Since the 1980s, Chinese cinema has attracted considerable critical attention at international festivals. The films have been received and interpreted according to “art cinema” criteria and compared to those of other famous “auteurs”. However, these concepts were not widely used by film critics in the People’s Republic of China at the time. The analysis of articles published in two film journals, Dianying Yishu 电影艺术 and Dangdai Dianying 当代电影 between 1979 and 2001 revealed that the label tansuopian 探索片 or “exploration film” is used to refer to these films instead. In this paper, different theoretical conceptions of “art cinema” are briefly presented, in order to highlight the similarities and points of difference with the Chinese critics’ “exploration film”. As a conclusion, I argue that the concept of “art cinema”, in spite of its relative absence in the Chinese critics’ writings of the 1980s, can lead to a better understanding of Chinese cinema in its specific social, economic and political context.