Li was born in Wuchang, Heilongjiang, China. She had no intention of becoming an actress initially and she enrolled specifically in a high school for
prospective school teachers. However, upon graduation, she discovered her interest in acting and was eventually persuaded by a friend to join the
Shanghai Theatre Academy in 1993.
Her film debut was Zhang Yuan’s Seventeen Years (1999), which won her the “Best Actress” Award in the 1999 Singapore Film Festival. In 2001, Li starred
in the television series Young Justice Bao, which propelled her to become one of the most famous actresses in China. That year she was awarded the title
of one of the “Top Ten Best TV actors/actresses in China”. From then on, Li was approbated as an “action actress” as she starred in a number of wuxia
television series, such as Taiji Prodigy and Eight Heroes.
In 2005, Li starred in director Dayyan Eng’s romantic comedy Waiting Alone, which received three Chinese Academy Award nominations, including Best
Picture and Li’s first Best Actress nomination at the Golden Rooster Awards. That same year, Li won the title of “The Most Popular Actress” at the 12th
Beijing College Film Festival. She went on to star in Feng Xiaogang’s A World Without Thieves, which earned her a nomination for “Best Supporting
Actress” Award at the 2006 Hundred Flowers Awards.
Li won the “Best Actress” Awards at the 2007 Huabiao Awards and at the 2008 Hundred Flowers Awards for her performance in The Knot; the film was also
China’s entry for the Best Foreign Film award at the 2008 Academy Awards. She also co-starred with Jet Li and Jackie Chan in the 2008 film The Forbidden
Kingdom as the White-Haired Witch. In November 2009, Li won the Best Leading Actress Award at the 46th Golden Horse Film Awards for her role in the
espionage spy thriller The Message.