Zhao Liying, ratings queen and the hardest working woman in Chinese show businessjessie tan
Zanilia Zhao Liying is the undisputed queen of TV ratings in China, with the 14 drama series in which she has appeared in the past decade having racked up a reported 180 billion-plus views online.
While these may not all be genuine views – companies in the Chinese TV and live-streaming industries often buy views generated by automated bots – there is no doubting the popularity of dramas featuring Zhao.
For a start, the productions are widely available on satellite and streaming platforms. Noble Aspirations (2016) was streamed on Mango TV, Tencent Video and Youku; Princess Agents (2017) on Tencent Video, Youku, Mango TV, iQiyi and Sohu Video; and Our Glamorous Time (2018) on Tencent Video and iQiyi.
So who is Zhao Liying?
Born to an ordinary family – her father is a policeman and mother a saleswoman – the 32-year-old worked as a waitress, saleswoman, in-store promoter and air hostess after leaving school. It had always been her dream to become an actress, though.
Zhao cut her teeth in show business in 2006 after winning a star scouting competition co-organised by Yahoo, Zhejiang TV and Huayi Brothers Media. Coming from a farming village in Hebei, her humble background, coupled with her doe-eyed look, won her legions of fans.
“I worked in supporting roles in the first seven years. I always heard people telling me women with round faces could never be the female lead Zhao Liying, speaking on Chinese reality-TV show Star Talks in 2017.”
During the talent scouting contest she met leading Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang , who saw her potential and recommended her to Huayi Brothers, who signed her on as an artist. She was first featured in an advertisement directed by Feng.
Much work in advertising, movies and TV dramas soon followed.
She had been acting for nine years when she shot to fame almost overnight in 2015 for her part in in The Journey of Flower, the first drama series in China to receive 20 billion views; some 200 million viewers saw its opening episode.
Her subsequent work included Noble Aspirations and The Story of Minglan , both of which also broke viewership records.
Zhao said on the Chinese reality-TV show Star Talks in 2017 that her path to stardom was filled with sweat and tears.
“I have been an actress for over a decade. I worked in supporting roles in the first seven years. I always heard people telling me women with round faces could never be the female lead,” she said.
“[In spite of that], I never stopped forging ahead all these years. Of the 365 days in a year, I spent over 300 in drama productions. I want to keep improving and I hope I can do my best.”
In 2018, she revealed she needed to take a three-month break, as years of hard work has taken a toll on her health.
“My doctor discovered a blood clot at the back of my head, and said my heart is weak. [He] also said I have several injuries to my joints and bones. [What he said] sounded really scary,” she said at the time.
Zhao said she had suffered many injuries during filming, as she does not use a body double for action stunts. She once fell off a horse when doing a riding scene. “The injuries never fully heal and I need to prevent them from deteriorating. I’m like an old person trapped in a young person’s body … I want to take a break and start afresh after that,” she said.
With the success she is having on the small screen, her hard work has paid off. However, Zhao’s priorities have changed since she gave birth to a son in 2019, a year after she married Chinese actor Feng Shaofeng.
She told an entertainment website on Weibo, China’s Twitter, in 2019: “[After marriage], I took a work break and got more time to replenish my energy. I was always forging ahead in the past.
“Now I feel more relaxed … what I need most is to clear my mind and find a new direction. I like tidying my house, as it helps me [do that] and relax.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.