China is one of the world's leading producers of feature films, yet, except for a handful of recent works by Zhang Yimou (b. 1951) and Chen Kaige (b. 1952), Chinese cinema is virtually unknown in the rest of the world. Language has restricted Chinese movies' mobility, especially since most of them are not subtitled, but so have the country's longtime planned economy and socialist politics, and government censorship of works deemed critical and not suitable for foreign screening.

In 2004 the government body State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) reported 212 films made and 1.5 billion yuan (US$182 million) earned at the box office, with Chinese films making up 55 percent of the market. To achieve that comfortable state the industry traversed a tortuous road potholed by civil wars, World War II, transition from a capitalist to socialist system, the devastating Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), and the United States' aggrandizement policy since the 1990s.

The century of Chinese cinema is generally organized into six generations of filmmakers and their works, each period having certain characteristics. Although qualms occasionally surface concerning this categorization scheme—such as the overlapping of generations and the lack of clear-cut delineations—nevertheless, it has held fast.

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