Through a Geisha’s Eyes


With a long trail of successful films behind her, Zhang Ziyi is one of the most noteworthy stars to emerge from China in the last decade. Now, with the production of Mulan currently underway, Aisha Farooq ventures to find out more about the girl behind the painted face.

IF YOU had asked me about prominent Chinese cinematic experiences when I was younger, Disney’s Mulan would have definitely crossed my mind. Whether it’s the sheer catchiness of the cheesy American franchise, or  Eddy Murphy’s politically incorrect humour, its depictions of Chinese culture have pretty accurate resonances, even if only in a generalised, stereotypical kind of way.

Bear with me though – the story of a girl who dresses up as a boy, runs away from home and joins the army in her lame father’s place, has all the characteristics of female empowerment overcoming dominant male oppression while still upholding values of honour and tradition, something which Zhang is no stranger to. It’s no wonder then that with the new non-animated movie currently in production, it’s Zhang Ziyi who’s bagged the top role.

Hollywood’s obsession with Chinese cinema has been gradually increasing ever since Zhang entered onto the scene. On the back of the worldwide success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, ten years ago, she noted how this would shed a new light onto Chinese cinema:

“The number of Chinese productions shown at the top international festivals have grown noticeably. This in a way shows our country is becoming stronger, whether for its economy or global status. Every Chinese [person], being in the movie industry or not, should feel proud about this. I think we have opened the door to the international market, but that’s just the first step. The key lies in how we keep it open to us in the future.”

And the future does look pretty bright. Now at the experienced age of 32, Zhang’s name sits on a long list of respectable action-packed blockbusters. However, this damsel in distress is not all about delicate fans and intricate kimonos. Zhang’s innocent features, combined with a tremendous physical strength, have landed her some of the most dynamic, as well as demanding roles to come out of China. Not just a pretty face then.

From the likes of Crouching Tiger, House of Flying Daggers, and Hero, the majority of her parts have in some way relied on a perfected skill in the martial arts, and this white-faced beauty certainly knows how to kick ass, even if she won’t openly admit to it.

Not one to remain shy in front of the camera for very long (unless, of course, playing a geisha), Zhang insists that it was the six years she spent dancing when she was younger that enabled her to grasp the intricately delicate action scenes with such apparent ease. Yet it is here where her relationship with the martial arts ends: “I can say that I’m a good student, so no matter what the master taught me I just learn…I’m not a martial artist, but I’m a good student.”

Even if martial arts are apparently not one of her stronger points, Zhang has undoubtedly become the embodiment of Eastern female power. Her instincts towards strong and independent-minded female characters has fuelled both the fire and passion that has shot her to such rapid success: “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.”

Interestingly, her determination to play strong women seems to have been the only thing which has prevented her from conquering Hollywood:  “After Crouching Tiger, I got a lot of offers, but I turned them down because they were all victim roles – poor girls sold to America to be a wife or whatever. I know I have the ability to go deeper, to take on more original roles than that.” That is until the director’s of Memoirs of a Geisha came knocking on her door: “I really appreciated Geisha, because it allowed us to show the world what kind of actors we are and what kind of characters we can play, not just action, kick-ass parts”.

For Zhang, the world of geisha’s opened her eyes to the portrayal and treatment of Asian women in traditional parts of Japan. “I didn’t know geisha’s before I made this film. We did a lot of research and I think geishas are artists. I think they are very strong women and very independent. Of course, they live in a very special world and have a very strict code of conduct. If they love somebody, they had to hide their true feelings. It’s really hard. I think, if it were me, I couldn’t do that. I’d just tell the person! I couldn’t wait for 10 years! They are very brave. I don’t think they are like servants. They are very well respected in Japan.”

This streak of bravery and independence is something Zhang can definitely relate to. She recalls that ever since an early age her rebellious mind always led her desiring to break free from her social and gender restraints. Leaving home to attend Beijing Dance Academy, learning traditional Chinese dance when she was 11, Zhang notes how she struggled to cope in an all girl environment: “I ran away from school when I was 13. No one could find me, and the police were called. I was just hiding in a little thicket of grass at my school, and went to sleep. I wanted to escape so badly. But of course I knew I couldn’t just give up and leave school. It was only when I heard my mom’s voice that I came out of my hiding place.”

Zhang’s determination to do something she was passionate about led to her dabbling with a lot with potential careers (including a kindergarten teacher) during her younger days. Eventually she left the dance school at 15, enrolling instead in the Central Academy for Drama. It is here where she found her big break auditioning for a shampoo commercial for Zhang Yimou who eventually cast her as his heroine in her first film The Road Home in 1999, playing a young girl in rural China who falls in love with a teacher.

