Want to become a fluent Mandarin speaker? From period dramas to action films, Chinese movies will show you how!

Animated cartoons, fantasy movies and rom coms - there is a whole lot more to Chinese cinema than just Jackie Chan movies!

As a Mandarin learner, Chinese movies enable you to improve your Chinese listening skills as you try to follow the rapid speed at which on-screen characters speak Mandarin. Almost more importantly though, Chinese films - particularly period dramas set in historical time frames - are a gateway to understanding Chinese culture and the history of China.

Whether it be cultural nuances in everyday speech, the origins of common words and metaphors or the root of idioms, language (be it Russian, French or German) is inextricably linked to the culture and history of the people who speak it.

The Chinese language is no exceptioni to this rule.

It is China's rich culture and extraordinary history that make cultural nuances in the Chinese language seem all the more complex to a non-native speaker.

Luckily enough, there is a simple and fun way to resolve this Mandarin learners' cultural conundrum. You guessed it, through Chinese movies!

More than just a bit of light entertainment, Chinese movies give a vivid insight into ancient and modern China and allow you to reflect on how attitudes and social values have changed over time.

This is a really important skill to have when communicating with native Mandarin speakers of different ages. Be if understanding their viewpoints or the wider cultural connotations of the Chinese words they use, learning Mandarin through film will help improve your Chinese communication skills.

Popcorn in hand and YouKu at the ready, this list of movies will enable you to enter the captivating world of Chinese cinema.

Prepare to come out the other end a cultural whizz and Mandarin speaking pro!

Chinese Period Dramas
Chinese period dramas - a cheeky treat for sinophiles craving to learn more about the history of China!

Period Dramas

Period dramas are an ideal way to learn how Chinese values have evolved.

Changes in Chinese culture can be seen most acutely through differing attitudes to the archetypal Chinese male partner.

The above is a quote from a professor at Sichuan University who found that the so-called 'ideal man' reflects changes in Chinese society.

For example, from the bookish glasses wearing scholar of 1920's and 30's Shanghai, the strong military man of the cultural revolution to the rich, tall and handsome man - 高富帅 (Gāofù shuài)- of modern China.

See if you can notice any differing trends in the portrayal of the 'ideal man' as you watch Chinese period dramas.

This short list of Chinese movies set in different time periods will start you off on your cinematic journey.

Raise the Red Lantern
Red and black are crucial colours in Chinese period dramas. Who knew cultural symbolism could teach you Chinese?!

1. Raise the Red Lantern

Chinese Title: 《大红灯笼高高挂》Dàhóng dēnglóng gāo gāo guà
Director: Yimou Zhang
Year Made: 1991
Historical Time Period: 1920's Warlord Era

Directed by the acclaimed Yimou Zhang (张艺谋), Raise the Red Lantern is one of the most famous and well-made of all Chinese period dramas.

Songlian, an educated young teenager, finds herself the third concubine (fourth wife) of a wealthy old man after her father dies leaving the family bankrupt.

“电灯,灭灯,挂灯” (Diàndēng, miè dēng, guà dēng)
“Turn on the lantern, extinguish the lantern, hang the lantern.”

Songlian soon discovers that the four wives' status and access to privileges are determined by their ability to please their husband who will light the lanterns of the wife he wishes to join him in the marital bed. Rivalry to win the master's favour leads to the women of the household eventually being ignored, punished, murdered or left to go insane.

A glimpse into the patriarchal values of Confucian society, family hierarchy is portrayed as absolute in this period drama where women are merely objects to be used, lit, extinguished and discarded at a man's whim.

You may like to brush up on some terms to describe wives and mistresses as it is a major theme in the film and related Chinese words come up a lot!

太太 (Tàitai)
Wife (formal)

姨太太 (Yítàitài)
Concubine (formal)

妾 (Qiè)
Concubine (formal)

老婆 (Lǎopó)
Wife (informal)

小老婆
Concubine - the 'small' wife (informal)

大太太 (Dà tàitai)
First wife - the 'big' wife, the first woman to be married to the head of the household.

二太太 (Èr tàitai)
The second wife - the next woman (or first concubine) to be married to the head of the household.

三太太 (Sān tàitai)
The third wife/ second concubine

四太太 (Sì tàitai)
The fourth wife/ third concubine.

Chinese Films set during the Cultural Revolution
The highs and lows of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

2. Coming Home

Chinese Title: 《归来》Guīlái
Director: Yimou Zhang
Year Made: 2014
Historical Time Period: 1966 – 1976 Cultural Revolution

A story about family divisions, separations and reunions in a time of political change. This is a great Chinese movie to watch if you are looking to learn more about Maoist China.

