Biography

Early years

Zhang Ziyi was born and raised in Beijing, China on the 9th of February 1979 to Zhang Yuanxiao, an accountant and later economist, and Li Zhousheng, a kindergarten teacher. She is very close to her older brother, Zhang Zinan. As a little girl, Ziyi is seen by her friends as being too frail which leads her to begin studying dance at 8 years old; she took up gymnastics and dance to built up her strength. She spent years training in traditional Chinese folk dance, first in elementary school at the Xuanwu District Children’s Palace. Subsequently, she joined the Beijing Dance Academy by her parents’ suggestion at the age of 11. While at this boarding school, she noticed how mean the other girls were to each other while competing for status amongst the teachers. Zhang disliked the attitudes of her peers and teachers so much that, on one occasion, she ran away from the school. At the age of 15, Zhang won the National Youth Dance Championship and began appearing in television commercials in Hong Kong.

In 1996, Zhang entered China’s prestigious Central Academy of Drama at the age of 17. The same year, she got the lead in her first movie, the small-budget TV Movie Touching Starlight where she played an aspiring dancer whose hopes and dreams for the future are dashed when her leg is amputated due to cancer. Gradually, local newspapers and small magazines began to take Ziyi as their cover girl, which became the pride of her father when he bought off tons of her first magazine cover and distributed them to the costumers of his office.
She also filmed some commercials for brands like Beijing Liquor and China Mobile. She is seen in an Olay campaign based in Hong Kong alongside Chinese superstars like Maggie Cheung and Joan Chen. Unfortunately, the little Ziyi is still unknown.

While auditioning for a shampoo commercial in 1998, she is discovered by Zhang Yimou before graduation. She got her big break in China when Zhang Yimou, who was using the commercial as a way to find the perfect actress for his next movie, gave her the lead role in The Road Home. The movie was released a year later in China and won the Silver Bear award at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival. At the Hundred Flowers Awards Ceremony that year, she won her first prestigious prize for the best actress in The Road Home.

2000 – 2004

Ziyi was cast in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon alongside Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, after being recommended to director Ang Lee by Zhang Yimou. Ziyi had to study “not only martial arts, but disposition, classic movement, calligraphy, etiquette, voice. Diving-she never dived before.” Her character required an highly trained and skillful martial artist. Ziyi who never had any martial arts training, used her dance techniques to learn her moves in the action scenes. Crying every night, the intensive training and filming gave the actress one of the most hard time of her life.
The movie became the most successful foreign movie of all time by winning hundred of prizes worldwide and grossing more than 200 millions worldwide. She garnered tons of awards around the world, such as Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, Toronto Film Critics Association Awards and Independent Spirit Awards and a Golden Bauhinia Awards in Hong Kong. Everybody now knows Ziyi as the dragon-girl (or the little Gong Li).

Ziyi later got a supporting role in the most awaited film of 2001 in China, the Hong Kong-China’s co-production from director Tsui Hark, The Legend of Zu, based on the same source as the 1983 film Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain. Ziyi’s first appearance in an American movie was in Rush Hour 2 where she took a part initially written for a man, the role of a triad member. Ziyi could not speak English at the time. Her Chinese co-star Jackie Chan had to translate everything the rest of the crew were telling her. She is later seen in the South Korean blockbuster Musa: The Warrior, the biggest and most expensive film project in Korean history.
In the beginning of 2001, Ziyi is not only on several magazine covers in her mainland, but also in United States. This international recognition gave her the opportunity to become the queen of commercials. She became the spokesperson for famous brands such as Lenovo, Maybelline, Tag Heuer, Visa, Soutec, Pantene, Coca-Cola
One year after, Ziyi was cast in Hero, with her early mentor Zhang Yimou. The film was presented at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival in official Competition where it won the Alfred Bauer Award. After screening in various festivals, Hero was a huge success in the English-speaking world and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe award in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Meanwhile, Ziyi was named ambassador of a Tibet Foundation that focused on helping Tibetan children to get a better education.

