement that was basically put forward after two groups of celebrities coming from Zhongxi and Beidian’s Classes of 1996 respectively influenced the C-netizens’ perspective towards two schools in the following two decades.

If Zhongxi’s Class of 1996 gave birth to the “Eight Golden Hairpins”, Beidian’s Class of 1996 was where the famous “Three Musketeers of Beidian” Zhao Wei, Chen Kun, and Huang Xiaoming had formed. The three are now household names with impressive works and unshakable status in the industry.

“Three Musketeers of Beidian” Chen Kun, Zhao Wei and Huang Xiaoming

When the “traffic era” has begun, the Beidian alumni such as Yang Mi, Liu Yifei, Zheng Shuang, Yang Zi are top liuliang xiaohuas with high public recognition and big fandoms. Zhou Dongyu is widely known for her successful movies and Best Actress awards in the three biggest Chinese-language movie awards. Karry Wang, Zhu Yilong, Li Xian are considered the top liuliangs with big fandoms and top-tier commercial value. The young generation such as Guan Xiaotong, Leo Wu, Zhang Zifeng, Chen Feiyu has also risen strongly.

Karry Wang, Guan Xiaotong and Leo Wu attended an extracurricular event of Beidian

“Superstars come from Beidian” is not necessarily a denial of Beidian alumni’s performances, but a highlight of their star status which sometimes takes too much attention.

Zhongxi (中戏) – The Central Academy of Drama (中央戏剧学院)

Notable alumni: Chen Daoming, Jiang Wen, Gong Li, Shi Ke, Xu Fan, Tao Hong, Li Yapeng, Wang Xuebing, Sun Honglei, Xia Yu, Zhang Ziyi, Yuan Quan, Qin Hailu, Liu Ye, Chen Hao, Chen Sicheng, Zhang Luyi, Tiffany Tang, Tong Yao, Bai Baihe, Jin Dong, Wang Kai, Zhang Han, Tong Liya, Chen Xiao, etc.

Notable 90s-00s alumni: Cheng Yi, Bai Yu, Dong Zijian, Qu Chuxiao, Liu Haoran, Zhang Xueying, Jackson Yee, Hu Xianxu, Li Landi, Ren Min, Jiang Yiyi, Zhao Jinmai, etc.

Capable actors without big fandoms

Zhongxi’s answer to Beidian’s “Three Musketeers” is the “Eight Golden Hairpins” (八大金钗) including Zhang Ziyi, Mei Ting, Yuan Quan, Zeng Li, Hu Jing, Zhang Tong, Qin Hailu and Li Min (Li Xinyu). Their Class of 1996 was also crowned “The 1st-tier star class” (明星第一班) for their fairytale-like alumni. Among that, Zhang Ziyi has long been known internationally for her performances on the big screen, while Mei Ting, Yuan Quan, and Qin Hailu are among the top qingyis who have earned critical acclaim and numerous reputed domestic awards through their quality works on the small screen.

Seven out of Eight Golden Hairpins when they were young

Compared to Beidian’s prominent xiaohuas Yang Mi, Liu Yifei, Zheng Shuang, Yang Zi, etc, Zhongxi’s Bai Baihe, Tong Yao, Tong Liya don’t have big fandoms and media buzz (except for Tiffany Tang who is also a popular xiaohua from Zhongxi). Similarly, the popularity of Zhongxi’s 95s-00s top xiaohuas Zhang Xueying, Li Landi, Ren Min, Jiang Yiyi, Zhao Jinmai are somewhat lacking compared to those of Beidian’s Guan Xiaotong, Zhou Ye, and Zhang Zifeng. However, although they might not have huge fandom and high commercial value, most of the Zhongxi prominent alumni have been recognized for their acting skills.

Zhongxi is not all about actresses. They have a good number of talented directors and actors in their portfolio such as Chen Daoming, Jiang Wen, Zhang Hanyu, Liu Ye, Sun Honglei, Zhang Luyi, Jin Dong, Wang Kai, etc. who have great careers without big fandoms. However, Zhongxi does have actors with a decent fandom size such as Cheng Yi, Bai Yu, Liu Haoran, and one of the top liuliangs in China – Jackson Yee.

Zhang Xueying, Jackson Yee, Liu Haoran, Li Landi, Hu Xianxu in an extracurricular event of Zhongxi

Internationally recognizable actresses

Numerous Chinese actors are acclaimed by international critics and arthouse audiences. Many of them have brought home reputed awards from international film festivals like Berlin, Cannes, or Venice Film Festival for their outstanding performances. But when we talk about Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, it’s undeniable that they are two of the most internationally recognizable Chinese actresses.

