Her acting debut happened in the early 1990s with films like ‘Old Grave’ (1991), ‘The Pampered Wife’ (1995) and ‘Temptress Moon’ (1996) among others.
She forayed into television with the 1997 series ‘Hong Chu Fang’ which was followed by a few others until she earned her first notable role of young Princess Taiping in the Chinese television historical series ‘Palace of Desire’. It earned her Audience's Choice for Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards that year at the 18th China TV Golden Eagle Award.
The 2000 film ‘Suzhou River’, written and directed by Lou Ye, turned out to be her breakthrough film on the big-screen. In the film she played dual roles of Mei Mei and Mou Dan and it was well-received abroad. It not only garnered her international recognition but also won her Best Actress award at the 15th Festival du Film de Paris.
In 2000, she along with Xu Jingleias, Zhao Wei and Zhang Ziyi was named as the Four Dan Actresses, which means that these divas were considered Mainland China’s four most bankable young actresses.
Moving on with other films like ‘Beijing Bicycle’ (2001) and TV series like ‘April Rhapsody’ (2000) and ‘Love Story in Shanghai’ (2001), she landed up with her first Hong Kong flick ‘Hollywood Hong Kong’. This Fruit Chan directed 2001 film that released in 11 countries including in the US, South Korea, Singapore and Italy earned her critical acclaim.
She also appeared in Dai Sijie directed Franco-Chinese romance drama film ‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’. The film was based on Sijie’s 2000 semi-autobiographical novel bearing same title and premiered at the 55th Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2002.
While continuing with other noteworthy films and TV series, she earned the role of Sun Na in the Hong Kong musical film ‘Perhaps Love’. Although this 2005 film failed at the box office, it closed the 2005 Venice Film Festival and was submitted as an official entry by Hong Kong at the 78th Academy Awards ceremony in 2006.
Directed by Peter Chan, ‘Perhaps Love’ garnered Zhou huge critical acclaim and won her Best Actress awards at the Golden Horse Awards, Golden Bauhinia Awards, Hong Kong Film Critics Society Award and Hong Kong Film Awards.
She continued her success in notable films like ‘The Banquet’ (2006), ‘Ming Ming’ (2007) and ‘The Equation of Love and Death’ (2008) with the latter fetching her Best Actress awards at the Chinese Film Media Awards, Asian Film Awards, Golden Rooster Film Festival and Shanghai Film Critics Awards.
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With time her power packed versatile performances complimented with success of her films made her one of the topmost and sought after actresses of China while the audience tagged her "Angel in the World".
Her next film was a supernatural-fantasy titled ‘Painted Love’ that released on September 25, 2008, in Hong Kong and the following day in China, created a new milestone in Chinese films.
She was honoured as the Asian Star of the Year by Asia-Pacific Producers Network (APN) in 2009 for achieving such box office feats. She was also picked up as the Star of the Year at Cine Asia exhibition and distribution convention held in Hong Kong.
Basking with success as an actress, she endeavoured into direction with the 2011 short film ‘Five Demon Traps’. It had Tony Leung Chiu-wai playing a demon killer. She was formally named a new ambassador for ‘Chanel’ the same year.
Zhou featured in yet another notable film of her career with the 2012 sequel of ‘Painted Skin’, titled ‘Painted Skin: The Resurrection’. The film where she reprised her role of Xiao Wei grossed more than 700 million yuan at the box office, making it the top grossing Chinese-language film ever.
Her debut in Hollywood happened in 2012 with the German-American epic science fiction film ‘Cloud Atlas’.
Other notable works of Zhou includes films like ‘The Message’ (2009), ‘Confucius’ (2010), ‘Flying Swords of Dragon Gate’ (2011) and ‘Our Time Will Come’ (2017); and TV series ‘Red Sorghum’ (2014).
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius bestowed upon her 'Chevalier medal in the Order of Arts and Letters' in 2014 in recognition of her contribution to film, public welfare and Sino-French communications.
She can be seen playing Ulanara Ruyi in the upcoming Chinese television historical series ‘Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace’. It is planned for a December 2017 premiere on Dragon Television and Jiangsu Television.
Her pursuits as a singer include her albums such as ‘Summer’ (2003) and ‘Come Across’ (2005) and contributing to soundtracks of films like ‘Baober In Love’ (2004) and ‘Perhaps Love’ (2005) among others.
On July 16, 2014, she married American actor Archie Kao. They tied the knot onstage following a charity show in Hangzhou, China. She is a citizen of Hong Kong under the "Quality Migrant Admission Scheme".
Zhou is involved in social work that has brought her several recognitions. In 2008 she was made the first United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Goodwill Ambassador for China.
She is the first entertainer across the globe who became the Laureate of Champions of the Earth (Inspiration & Action) of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2010.
The World Economic Forum honoured her as one of the 2011 Young Global Leaders.