She then signed on to film an avant-garde drama, Purple Butterfly, which competed in the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. It was Ziyi’s first collaboration with a Sixth Generation director in China, this time with Suzhou River’s director Lou Ye. Unfortunately, the film’s response was mixed by critics who praised the performances of the cast, but criticized it’s the structure. Later, she went back to South-Korea to film a cameo in the sequel of the comedy hit, My Wife is a Gangster. Afterwards, she became the face of the Japanese shampoo brand Asience. The campaign designer couldn’t find a woman more beautiful or who personified the Asian Beauty more than her: “What struck me [about her] is that she is extremely gracious, the extremely polite, patricial, like a dancer… it seems to me that, her being shy, but still you can still sense the strength and the character.

2004 was a very important year in Ziyi’s career. She released three of her most important films and she did some of her most acclaimed performances. During Cannes Film Festival, two of her movies were shown. After more than four years of production with 2 years of filming, 2046, directed by festival’s legend Wong Kar Wai, was finally competing at Cannes. Although, 2046 didn’t win the Golden Palm, Ziyi received lavish critical praise. Her performance was so surprising that Quentin Tarantino, who was the jury president this year, was thinking of giving her the title of best actress during the closing ceremony. Maggie Cheung actually received the honor, but Ziyi still won one of the most important prize of her life, the best actress award at Hong Kong Film Awards. Also screened in Cannes, but not in competition, House of Flying Daggers, reuniting Ziyi and Zhang Yimou in this tragic Wu Xia film. Ziyi once again gave a strong performance that was awarded at the Huabiao Film Awards.
Shanghai Film Festival premiered the anticipated and highly feminist Jasmine Flower where Ziyi played the three principal roles. By playing the grandmother, the mother and the girl in their youthfulness in three different times, Ziyi won the most prestigious prize an actress could get in China during Golden Rooster Awards. After all the success, The film festival of Venice invited the actress to be a part of the jury, but she was just cast in Memoirs of a Geisha

2005 – 2007

In 2005, Ziyi’s first Japanese movie, Princess Raccoon was released at 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Japanese New Wave legend Seijun Suzuki, this musical comedy retraced the love story between banished prince Amechiyo and the raccoon princess Tanukihime, disguised in human.
She then accepted the lead role of Sayuri in the film adaptation based on the international bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha. Controversy arose in Japan and China about having a Chinese woman portray a Japanese geisha. Steven Spielberg was supposed to direct the film but Rob Marshall was finally on board to direct it. The film reunited two other famous actress, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li. For this film Ziyi had to practice her english but also dance with platform shoes. She received a Golden Globe nomination, a Screen Actor Guild nomination, as well as a third BAFTA Nomination for this role. The Actress accepted an invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, placing her among the ranks of those able to vote on the Academy Awards.

With a successful year behind her in the United States, Ziyi presented awards in all the prestigious American film ceremonies in the beginning of 2006.
She had the opportunity to pursue a Hollywood career, but chose to return to China instead, where mainland director Feng Xiaogang was trying to find the right actress to portray an empress inspired by Shakespeare’s character Gertrude in Hamlet. Ziyi gladly accepted the part in The Banquet alongside Daniel Wu, Ge You and Zhou Xun. The film competed at the 2006 Venice Film Festival and was shown at Toronto Film Festival in September. Moreover, Ziyi was invited to be a member of the jury at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. That year, Wong Kar Wai was the president of the jury. Already used to this festival, she became the youngest member of the jury of all time. Ziyi was also chosen to be the face of Garnier, the cosmetics brand of L’Oréal.
At the end of the year, Ziyi became Global Ambassador for Special Olympics movement. She joined a select group of celebrities who are dedicated to spreading the Special Olympics message and acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities: “As a Global Ambassador, I am committed to helping Special Olympics transform attitudes and dispel negative stereotypes on a global level,” said Ms. Zhang. “I hope to help people understand that we need to celebrate and appreciate differences. We all have worth, we all have value, and we’re all better off when we help each other out.

