Born Zhang Ziyi, February 9, 1979, in Beijing, China; daughter of Zhang Yuan Xiao (a government economist) and Li Zhou Sheng (a kindergarten schoolteacher). Education: Attended China Central Drama Academy.
Addresses: Agent —William Morris Agency, One William Morris Place, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Actress in films, including: The Road Home, 1999; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000; Rush Hour 2, 2001; The Legend of Zu, 2001; Musa the Warrior, 2001; Hero, 2002; Purple Butterfly, 2003; House of Flying Daggers, 2004; 2046, 2004; Jasmine Flower, 2004; Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005.
Awards: Golden Bauhinia Award for best supporting actress, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2001; Hong Kong Film Critics Society award for best actress, for 2046, 2004; Hong Kong Film award for best actress, for 2046, 2004, named one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people, 2005; Hua Biao award for excellent actress, for House of Flying Daggers, 2005.
Called "a rare talent, blending delicacy and fragility with athleticism and a formidable personality," by Bill Thompson of the Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, Ziyi Zhang has taken
The actress was born Zhang Ziyi on February 9, 1979, in Beijing to Zhang Yuan Xiao, a government economist, and Li Zhou Sheng, a kindergarten schoolteacher. (When she began gaining attention from American audiences, she flipped the order of her name to conform to Western style.) She has one older brother, who owns an advertising agency. Zhang grew up poor. She told Stephen Whitty of the Star-Ledger, "My parents' life was not easy at all. Our house in Beijing was very small, we didn't have money—it was really before the beginning of the economic boom. The generation of the '90s, those who are now in their teens, they are the ones who are really benefiting from what is going on in China now. But I'm very glad I had what I had because it allows me to appreciate a lot of things."
Zhang began taking dance lessons when she was very young. She did not wish to become a dancer, but she was very small and frail as a child and her parents, fearful for her health, insisted that she dance to build up her strength, so they enrolled her at the Beijing Dance Academy when she was eleven. Zhang discovered that dance—mainly ballet and traditional Chinese—was good not only for her body, but for her mind. She learned much of the discipline she exudes as an adult when she was a little girl. She did not really enjoy it, however, so when the time came after six years to renew her studies, she suggested to her parents that she try drama instead; they agreed. In 1996 she enrolled in the China Central Drama Academy but she felt like she did not belong. She was extremely uncertain of her skills at first, so nervous that she had difficulty acting. "I lost myself and felt pain for the whole year," Zhang was quoted by the Xinhua News Agency. "Teacher Chang was very strict with us. I usually prayed to God before going to bed to tell me how to accomplish my homework the next day." In her second year, after she struggled hard to pass her first-year exams, she finally started to get a feel for performing. She discovered such a passion for acting that second year that at the year-end performance she rushed on stage during a show where she was playing a wife greeting her husband and accidentally crashed into a large piece of glass. She was rushed to the hospital and still bears a scar on her hand, but she had finally found the desire and passion to act that she had been missing before.
She was discovered at a casting call for a shampoo commercial with Lantern director Zhang Yimou (no relation). The ad was never made, but Zhang Yimou was so impressed with Zhang that he cast her in his 1999 movie, The Road Home. This movie is Zhang's favorite role to date. She loved the sweet devotion her character showed the man she loved and really felt passion acting in it.
It was her next film, however, that brought Zhang to the attention of critics and audiences across the globe. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000, was just about as far removed from her first acting experience as she could get. Ang Lee directed the film and famous Chinese actors Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh co-starred in the film with her. Apparently it was those two acting heavyweights that were expected to make an impact on foreign audiences, but instead the ethereal and fragile beauty that Zhang showed on screen, along with her fantastic physical strength in the martial arts scenes, captured the hearts of audiences around the globe. She was also known for her incredible dedication, on and off screen. The Xinhua News Agency wrote, "Ang Lee … has said that [Zhang] is the most enterprising girl among the actresses he has cooperated with, and she would bear any hardship." The movie was a challenge for Zhang, but one that she welcomed gladly. She told Ian Nathan in the Times, "I love Crouching Tiger very much because I didn't know I could play this strong girl, a very powerful girl. I think Ang Lee helped me to find that kind of personality. I didn't know I could do it. I am softer. I can't kick people." For most of the film Zhang's goal was just to please Lee and hear words of praise from him. After filming was completed, Lee finally expressed how pleased he was with Zhang's performance. The director was not the only one who appreciated Zhang's hard work; people flocked the theaters to see the film. Joanna Connors of the Plain Dealer said of the film, "Zhang, the young actress who plays Jen, has the most difficult role. Jen is full of secrets and schemes, and she switches teams so often she should file for free agency. Zhang pulls it off effortlessly, and achieves what most actors never do: She expresses her character through her movement, like a great dancer." Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won an Academy Award, and the Toronto Film Critics Association named the movie the best film of the year and nominated Zhang for best supporting actress.
Zhang next made her American film debut with a small role in the action-comedy Rush Hour 2. She took the role to help improve her English-speaking skills as much as for the experience. She also learned a great deal about the differences between the American and Chinese moviemaking cultures. Zhang told Whitty of the Star-Ledger, "In America, making a movie you have a lot of technology and you spend a lot of money, so the conditions are very good. I have my own trailer! And we have weekends off, and the Christmas holiday! That's a big difference from China." She had a good time acting alongside fellow countryman Jackie Chan, learning English and how to cross over to American films, although she said she was not interested in moving to the United States. She told Whitty of the Star-Ledger that one of the reasons she would not move here was because of a lack of good roles for Asian women. "That's a problem, I think. I'm thinking there's not a lot of opportunity yet. I know we're lucky to get these films; you can't hope too much. But I don't want to play evil girl, prostitute, all the time. I'd like to play Monster's Ball, a movie like that. But there are not so many good scripts written just for Asians."
