Bai Ling, whose name translates into English as "White Spirit," was born in China on October 10, 1970. Ling was born into a creative family -- her father was a musician and teacher, while her mother had been a stage actress -- but she was primarily raised by her grandmother after Ling's parents ran afoul of Chinese authorities during the Cultural Revolution. At the age of 14, Ling was enlisted in the People's Liberation Army, where she served as an entertainer, singing and dancing for the troops. However, the authoritarian atmosphere of the Army didn't suit Ling, who found herself accused of insubordination for use of tobacco and alcohol. After the end of her hitch with the Army, Ling joined a theater group in Beijing, where she appeared in traditional Chinese plays as well as dramas from the West. Ling began receiving small roles in Chinese films, and in 1988, Ling starred in Hu Guang, and attended the film's screening at the Moscow Film Festival; however, she was warned not to discuss political matters, particularly those related to the then-recent Tiananmen Square protests (in which Ling took part).
Ling traveled to New York City at the age of 21 to study at New York University's Department of Film, and to hone her craft at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute; Ling arrived in New York not knowing a word of English, but soon mastered the language through daily immersion. In 1994, Ling landed her first American film role, as the villainous Myca in the dark fantasy The Crow, and she also auditioned for Oliver Stone's Vietnam war drama Heaven & Earth. While Ling didn't get the part, Stone was impressed enough to cast her in his film Nixon as Richard Nixon's interpreter during his first visit to China. Ling's next film project turned out to be highly controversial; she appeared as a lawyer defending an American journalist on assignment in China in 1997's Red Corner. The film's highly unflattering depiction of the Chinese legal system (and the nation's widespread human rights abuses) caused the picture to be banned in both China and Korea; Ling also found her contracts canceled to appear in a pair of Chinese films, and Chinese officials revoked her passport shortly afterward (in 1999, she was granted United States citizenship). Afterward, Ling continued to receive steady work in supporting roles, appearing in Wild Wild West, Anna and the King -- for which she cut off most of her waist-length hair.
Her career's upward trajectory continued as the new millennium dawned, landing her roles in Spike Lee's She Hate Me and the highly stylized Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Ling also scored a cameo role in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, though most of her screen time was lost in editing. Ling was quoted as saying she felt she was cut because she'd subsequently graced the pages of Playboy magazine (as the first woman from the People's Republic of China to appear on its cover), but director George Lucas claimed her part was cut simply due to story and runtime. Prominent roles followed, however, including a part in Southland Tales, the 2006 film by Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly. She also made a splash on reality TV, appearing on the show But Can They Sing.