In 2007, Ziyi began dating Israeli venture capitalist Vivi Nevo. At the time in China, this new relationship was very criticized. In May, she was one of the prestigious guests invited to the premiere of “Chacun son Cinéma”, a special film to celebrate the 60 years of the festival. She also appeared in front of the Palais des festivals on the official poster of the festival alongside Wong Kar Wai. At the dinner party Ziyi met Chen Kaige who expressed his intentions of shooting a movie about the famous Peking Opera star Mei Lanfang. Ziyi showed her interest to the project.
Back to the United States, Ziyi provided the voice of Karai in the new animation movie of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and starred along with Dennis Quaid in the horror film The Horsemen where she got the part of a young psychopath. For her role, she was inspired by the performance of Anthony Hopkins in the skin of the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter “You can see how he uses words … very carefully. None are wasted. I watched him in that performance countless times“. After many reshoots, the film was a complete failure.
The same year she became the new spokesperson for Platinum Guild International after the end of Maggie Cheung‘s contract. She won the Chinese World Influence Award and started helping abandoned and orphaned children with Care for Children.

2008 – 2009

Ziyi did a lot of endorsements in 2008. She signed contracts with many luxury brands such as Veva Mobile, SLK Mercedes and finally Omega. She promoted these products all around the world.
Then, she stars at the end of the year in the much awaited biopic about Chinese Opera Superstar Mei Lanfang, Forever Enthralled, where she played the legendary Peking Opera Star Meng Xiaodong, the one true love of Mei Lanfang, played by Leon Lai. The film directed by the awarded Chen Kaige was surprisingly well received by Chinese public that were left profoundly touched by the story and the movie itself. Forever Enthralled was shown in the competition at the Berlin Film Festival, where it received positive responses, with critics calling it a sumptuous film.
The same year Ziyi attented the Cannes Film Festival with the goal to raise money. Indeed a terrible earthquake mesuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit the chinese province of Sichuan, China, making many victims. Deeply affected by this tragic news and shedding some tears, the actress launched her personal foundation to raise money. Ziyi has made a personal donation of $144,000 and managed to raise a total of $400, 000. This day she met people unaware of the tragedy. “I was as angry as a madwoman. I said, ‘Are you idiots? You are well-dressed people who look like you identify with society, but you don’t know what’s going on on planet Earth.’ It’s incredible!“. She didn’t know it yet, even with these good intentions, she will be the aim two years after of a terrible scandal.
During the year, Ziyi travelled around the world for her TV documentary with National Geographic. She also went to Greece to attend the Olympic flame ignition. The 2008 Summer Olympic Games indeed took place in Beijing.

1999-2009, Ziyi had 30 years and she was happiest than ever – she was engaged to her fiancé Vivi Nevo – and ready for new challenges. While she was at the Berlin Film Festival, the actress celebrated her birthday and her 10 years of career. Indeed, this festival was the first in Ziyi’s Career where “The Road Home” was awarded with the silver bear.
Even if Ziyi was still happy being an actress, she wanted to try something new. She produced and starred in her first romantic comedy, Sophie’s Revenge, where she had the chance to show a much more funny side of herself. During 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Ziyi was a jury member of la Cinéfondation. While she was at Cannes, Ziyi launched the official website and the first trailer of the film. Sophie’s Revenge was released in summer 2009. Romantic comedies were not so popular in China but Sophie’s Revenge was a big hit and Ziyi’s popularity was at the top. She won her second Huabiao Film Award for her role in Chen Kaige’s Forever Enthralled and appeared in the all-star propaganda hit, The Founding of a Republic, the highest grossing film of Chinese Cinema history. Finally, Ziyi was preparing for her new role in the next Wong Kar Wai‘s film The Grandmaster with Tony Leung as Yip Man, Chang Chen as Bruce Lee and Zhao Benshan as a martial art master. Wong Kar Wai spent 7 years working on the project. The shooting started at the end of the year and Ziyi worked very hard.
Even if 2009 was a succesful year, Ziyi was affected by several rumors. At the press conference of Sophie’s Revenge, a very persistent rumor was saying that Ziyi broke up with her fiancé. At the end of the year, a new scandal affected Ziyi when a mysterious man splashed black ink on a giant Ziyi Omega advert nearby her home.