Her next big role was as a blind dancer named Mei in the martial arts epic House of Flying Daggers. She became so dedicated to giving her all in every performance that when she was training to be in the film she carried 30 kilogram bags of sand on her legs for two months. She especially had to train for a dance she performs in the movie. Bob Strauss of the Daily News noted her hard work. "Her greatest physical display was the Echo Game. Challenged by Inspector Leo to prove she really is a great dancer and not just another girl-for-hire at the Peony Pavilion bordello, Mei is placed within a semi-circle of mounted drums. When Leo flicks a particular drumhead with a small stone, blind Mei must strike the same surface with an extended sleeve of her silk gown." There were no special effects in that sequence and she had to train long hours to get it right. "I had to hit every drum right; sometimes it took 20 takes, your aim has to be right on. It took about two months of rehearsal," she told Strauss. In August of 2005 Zhang won the Excellent Actress title of the Hua Biao Award, the Chinese government's film award. It was her first win, although she had been nominated several times before.
Her next role was another change from the martial arts flick for which she was becoming famous. That movie was the Chinese film 2046. The movie is about a young woman who is trying to make ends meet in 1960s Hong Kong. She does this mainly through a series of wealthy boyfriends. She ends up connecting with a writer who has himself been hurt by love and has no qualms at passing his pain on to others. Elizabeth Weitzman of the Seattle Times said of Zhang's performance, "The actress captures Bai Ling's vulnerable dignity and immense pain so precisely, it's difficult to reconcile the character with the Zhang who bounds into our interview wearing a denim miniskirt, tank top, and flip-flops, and who might pass for 18." G. Allen Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle said it was Zhang's "most mature performance to date."
One of her biggest coups, however, came when she obtained the title role in the film adaptation of the popular novel Memoirs of a Geisha, directed by Rob Marshall. She perfected her English for the part, and then had to learn a Japanese accent. It was quite a challenge, but another one that she gladly accepted. The movie opened in December of 2005 in the United States and Zhang's fans were not disappointed with her first starring role in an American film.
Having reached the pinnacle of fame in Asia, if not worldwide, in September of 2005 Zhang took part in the opening festivities of Hong Kong Disneyland along with such other famous actors as Jackie Chang, Andy Hui, and Paige O'Hara. She was also named one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people. She has become a spokesmodel for Maybel-line cosmetics and Pantene shampoo. She was named #131 of Express on Sunday 's top 300 most beautiful women and she was a presenter at the Academy Awards. That same year, Zhang was invited to join the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was the only Chinese star to be invited to join that year. The membership would allow her to vote for Oscar winners. Apparently Zhang has firmly established herself as an actress to watch, one who is admired and sought after.
People talk to Zhang all the time about her easy climb to the top, but Zhang always disagrees. Zhang told the Xinhua News Agency, "My success was not by chance, instead, it's paved by hard work, pain, and tears." Now that she has achieved success in the American market, she has admitted to be contemplating staying in the country. The main problem, aside from her dismay at the lack of parts for Asians, was that she really wanted to become a role model for her own countrywomen. She told the New York Post, "For Western women, it's much easier to be yourself. If you want to do something, you just go and do it. In an Asian context, women are still much more modest and conservative. I want, through my roles, to express the parts in the hearts of Chinese women that they feel unable to let out." It would be hard to argue that she has not begun doing just that—she has wisely chosen a number of roles portraying women as strong and self-possessed, and it is to be expected that this will continue as her career progresses into the future.
Chicago Tribune, January 6, 2005.
Daily Mail (London, England), September 29, 2000, p. 51; December 29, 2000, p. 51.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), August 9, 2001, p. L3; November 14, 2004, p. U7; December 3, 2004, p. U6.
Entertainment Weekly, December 22, 2000, p. 42; January 12, 2001, p. 85; June 8, 2001, p. 53; November 12, 2004, p. 56; December 10, 2004, p. 64; December 31, 2004, p. 70; April 22, 2005, p. 50; June 24, 2005, p. 61.
Esquire, December 2000, p. 130.
Evening Standard (London, England), June 28, 2005, p. 18.
Express on Sunday, March 10, 2002, p. 28.
International Herald Tribune, December 7, 2004, p. 12.
Interview, December 2000, p. 53; June 2001, p. 58; August 2001, p. 52; December 2004, p. 112; August 2005, p. 84; October 2005, p. 150.
New Statesman, January 8, 2001, p. 33; January 1, 2005, p. 83.
New York Daily News, August 4, 2005.
New York Post, November 28, 2004, p. 89; August 3, 2005, p. 49.
New York Times, May 27, 2001, p. AR9.
Orange County Register, December 9, 2004.
People, March 12, 2001, p. 88; May 14, 2001, p. 143; September 6, 2004, p. 31; December 27, 2004, p. 35; May 9, 2005, p. 170; August 15, 2005, p. 118.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), January 12, 2001, p. 4.
Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), June 2, 2005, p. F13.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), February 21, 2005, p. F1.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 28, 2002, p. 32; August 19, 2005, p. E5.
Seattle Times, August 13, 2005, p. G3.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), August 7, 2005, p. 1.
Teen People, June 1, 2002, p. 99.
Time, December 4, 2000, p. 166; January 15, 2001, p. 122; December 6, 2004, p. 125; April 18, 2005, p. 124.
Times (London, England), October 9, 2004, p. 7; December 12, 2004, p. 4.
Variety, February 21, 2000, p. 37; November 8, 2004, p. 40; May 16, 2005, p. 74; June 6, 2005, p. 28.
Xinhua News Agency, August 30, 2005; September 1, 2005; October 27, 2005.
— Catherine Victoria Donaldson