After the success of Ju Dou, Zhang began work on Raise the Red Lantern. Based on Su Tong's novel Wives and Concubines, the film depicted the realities of life in a wealthy family compound during the 1920s. Gong Li was again featured in the lead role, her fourth collaboration with Zhang as Director.
Zhang was born Zhang Yimou (张诒谋) in Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province. Zhang's father, Zhang Bingjun (张秉钧), a dermatologist, had been an officer in the National Revolutionary Army under Chiang Kai-shek during the Chinese Civil War; an uncle, and an elder brother had followed the Nationalist forces to Taiwan after their 1949 defeat. Zhang's mother, Zhang Xiaoyou (张孝友), a Doctor at the 2nd Hospital affiliated Xi'an Jiao Tong University who graduated from Xi'an Medical University. He has two younger brothers, Zhang Weimou (张伟谋) and Zhang Qimou (张启谋). As a result, Zhang faced difficulties in his early life.
During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Zhang left his school studies and went to work, first as a farm labourer for 3 years, and later at a cotton textile mill for 7 years in the city of Xian Yang. During this time he took up painting and amateur still photography, selling his own blood to buy his first camera. In 1978, he went to Beijing Film Academy and majored in photography. He has an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Boston University and also one from Yale University.
When the Beijing Film Academy reopened its doors to new students in 1978, following the abandonment of policies adopted during the Cultural Revolution, Zhang, at 27, was over the regulation age for admission, and was without the prerequisite academic qualifications. After a personal appeal to the Ministry of Culture, and showing a portfolio of his personal photographic works, the authorities relented and admitted him to the Faculty of Cinematography. Zhang graduated with the class of 1982, which also included Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and Zhang Junzhao. The class went on to form the core of the Fifth Generation, who were a part of an artistic reemergence in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Zhang and his co-graduates were assigned to small regional studios, and Zhang was sent to work for the Guangxi Film Studio as a Cinematographer. Though originally intended to work as director's assistants, the graduates soon discovered there was a dearth of Directors so soon after the Cultural Revolution, and gained permission to start making their own films. This led to the production of Zhang Junzhao's One and Eight, on which Zhang Yimou worked as Director of photography, and Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth, in 1984. These two films were successes at the Hong Kong Film Festival and helped to bring the new Chinese cinema to the attention of worldwide audiences, signaling a departure from the earlier propagandist films of the Cultural Revolution. Yellow Earth is today widely considered the inaugural film of the Fifth Generation Directors.
1987 saw the release of Zhang's directorial debut, Red Sorghum, starring Chinese Actress Gong Li in her first leading role. Red Sorghum was met with critical acclaim, bringing Zhang to the forefront of the world's art Directors, and winning him a Golden Bear for Best Picture at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival in 1988.
In 1989, he was a member of the jury at the 16th Moscow International Film Festival.
Starting in the 1990s, Zhang Yimou has been directing stage productions in parallel with his film career.
Zhang's next directorial work, The Story of Qiu Ju, in 1992, once again starring Gong Li in the lead role. The film, which tells the tale of a peasant woman seeking justice for her husband after he was beaten by a village official, was a hit at film festivals and won the Golden Lion award at the 1992 Venice Film Festival.
Next, Zhang directed To Live, an epic film based on the novel by Yu Hua of the same name. To Live highlighted the resilience of the ordinary Chinese people, personified by its two main characters, amidst three generations of upheavals throughout Chinese politics of the 20th century. It was banned in China, but released at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize, as well as earning a Best Actor prize for Ge You. To Live was banned in China by the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, due to its critical portrayal of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government.
Shanghai Triad followed in 1995, featuring Gong Li in her seventh film under Zhang's direction. The two had developed a romantic as well as a professional relationship, but this would end during production of Shanghai Triad. Zhang and Gong would not work together again until 2006's Curse of the Golden Flower.
1997 saw the release of Keep Cool, a black comedy film about life in modern China. Keep Cool marked only the second time Zhang had set a film in the modern era, after The Story of Qiu Ju.
In 1998, he directed an acclaimed version of Puccini's opera Turandot, firstly in Florence and then later Turandot at the Forbidden City, Beijing, with Zubin Mehta conducting, the latter documented in the film The Turandot Project (2000). He reprised his version of Turandot in October 2009, at the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing, and plans to tour with the production in Europe, Asia and Australia in 2010.
Shot immediately after Not One Less, Zhang's 1999 film The Road Home featured a new leading lady in the form of the young Actress Zhang Ziyi, in her film debut. The film is based on a simple throw-back narrative centering on a love story between the narrator's parents.
In 2001, Zhang adapted his 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern for the stage, directing a ballet version.
Zhang's next major project was the ambitious wuxia drama Hero, released in China in 2002. With an impressive lineup of Asian stars, including Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi, and Donnie Yen, Hero told a fictional tale about Ying Zheng, the King of the State of Qin (later to become the first Emperor of China), and his would-be assassins. The film was released in North America in 2004, two years after its Chinese release, by American distributor Miramax Films, and became a huge international hit. Hero was one of the few foreign-language films to debut at number 1 at the U.S. box office, and was one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2003 Academy Awards.
Zhang has co-directed a number of outdoor folk musicals under the title Impression. These include Impression, Liu Sanjie, which opened in August 2003 at the Li River, Guangxi province; Impression Lijiang, in June 2006 at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang, Yunnan province; Impression West Lake, in late 2007 at the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province; Impression Hainan in late 2009, set in Hainan Island; and Impression Dahongpao set on Mount Wuyi, in Fujian province. All five performances were co-directed by Wang Chaoge and Fan Yue.
Released in China in 2005, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles was a return to the more low-key drama that characterized much of Zhang's middle period pieces. The film stars Japanese actor Ken Takakura, as a father who wishes to repair relations with his alienated son, and is eventually led by circumstance to set out on a journey to China. Zhang had been an admirer of Takakura for over thirty years.
Zhang also led the production of Tan Dun's opera, The First Emperor, which had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on 21 December 2006.
Zhang was a runner-up for the Time Magazine Person of the Year award in 2008. Steven Spielberg, who withdrew as an adviser to the Olympic ceremonies to pressure China into helping with the conflict in Darfur, described Zhang's works in the Olympic ceremonies in Time magazine, saying "At the heart of Zhang's Olympic ceremonies was the idea that the conflict of man foretells the Desire for inner peace. This theme is one he's explored and perfected in his films, whether they are about the lives of humble peasants or exalted royalty. This year he captured this prevalent theme of harmony and peace, which is the spirit of the Olympic Games. In one evening of visual and emotional splendor, he educated, enlightened, and entertained us all."
On May 24, 2010, Zhang was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree by Yale University, and was described as "a genius with camera and choreography."
Zhang's 2011 The Flowers of War was his most expensive film to date, budgeting for $90.2 million, until his 2016 The Great Wall surpassed it with a budget of $150 million.
According to the mainstream media in China, Zhang married Chen Ting, who is a Dancer in December 2011; she had three children with him. However, when the news came out, Zhang had no immediate response. On November 29, 2013, under pressure from the public and criticism on the Internet, Zhang's studio released a statement that acknowledged Chen Ting and their three children. On January 9, 2014, the Lake District Family Planning Bureau, in accord with China's one-child policy, said Zhang was required to pay an unplanned birth and social maintenance fee totaling RMB 7.48 million (roughly US $1.2 million). On February 7, 2014, it was reported that Zhang had paid the fee.