Fourth Generation filmmakers were trained in film schools in the 1950s, and then their careers were sidelined by the Cultural Revolution until they were about forty years old. (They found a short time in the 1980s to make films.) Because they experienced the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals and others were beaten and otherwise tortured and banished to the countryside to do menial work, Fourth Generation filmmakers told stories about disastrous experiences in Chinese history, the havoc caused by the ultra-left, and the lifestyles and mindsets of rural folk. Armed with theory and practice, they were able to explore the laws of art to reshape film, using a realistic, simple, and natural style. Typical was Bashan yeyu ( Evening Rain , 1980), by Wu Yonggang and Wu Yigong, about the Cultural Revolution years.

Fourth Generation directors stressed the meaning of life, focusing on an idealistic view of human nature. Characterization was important, and they attributed to their characters traits based on the common philosophy of ordinary people. For example, they changed military films to depict ordinary people and not just heroes, and to show the brutality of war from a humanistic approach. The Fourth Generation also expanded the varieties of characters and forms of artistic expression in biographical films. Previously, historical figures and soldiers were the main subjects, but after the Cultural Revolution, films glorified state and party leaders such as Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), and Mao Zedong (1893–1976) and showed the lives of both intellectuals and common people, as in Cheng nan jiu shi ( My Memories of Old Beijing , 1983), directed by Wu Yigong; Wo men de tian ye ( Our Farm Land , 1983), directed by Xie Fei (b. 1942) and Zheng Dongtian; Liang jia fu nü ( A Good Woman , 1985), directed by Huang Jianzhong; Ye shan ( Wild Mountains , 1986), directed by Yan Xueshu; Lao jing ( Old Well , 1986), directed by Wu Tianming (b. 1939); and Beijing ni zao ( Good Morning, Beijing , 1991), directed by Zhang Nuanxin.

The representation of social issues—housing in Lin ju ( Neighbor , 1981), by Zheng Dongtian and Xu Guming, and malpractice in Fa ting nei wai ( In and Outside the Court , 1980) by Cong Lianwen and Lu Xiaoya—was an important theme. The Fourth Generation also was concerned with China's reform, as exemplified in Ren sheng (Significance of life, 1984) by Wu Tianming (b. 1939), Xiang yin ( Country Couple , 1983) by Hu Bingliu, and later, Guo nian ( Celebrating the New Year , 1991) by Huang Jianzhong and Xiang hun nü ( Women from the Lake of Scented Souls , 1993) by Xie Fei (b. 1942).

Other contributions of the Fourth Generation were changes made in methods of storytelling and cinemato-graphic expression. For example, in Sheng huo de chan yin ( Reverberations of Life , 1979) Wu Tianming and Teng Wenji developed the plot by combining it with a violin concerto, allowing the music to help carry the story. Ku nao ren de xiao (Smile of the distressed, 1979) by Yang Yanjin used the inner conflicts and insanity of the lead character as the narrative thread. To realistically record scenes, filmmakers used creative techniques such as long takes, location shooting, and natural lighting (the latter two especially in Xie Fei's films). True-to-life and unadorned performances were also necessary in this generation's films, and were supplied by new actors and actresses such as Pan Hong, Li Zhiyu, Zhang Yu, Chen Chong, Tang Guoqiang, Liu Xiaoqing, Siqin Gaowa, and Li Ling.

Like their male counterparts, Fourth Generation women filmmakers graduated from film schools in the 1960s, but had their careers delayed because of the Cultural Revolution. Among them were Zhang Nuanxin (1941–1995), who directed Sha ou (1981) and Qing chun ji ( Sacrificed Youth , 1985); Huang Shuqin, known for Qing chun wan sui (Forever young, 1983) and Ren gui qing ( Woman, Demon, Human , 1987); Shi Shujun, director of Nü da xue sheng zhi si ( Death of a College Girl , 1992), which helped reveal a hospital malpractice cover-up in the death of a student; Wang Haowei, who made Qiao zhe yi jiazi (What a family!, 1979) and Xizhao jie ( Sunset Street , 1983); Wang Junzheng, director of Miao Miao (1980); and Lu Xiaoya, director of Hong yi shao nü ( Girl in Red , 1985).

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