2010

In the beginning of year, Ziyi was in the Eye of the Storm. Chinese netizens insulted her with a lot of anger. Indeed, she was accused of charity fraud after her fundraising in Cannes. Ziyi said nothing for several weeks but was forced to explain what happened in a long Q&A with Raymond Zhou. “Ziyi has vehemently denied accusations that she committed fraud in the name of charity, but admitted to inexperience when organizing a donation drive for the relief of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake victims.” (China Daily – read the whole Q&A here). Ziyi was hurted more than ever. When the journalist asked her the impact of the scandal on her and her family, she replied (“fighting back tears”) “It’s about me and I have to face it. But I don’t want to see my family getting worried because of me…“, “there were moments I felt bad. I wanted to do something good, but we had our problems, such as my lack of experience, my failure to disclose to the public, my limited knowledge about philanthropy and other reasons.” Then the actress was very discrete and removed her diamond ring symbol of her engagement to Vivi Nevo.
In june, Ziyi went to Deyang. “After the project to build the Care for Children Deyang training and resource center was approved by the government, the Zhang Ziyi Foundation decided in November 2009 that the $400,000 raised in Cannes would be used for the project, said Glover, who expressed his heartfelt thanks to Zhang and the foundation.” (longe vitys). The funds will help to protect the town’s orphans and vagrant children of Deyang. “After two years of hard work, this project is finally underway” – “Home gives us a roof that shelters us from the wind and rain. It is a place where we can cry when we become exhausted or get hurt… I cannot imagine what it feels like to be homeless,” she said tearfully (Channel News Asia).
On september, Ziyi finally talked to the press after months of silence. The Chinese Harper’s Bazaar put Ziyi on the front page with an interview where she explained her despair and dark thoughts of the last months and the hard task it was to get through it.

On a professional level, Ziyi was supposed to star and produce with her friend Wendi Deng,”Snow Flower and the Secret Fan“, an adaptation from best-seller novel by Lisa See. She prepared the film for two years but was obliged to quit the project because of a surgery after doing an action scene in “The Grandmaster“. At Cannes Film Festival, “Hua Mulan”‘s film project was at the film market looking for investors. Ziyi planned to star and produce the movie about the famous chinese warrior.
In the beginning of the year Gu Changwei’s engaged film “Love for life”, the new project of the famous cinematographer started filming in China with Ziyi on board. The film, adapted from a novel, was about a tragic love story between two AIDS-afflicted lovers in a small village in China. AIDS has always been a real taboo in china. The shooting was very difficult for Ziyi facing all her private problems. Deeply sensitized after the shooting of “Love for Live” Ziyi became the ambassadorship of the Chinese Red Ribbon foundation. “I have a taste to communicate with AIDS people by myself by co-staring with a AIDS infected boy in the film and now I further understand the importance to respect and help this group of people.”
Ziyi’s hard work finally got the praise she deserved, winning the prize of the Actress of the Decade during Hong Kong’s Cineasia Awards.

This year, she began filming commercials for Mengniu’s Milk products.

2011 – 2012

In the beginning of 2011, Ziyi started working on her new ambitious project “Hua Mulan” directed by US director Jan de Bont. Unfortunately due to a lack of funding, the project was postponned and then cancelled.
But this fail didn’t stop Ziyi. In May 2011, Love for Life was released in China in a heavily cut version to make the film more abordable to a vast Chinese audience and more commercially viable. The film was later showned at the Rome International Film Festival. Ziyi made one of her most memorable appearance on the red carpet the night of the screening of the film. Her performance was well received and she won the Lancia Award during the Rome Film Festival. She was also awarded in China during various ceremonies.
A Zhao Liang documentary, Together, featuring footage of the film with Ziyi, was shown at the Berlin Film festival.

In September, Ziyi started shooting a new film, Dangerous Liaisons adapted from the famous and classic Charles de Laclos‘s novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses“. Ziyi was playing the chinese equivalent of Madame de tourvel, the naive and innocent woman manipulated by Madame de Merteuil and Valmont. She starred alongside Cecilia Cheung and Korean actor Dong-gun Jang. The film was directed by Korean director Jin-ho Hur.

During the year, Ziyi was named ambassador for various new Asian film festivals including ScreenSingapore and the Beijing Film Festival as well as the Chinese Film Media Awards..