“In acting,” she says, “I’ve found a domain that suits me perfectly. And that is so utterly rare. Most people spend their whole lives looking for the right job. There are others who never get an opportunity to do work that fulfils them. I’ve suddenly discovered a domain that actually gives me a tremendous amount of space. The satisfaction of being an actress has nothing to do with becoming a star. What I love is this feeling that my emotions are in complete harmony with my work. There’s no way I’ll change my profession.”

Her love for acting coupled with the characters she gets to play has allowed Zhang the freedom to explore and learn more about the world around her: “I enjoy being an actress a lot because I can feel different women’s lives. I have the chance to feel like a geisha one day and on another day maybe a scientist. That’s the interesting part for me. My profession has helped me to grow up.”

Yet, that isn’t to say that her talent hasn’t been met with some blank faces.  With Crouching Tiger such a success the world over, the only place where it failed to make a strong impact was China itself. Speaking of the lukewarm reactions from her own country, Zhang says, “I really don’t understand why it’s so different in China. They just don’t endorse or support their own movies and their own actors. Is it because they don’t understand the movie? This issue really baffles me.”

When prompted further, she reveals that it is her youth that has been her downfall. Aged only 20 years old when she bagged the role of Jen in Crouching Tiger, she notes, “There are actors who spend 20 years working and still don’t achieve what I’ve achieved so quickly. So I think my only course of action is to work as hard as I can, not just for the sake of the film, but also to prove to these people that I do have talent. Criticism of me, while it affects me somewhat, gives me added motivation to silence these people with my actions and my achievements.”

For this reason then, Zhang Ziyi has made it her priority to play roles which fully showcase her talent and skills, “I want to be a good actor and make significant movies of high artistic value. That is what has motivated me to advance one step at a time.” Working with some of the best directors that China, and indeed Hollywood have to offer, including Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, and Rob Marshall, and holding her own against her fellow veteran colleagues like Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh and Ken Watanbe, she is adamant to prove that she isn’t riding on pure luck:

“Right now a lot of people think that my success has been dependent on luck. But I’m the only one who really understands the difference between the success that everyone acknowledges and the personal successes of my experiences working on all these films. And my success hasn’t just been a question of good luck. What’s more important is that when my lucky moment arrived, I used my own abilities to seize it. There are a lot of people, particularly a lot of Chinese people, who don’t think that way. They think it’s just luck that’s gotten me where I am today. They’re not willing to admit that I’ve also shed blood and tears and often paid dearly for my success. This makes me feel extremely sad.”

As a Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics, which encourages sports amongst children with disabilities, Zhang definitely holds the baton of the common person, even if they don’t realise it yet. He fame has given her the fortunate opportunity to give back to all aspects of Chinese society, including being a spokesperson for China’s ‘Save the Children’ foster program. As a role model for the young woman of China, she exudes confidence, an independent mind, and a strong work ethic. Through sheer determination and hard graft, she has carved her name on the wall of outstanding Chinese actors from this generation. With her now becoming a household name in the West, it seems that Zhang’s ‘luck’ isn’t running out any time soon. Her heroes? “Ordinary people who do extraordinary things”.

Zhang Ziyi’s new film. Mulan is due out later this year. For all the latest, visit W


“After Crouching Tiger, I got a lot of offers, but I turned them down because they were all victim roles – poor girls sold to America to be a wife or whatever. I know I have the ability to go deeper, to take on more original roles than that.”

“I enjoy being an actress a lot because I can feel different women’s lives. I have the chance to feel like a geisha one day, and on another day maybe a scientist. That’s the interesting part for me. My profession has helped me to grow up.”

Geisha woman

Out of hiding

On her personality: “I’ve got a northern Chinese personality. I’m pretty impulsive and act on my feelings. So I think that people who like me do so because of this characteristic. The Chinese have a saying “Jiang xin bi xin,” which means to judge another person’s feelings by one’s own. This is how I try to live my life.”

On filming Crouching Tiger:  “During filming I was anxious, nervous and unsettled because I always felt that Ang Lee had taken a gamble in choosing me in the first place. Ordinarily if an actor gets chosen for the lead in a film, he or she has already built up a repertoire, and everyone knows what he or she is capable of. But I was totally new. I didn’t have a single thing to give to the director to make him trust my abilities. From beginning to end I worried that Ang Lee wouldn’t be satisfied with my work. So I worked as hard as I could to earn his trust, because you only get a chance like this once.”

On fame: “This so-called renown or fame means little to me. Be it praise or snub, it’s nothing compared to what kind of actor you really are and you attitude toward your life and your career. I think the fact that I was able to come this far, step by step, and appeared in some quality movies probably has something to do with my mindset. I’m not in a hurry to make so many movies a year or earn so much money. It’s not my life. What I want in my life is to be really creative in a movie and give it soul.”

On her own sex: “Chinese women are much more modest than American women when it comes to clothes. We tend to show less flesh.”

Copyright © Aisha Farooq. Published in whatsOn March GapTravel 2011

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