Zhang, best known for Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, also devised the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing.
South Korean thriller Mother was named best film at Monday's event, where its star Kim Hye-ja also won best actress.
China's Lu Chuan won the best director award for City of Life and Death.
His epic film - released in the UK next month - tells of the Nanjing Massacre in 1937, in which many thousands of Chinese civilians were killed by Japanese soldiers.
Wang Xueqi, also from China, was named best actor for his role in historical drama Bodyguards and Assassins, which also won co-star Nicholas Tse a supporting actor gong.
Zhang Yimou urged Asian filmmaker's to think on a global scale.
"Asian movies and Asian culture should play a bigger role in the world, affect more people and make more people from different countries interested in and pay attention to Asian culture," he said.
John Woo was recognised for directing the year's top-grossing film Red Cliff, while Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan received a lifetime achievement award.
He said he had no plans to retire.
"So long there are people who wish to work with me, and so long I remain healthy, I would like to continue working," he said.
Inaugurated in 2007, the Asian Film Awards honours filmmakers with outstanding achievements in the field of Asian cinema.
A total of 37 films vied for the 14 prizes, bestowed this year at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.