In 2012, soon after completing the shooting of Dangerous Liaisons, she started filming a new very mysterious project about the famous Tsinghua University directed by female director Li Fangfang.
The shooting over, Ziyi continued the shooting of “the Grandmaster” and was not able to promote Dangerous Liaisons in Cannes. Indeed, Dangerous Liaisons was selectionned at the Director’s Forthnight, part of the Cannes Film Festival. The film, Ziyi and Cecilia Cheung received many positive reviews and a standing ovation with long applause after the screening at Cannes.
Even if The Grandmaster was missing at Cannes this year, Wong Kar Wai sent a new footage of his film featuring Ziyi fighting in the snow. The audience was very impressed and moved by the beauty of the footage.
Ziyi promoted Dangerous Liaisons in China, Korea and the Toronto Film Festival where it was screened.

The same year the actress was also chosen as a new ambassador for Bulgari – Save the Children. She was later honored by the New York Asian Film Festival. She also served as a spokesperson for the Chinese brand Guizhou Braun.

2013

After years of production, The Grandmaster was finally released in China. The reception was more than favorable and the film was a hit at the box office. The film tells the story of a legend, the martial artist Ip Man, played by Tony Leung, and other martial artists. The shooting was very difficult “We trained for about six months, and it was very intense. Wong Kar Wai wanted us to become martial artists before we started the movie.” – (The daily beast). In the film Ziyi plays Gong Er and she delivered one of her most astonishing and moving performanceShe’s a very strong lady. You know in the old days in China, females were not allowed to learn kung fu. But Gong Er’s father taught her secretly, and she became a grandmaster. Her father not only taught her physical skills, but more importantly, she learned how to be herself, know herself and do what she feels is right.” (NRP). Ziyi’s performance was highly praised and she received tons of Best Actress awards in Asia such as a Golden Horse Award, a second Hong Kong Film Award, a second Hundred Flowers Award, a third Huabiao Award, and many more. The Film opened the 63rd Berlin Film Festival. The version screened was edited for the European public and cut 10 minutes shorter. A third cut was released in the United States by the Weinstein Company in a shorter and more linear version. The film was later selected as the Hong Kong entry for Oscars and was eventually nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design.
Then, Ziyi appeared in Chinese Lunar New Year romantic comedy Better and Better, directed by Zhang Yibai. Featuring tons of guest appearances from lots of Chinese celebrities, the actress only filmed a few scenes as she played herself.
This year Ziyi tried something new. She was chosen to be a judge and music coach of X-Factor China, mentoring the “Boys” category. It was broadcast between April and June 2013 on Hunan Television. Lo Ta-yu, Eason Chan and Zheng Jun were also part of the jury. During the episode aired on June 14th, Ziyi was very upset by harsh comments made by Lo Ta-yu to her protégé Zeng Yiming and left the stage in tears. Zeng Yiming later went on to become the first winner of the show.
Even with an hectic schedule, Ziyi travelled to France in May to serve as a jury member of Un Certain Regard at the 66th Cannes Film Festival. She later received the knight medal of the Order of arts and Letters of the French Ministry of Culture.
The filming of John Woo’s long delayed project The Crossing finally began in Beijing in July.
In September 2013, Ziyi’s second effort as a producer My Lucky Star was released in Chinese theaters and in the United States. American female Director Dennie Gordon, known for comedies What a Girl Wants and Joe Dirt, accepted to make the film even though most of the dialogues were in Chinese mandarin. The film is a prequel to “Sophie’s Revenge”. With a limited budget of 8 million, they only had a 56-day schedule to film it all. In spite of the mix of different genres not frequently seen in Chinese films such as Adventure, Action and Comedy, the film received mixed reviews, but the performance of Ziyi was still praised. During the promotion of the film the actress explained why she wanted to shoot comedies “Actually the character in My Lucky Star resembles my character a lot more than my other movies. Those movies really required very serious acting, to be immersed in the emotions, to express those emotions deeply and adequately. So no one director has ever approached me to shoot a comedy. […] But I do feel a little tired. So I thought I’d make movies like My Lucky Star and Sophie’s Revenge.” Moreover, Ziyi appeared in two Music Videos to promote the film in China. The first was a duet with the film co-star Wang Leehom and the second was a rap duet with Chinese X-Factor contestant Shui Yinxi.
Finally, on november 9th, Ziyi attended Wang Feng’s concert in Shanghai. After months of speculations about a romantic relationship between the actress and the singer, Wang Feng declared her love to Ziyi in front of many spectators. The actress was moved to tears…


Written and illustrated by Charles and Miss Grain for Zhang Ziyi Infos.
Last update: September 2016


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