Zhang Ziyi was raised in Western Beijing under the aegis of her mother, a retired kindergarten teacher, and her father, an economist. She began her brief six-year stint as a dancer at the age of 11, and although she was able to gain a few awards and win a few contests, it gradually became apparent to her that her future in the field of dancing was not bright. She soon enrolled in the China Central Drama Academy in Beijing to study acting.
Her on-screen debut was Wo de fu qin mu qin (1999) (aka "The Road Home", but literally "My Father and My Mother"), a film by prominent "Fifth Generation" Chinese director Yimou, Zhang. After the film was completed, the media quickly forced upon her the dubious nickname of "Little Gong Li", since a number of Zhang Yimou's films, including Da hong deng long gao gao gua (1991) (better known as "Raise the Red Lantern") and Ju Dou (1990) featured the "Big" Gong Li. However, it turns out that the intention of this nickname was not to offer a flattering comparison with the older, more established actress. It was actually a pejorative label which was concocted at about the same time that rumors of a love affair between the younger Zhang and the elder Zhang (who is well over twice her age) began to circulate. For those of you who might not remember, Zhang Yimou was onced engaged in an extramarital affair with the real Gong Li. To this day, neither Zhang Ziyi nor Zhang Yimou has confirmed these salacious rumors. Juicy gossip aside, the younger Zhang's breakthrough performance as Jen in Wo hu cang long (2000) ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") propelled the spry young girl onto the world stage. Although director Ang Lee originally wanted the part to go to a more reputable Taiwanese actress, he decided to take his chances by casting Zhang Ziyi in the role, and it paid off. Zhang's star is ascending at meteoric speed, having already worked with the likes of Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, Yun-Fat Chow (one of her idols), and Michelle Yeoh. She says that she aspires to learn English as a prerequisite to entering the Hollywood scene.