This period drama is set in Beijing at the height of the Cultural Revolution and follows Yanshi Lu, a professor and intellect wanted by the state. He is eventually turned in by his own daughter who reveals his whereabouts to local officials in a bid to win a starring role in the ballet.

As the Cultural Revolution draws to an end, Yanshi Lu is released and returns to his family only to find that his wife (now suffering from dementia) never forgave his daughter for her betrayal.

“舍不得放下过去的人,是没办法拥有将来的” (Shěbudé fàngxià guòqù de rén, shì méi bànfǎ yǒngyǒu jiàng lái de)
"Those unwilling to put the past behind them cannot have a future"

The film gives a moving insight into the persecution of intellectuals in China and the lasting and divisive effects it had on one family.

It also highlights remembering, blocking-out and forgetting the Cultural Revolution as a key theme.

Chinese mountain village period drama
Not one less and not one more!

3. Not one Less

Chinese Title: 《一个都不能少》Yīgè dōu bùnéng shǎo
Director: Yimou Zhang
Year Made: 1999
Historical Time Period: 1990's

This Chinese movie is perhaps more of a quasi-documentary than a 90's period drama. Although the storyline is largely fictional, Zhang casted local village children living in similar circumstances to the main characters rather than find professional actors.

A 13-year-old girl, Minzhi Wei, becomes a class teacher in an impoverished rural school where chalk is the sole teaching resource after the only teacher leaves abruptly and no other replacement is available.

“人人都得参加,一个都不能少!” (Rén rén dōu dé cānjiā, yīgè dōu bùnéng shǎo)
Everybody has to attend, not one less!

The children eventually grow to respect their teacher who soon notices that one pupil has mysteriously ceased coming to class. After speaking to his relatives, she discovers that he has been sent to the city to raise money for the family.

Determined to ensure all her pupils have a primary education, Minzhi travels far into the city in order to retrieve her student.

Whilst the local dialect and thick rural accents in the film are pretty tricky for new Mandarin learners to understand, it is definitely worth a watch (with subtitles at the ready!) if you want to learn more about China's wealth disparity.

Chinese Martial Arts Movie
There is more to Chinese martial arts movies than meets the eye!

Action Films and Martial Arts Movies

Whilst Jackie Chan movies from Hollywood, Hong Kong or mainland China give a real flavour of the power of Chinese Kung Fu with their tremendous falls, jumps and stunts, they might not be everyone's cup of tea!

On-screen Chinese martial arts not only include Kung Fu, but also cover disciplines such as Tai Chi, sword fighting, Qigong and even flying martial arts! There are also a host of successful Chinese action films that do not even involve any martial arts at all.

Even if you are not an action film fanatic, you can still branch out into some Chinese martial arts movies as a way of gaining some battle and action-based vocabulary that you would not normally come across in everyday speech.

You can also try quizzing yourself with Speechling flashcards once the movie is over!

House of Flying Daggers

4. House of Flying Daggers

Chinese Title: 《十面埋伏》Sìmiàn máifú
Director: Yimou Zhang
Year Made: 2004
Historical Time Period:

This martial arts movie is filled with impressive fight scenes, but is really quite different from the usual action films you may be used to if you are a fan of Jackie Chan movies!

Shot in amongst China's leafy bamboo forests, jagged mountain ranges and ancient architecture, House of Flying Daggers is an example of the very best in Chinese cinematography. It is an alluring amalgamation of exquisite costume, colour, romance, tradition, dazzling classical Chinese music and dance, quick-footed sword fights and nature in all its splendor.

Oh and not forgetting the elusive main character, Mei (played by the stunning actress Ziyi Zhang, and her love interest, Jin!

北方有佳人,絕世而獨立。一顧傾人城,再顧傾人国。(Běifāng yǒu jiārén, juéshì ér dúlì. Yīgù kēng rén chéng, zài gù kēng rén guó)
A rare beauty in the North, stunning and singular. One look confounds a city, a touch dooms an empire.

Unusually for an action film, the dialogue between the characters is really rather poetic and if you are a more advanced Mandarin learner, you can pick-up some of the more eloquent phrases used and make your Mandarin sound just as refined!

If you are a fan of the slightly more famous martial arts movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then this action film will be right up your street. The Mandarin learner in you will also be pleased to hear that both films' original titles are Chinese idioms.