What do they have in common? They both are from The Central Academy of Drama!

Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi

Gong Li is considered the Fifth Generation’s muse as she starred in a good number of their award-winning films. With her critically acclaimed works and international reputation, Gong was the first Asian to hold the position of head of jury at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival and the 2002 Venice Film Festival.

Zhang Ziyi is one of the Four Dan actresses who was nominated for 10 Academy Awards for her role in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. She continued to gain international recognition through critically acclaimed works such as “House of Flying Daggers”, “Memoirs of a Geisha”, etc.

It’s hard to generalize the whole school as the actresses are probably the outliers. However, the credits should also be counted, as in recent years, there is not yet any prominent film star emerging from the Chinese young generations who is as impactful as they are.

Shangxi (上戏) – Shanghai Theatre Academy (上海戏剧学院)

Notable alumni: Pan Hong, Chen Hong, Xu Zheng, Li Bingbing, Liao Fan, Ma Yili, Lu Yi, Chen Sicheng, Tong Dawei, Feng Shaofeng, Yang Rong, Yu Zheng, Hu Ge, Han Xue, Yuan Hong, Guo Jingfei, Lei Jiayin, Jiang Shuying, Zheng Kai, Chen He, Du Jiang, Luo Yunxi, Lin Gengxin, etc.

Notable 90s-00s alumni: Li Qin, Zhang Zhehan, Elvis Han, Dilireba, Yuan Bingyan, Deng Lun, Vin Zhang, Elane Zhong, Peng Yuchang, Xing Fei, etc.

Regional factor plays an important role

Networks and connections are among the most important factors to be a successful actor or filmmaker. Connection is where good opportunities come from. There are various “circles” in the Chinese entertainment industry based on specific regions where members exchange resources and connections.

The comparison between Beidian and Zhongxi is inevitable since both are located in Beijing – the center of China’s performing arts and entertainment industry, which suggests a dynamic environment and extensive networks. Both schools seem to be the talk of the town with crowds of successful alumni and young popular students. On the other hand, Shangxi far in the Shanghai circle appears to be much more quiet and isolated.

In fact, one of the obvious characteristics of the people in Shangxi is that they are relatively regional. Many Shangxi alumni are Shanghai locals, such as Xu Zheng, Zheng Kai, Chen He, Hu Ge, Lu Yi, etc. Although it does not have an advantage in terms of geographical location, many choose to stick to Shanghai rather than move to Beijing.

Xu Zheng, Zheng Kai, Chen He, Hu Ge, Lu Yi.

Notable xiaoshengs

“Xiaoshengs come from Shangxi, Qingyis come from Zhongxi, Huadans come from Beidian” is another popular statement among C-netizens. “Xiaosheng” is the male version of “huadan” – a term referring to popular Chinese actresses. Rooted in Chinese opera, “xiaosheng” refers to Chinese actors in general. 

Read more: Differences between Qingyis and Huadans

The statement highlights the fact that while there are many notable qingyis from Zhongxi and popular huadans from Beidian, Shangxi has contributed to the Chinese film and television dramas a group of talented and handsome men with traditional looks such as Hu Ge, Yuan Hong, Zheng Kai, Lu Yi, Lin Gengxin, Elvis Han, Zhang Zhehan, etc.

Shangxi’s xiaoshengs in traditional costumes: Hu Ge, Yuan Hong, Lu Yi, Lin Gengxin, Elvis Han, Zhang Zhehan

Shangxi does have some notable xiaohuas like Dilireba, Yuan Bingyan, Elane Zhong, Xing Fei, etc. yet Shangxi’s xiaoshengs with a unique vibe that tend to be in the spotlight.

There are some Shangxi heartthrobs who are also popular for their acting skills. Hu Ge is undoubtedly a familiar name to Chinese TV dramas enthusiasts as the actor has starred in countless popular dramas such as “Nirvana in Fire”, “Chinese Paladin”, etc. Deng Lun gained widespread popularity with the TV series “Ashes of Love” in 2018 and Zhang Zhehan has skyrocketed to fame since the first half of 2021 with his performance in “Word of Honor”.

Nirvana in Fire, Ashes of Love and Word of Honor

In recent years, Shangxi’s momentum of winning awards has been quite strong. There are Berlin Film Festival’s Best Actors Liao Fan and Wang Jingchun, Golden Horse’s Best Actor and box office big shot Xu Zheng, and the nominee for Golden Horse’s Best Actor Peng Yuchang, etc.

Sip Of Tea

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