Athletes score big in Olympic year.
Houston Rockets center Yao Ming stirred the pride of many Chinese around the world when he carried China's flag and led its team into the Bird's Nest at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics last August, helping to kick off the games after years of controversy. In a year when sports figured so prominently in the country, it's fitting that the basketball star tops our latest annual Forbes China Celebrity List.
Yao ranked No. 1 on our list for the sixth consecutive time, bolstered by exposure from the Olympics and a bevy of endorsement deals that included Visa and McDonald's. On the basketball court, the seven-and-a-half-footer led China's squad to finish among the final eight teams.
The list, compiled by Forbes China, surveys the popularity and income of leaders in movies, sports, media and music in mainland China. Celebrities from Hong Kong and Taiwan, like Jackie Chan and Jay Chou, aren't included. Although the list reflects the clout of China's top celebrities at home, the country's top stars are increasingly finding success abroad.
Olympians dominated the top of this year's ranking in part because of the huge push the event received from state-controlled media. But it was because of a genuine widespread interest in sports in the world's most populous country, and China's strong performance at the games. Another Olympic basketball team member and NBA star, New York Nets forward Yi Jianlian, ranked No. 3, up from No. 4 last year. Off the court, he added to his fame with appearances in ads for Nike and McDonald's.
Two gold-medal performances propelled 27-year-old Olympics star Guo Jingjing to No. 4 from No. 28 last year. Guo won gold on her own in the women's springboard, and, with Wu Minxia, another in the women's synchronized springboard. She has appeared in advertisements for Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Avon.
Sprinter Liu Xiang, who shocked Chinese when he pulled out of the games due to a leg injury, still managed to come in at No. 5 on our newest list, down from No. 2 last year. Liu, 25, has been in the news for traveling to the U.S. for surgery. He attended the end of national political gathering in Beijing this month as a delegate after criticism for not showing up.
Stars largely from film filled out the rest of the top 10. Actress Zhang Ziyi, 30, ranked No. 2 in part because of her success in Forever Enthralled, a tribute to opera singer Mei Lanfang directed by heavyweight Chen Kaige. But she also attracted attention because of her romantic ties to Vivi Nevo, the low-profile Israeli media and entertainment industry investor. Previous well-known Zhang films include Memoirs of a Geisha, 2046 and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Beijing-born actor Jet Li, who slipped three notches to rank No. 6 this year, is best known for Chinese-language films such as Hero and The Warlords, but he made his biggest mark last year promoting charity. Li's One Foundation, founded in 2007, has emerged as an up-and-coming force in Chinese philanthropy with efforts in disaster relief. Businesses that work with the One Foundation include Microsoft, business portal Alibaba.com and Philippine brewer San Miguel. In January, Li attended the Davos forum and sat on a philanthropy roundtable with Bill Gates and others.
Actress and singer Zhao Wei, who also goes by the name Vicki Zhao, ranked No. 7 in part from exposure from the epic "Red Cliff" series set in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and directed by Hong Kong-American John Woo. The 33-year-old graduate of the Beijing Film Academy won early fame in the television series Princess Pearl and has played a variety of roles in films such as Jade Goddess of Mercy. Product endorsements include White Rabbit, the candy that was pulled from shelves in China last year during the country's milk safety scare.
Fan Bingbing ranked No. 8, down two spots from last year, but gained publicity from Flash Point, a bloody martial arts movie, and Tao Hua Yun, a light romantic comedy. Fan's 2007 film, Lost in Beijing, a grim tale of rape, extortion and deceit in China's capital, was nominated for international awards. Fan won early fame from appearing the television saga Huan Zhu Ge Ge. She has also appeared in ads for Olay cosmetics.
Actress and singer Zhou Xun slipped a notch to No. 9 this year but appeared in the film Wa Pei, which, according to one description, ''follows the love-hate relationship between a vixen spirit and a group of humans.'' Wa Pei also features No. 7 on our list, Zhao Wei. Zhou also starred in the Equation of Love and Death, in which she plays a cab driver looking for a lost fiancé. Zhou's endorsements over the years have included Olay cosmetics and Motorola.
Rounding out the top 10, actress Li Bingbing, 33, appeared with Jet Li and Jackie Chan in last year's The Forbidden Kingdom. The Harbin native graduated from the Shanghai Drama Institute. Endorsements include Olay cosmetics.
(Russell Flannery, Forbes.com)