Whilst learning Chinese idioms can be a bit of a headache, associating them with Chinese movies is a fun and easy way to remember them!

Related Chinese idioms:

十面埋伏 (Shímiàn máifú)
An ambush from 10 sides

Surrounded on all sides.

卧虎藏龙 (Wò hǔ cáng lóng)
Crouching tiger, hidden dragon

A person with an unusual or hidden talent residing in an unexpected place.

5. Red Cliff

Chinese Title: 《赤壁》Chìbì
Director: John Woo
Year Made: 2008
Historical Time Period: 220-280 A.D. (China's Three Kingdoms period)

If you are not really into martial arts movies but epic battles and action films are your thing, then you should definitely use Red Cliff to help you learn Chinese!

Red Cliff is a powerful film about war, brotherhood, chivalry, strategy and honour.

Set in the Three Kingdom's period when China was divided into different countries (Wei to the North, Shu to the Southwest and Wu to the South), John Woo provides us with some eye-watering heroic battle scenes that give a glimpse of the power struggles between the warring kingdoms.

没想到我会输给了一次风.我也没料到我会败给了一杯茶!(Méi xiǎngdào wǒ huì shū gěile yīcì fēng. Wǒ yě méi liào dào wǒ huì bài gěile yībēi chá!)
I never guessed I'd loose to a gust of wind. I never dreamed I'd be defeated by a cup of tea.

Apart from the chance to learn Chinese as it was spoken in the past, the film is also an ideal way of getting to know some legendary Chinese figures, including the warmongering General Caocao and the quick-witted Geliang Zhu as he instigates his cunning battle strategies.

Related Chinese idioms:

赤壁之战 (Chìbì zhī zhàn)
Battle of the Red Cliffs

To use one's limited means to win against those with superior forces/ the under dog gains the upper hand/ winning against the odds.

草船借箭 (Cǎo chuán jiè jiàn)
To borrow arrows with thatched boats.

To use somebody's strength against them.

说曹操,曹操到啊!(Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào a!)
Speak of the devil and he appears!

In the Chinese version of the phrase, the word devil is replaced with Caocao's name to reflect what a conniving figure he is regarded as in Chinese society.

The Best Fantasy Movies in Mandarin
Chinese fantasy movies are not for the faint-hearted!

Best Fantasy Movies

From Chinese myths, legends and fairy tales to futuristic lands, Chinese fantasy movies are your window onto a mystical realm of demons and dragons.

They could also be your window onto a world of mythical and spiritual terminology that will come in handy during your next Chinese literature marathon reading session!

Be warned though, dragons are usually good and demons are not always bad!

The Painted Skin Best Chinese Fantasy Movies
To paint, or not to paint? That is the question...

6. The Painted Skin

Chinese Title: 《画皮》Huàpí
Director: Gordon Chan
Year Made: 2008
Historical Time Period:

A love triangle between a husband, General Wang Sheng, his wife, Peirong and Xiaowei, a human heart-eating fox or 'demon'.

Xiaowei falls in love with General Wang Sheng and attempts to trick him into loving her by exchanging skin with his wife.

用你的心,来换我的皮。(Yòng nǐ de xīn, lái huàn wǒ de pí.)
Exchange your heart for my skin.

Love, life, death and resurrection - the film is a supernatural and imaginative journey made for cinema lovers and Mandarin learners alike who are in search of all things fantasy.

Journey to the West
Stop monkeying around!

7. Journey to the West: Conquering Demons

Chinese Title: 《西游·降魔篇》Xīyóu·jiàngmó piān
Director: Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok
Year Made: 2013
Historical Time Period:

An enormous over-sized fish able to eat men, women, babies and even demon-hunters whilst also able to be squashed inside a keyring, a talking monkey in a cave, one man's huge expanding leg alongside a combination of magic, madness and Buddhist ethics.

世间之爱皆是爱,没有大小之分。
All love on Earth is love, it cannot be distinguished as big or small.

Journey to the West: Conquering Demons is perhaps one of the best fantasy movies of recent times and could even be regarded as China's answer to Lord of the Rings.

Journey to the West, the story of one man's physical and spiritual journey from the Far East towards India with his companions (including the ingenious Monkey King) is arguably the most well-known of the four main Chinese classic novels.

The novel is referenced frequently in all walks of life and any Mandarin learner worth their salt would do well to have a basic understanding of the story. Watching this Chinese movie is an easy and entertaining way to do so!

Chinese animated cartoon
Anyone up for a Chinese animated cartoon? Put down your pens and pick up the popcorn!

Animated Cartoon

From light-hearted animes to truly moving animations, Chinese animated cartoons are ideal for Chinese language learners as they are usually geared towards children and therefore use language that is somewhat more simplistic and easy to understand than that of other Chinese movies.

Many animated cartoons although suitable for children also contain deeper and more complex themes that give a nod to parents or older viewers who may also be tuned-in.

Chinese Animated Cartoon
Big fish, little pond...

8. Big Fish and Begonia

Chinese Title: 《大鱼·海棠》Dà yú·hǎitáng
Directors: Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang
Year Made: 2017
Historical Time Period:

Those of you who loved Japan's highest grossing anime film, Spirited Away, are in for a treat as this Chinese animated cartoon will have you just as glued to your seat.

It also has the added bonus of teaching you Chinese at the same time!

Big Fish and Begonia is the story of Chun and her quest to rescue Kun, a human boy who saved her life and exists in the form of a dolphin in her world. This animated cartoon could equally fall into the category for best fantasy movies as the otherworldly underwater realm portrayed in the film is depicted in such a beautifully creative and imaginative way.

The artwork, script and unpredictable plot intertwine seamlessly together to present a beguiling vision of the worlds of humans, non-humans, the living and the dead.

有的鱼是永远都关不住的因为他们属于天空 (Yǒu de yú shì yǒngyuǎn dōu guān bù zhù de yīnwèi tāmen shǔyú tiānkōng)
Some fish can never be contained because they belong to the sky.

The script uses basic Chinese words, but is actually very moving and broaches rather philosophical subjects that will have you reflecting on them long after the credits roll.

Chinese Romantic Comedies

Romantic Comedies

Whether you are normally a fan of rom coms or not, as a Mandarin learner you should still try watching a few Chinese ones as they will give you an insight into modern day relationships in Mandarin speaking countries and casual Chinese phrases used day to day by young people.

Love is Blind
Love is not blind, or is it?

9. Love is Not Blind

Chinese Title: 《失恋33天》Shīliàn 33 tiān
Director: Hua-Tao Teng
Year Made: 2011
Historical Time Period: Modern day

Love is Not Blind was a colossal hit in China and part of the reason for that is that it is a true rom com - a perfect mix of modern romance and comedy!

This romantic comedy follows Huangshu - a young office worker in charge of planning weddings - as she discovers her boyfriend being unfaithful and the following 33 days of her break-up as she goes from sadness to rage and bitterness to acceptance.

有句俗话啊,时间能治愈一切 (Yǒu jù súhuà a, shíjiān néng zhìyù yīqiè)
There's a saying, time heals all wounds

Love is not blind - or the Chinese title 《失恋33天》, meaning 33 days after breaking up - will easily prove to be your golden nugget of go-to Mandarin phrases. This Chinese movie is just what you need if you are keen to learn Mandarin phrases that are very colloquial, witty, funny, cutting and used by the younger generation!

Useful Chinese phrase:

戴绿帽子 (Dàilǜmào zi)
To be cuckolded / to be cheated on.

The literal translation of the phrase is 'to wear a green hat' and it is so commonly used in China that wearing or even purchasing a green-coloured hat or sometimes even green clothing in public is considered taboo.

Romantic Comedy Movies - Wedding invitation
Romantic comedies, or romantic tragedies?

10. A Wedding Invitation

Chinese Title: 《分手合约》Fēnshǒu héyuē
Director: Ki-hwan Oh
Year Made: 2013
Historical Time Period: Modern day

QiaoQiao and Xing Li are breaking up, but they sign a 'break-up contract' vowing to marry one another if they are unable to find a suitable marital partner. Only to late Xing Li discovers the contract is simply a ruse to cover up QiaoQiao's secret...

人们分开总是有原因的,但是有些人你应该等. (Rénmen fēnkāi zǒng shì yǒu yuányīn de dànshì yǒuxiē rén nǐ yīnggāi děng)
People always separate for a reason, but some people are worth waiting for.

A Wedding Invitation could just as well be classed as romantic tragedy as it could rom com due to the film's rather sad ending.

Nonetheless, if you can keep up with the Mandarin dialogue as the main characters argue and taunt each other throughout the film it will probably have you laughing.

Essential Chinese Rom Com Vocabulary:

跟。。。。。。谈恋爱 (Gēn...... Tán liàn'ài)
To be dating...[him/her]

失恋 (Shīliàn)
To be dumped

分手 (Fēnshǒu)
To break-up