Born in Shanghai in 1946, Cheng relocated to Hong Kong when she was 14. Armed with a high school education and six years of ballet training, Cheng joined the Shaw Brothers' performing arts training course, which served as a springboard for her into a career as an actress with Shaw Brothers.
She made her film debut playing a male in The Lotus Lamp in 1963, but quickly made her screen presence felt when she starred in Pan Lei's Lover's Rock later that year.
During her years at Shaw Brothers, she made over 20 movies of which most were Wuxia films. Cool but passionate, poised but lethal, Cheng carved herself an unbreachable niche as the "Queen of Swords" in classics such as Come Drink With Me (1966), Golden Swallow (1968), Dragon Swamp (1969), and The Lady Hermit (1971).
Cheng also showed that she was not just a swashbuckler. With her dancing background, she proved to be a natural in musicals such as Hong Kong Nocturne (1966) as well.
She left her successful career and moved to the U.S. to get married in 1971 after making The Lady Hermit in 1971, but she returned to Hong Kong in 1973 to make two movies for Golden Harvest. She divorced her husband in 1987; they had a total of 3 daughters and a son (Harry Yuan He-yu; you might have seen him hosting a National Geographic Channel show or two...)note
She returned to Hong Kong for good in 1992, working in television, until Taiwanese auteur Ang Lee cast her as the Jade Fox in the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film brought her the best supporting actress award in the Hong Kong Film Awards and took her career to new international heights.
She wrote her own autobiography, published in 2017.
Tropes associated with Cheng Pei-Pei:
- Action Girl
- Briefer Than They Think: Despite Cheng's reputation as "The Queen of Swords", her career as a wuxia queen in Shaw Brothers turns out to be shorter than most people would imagine, where only 15 (out of 70+) of her movies made under Shaw Brothers are under the "wuxia" genre; the majority of her work being musicals or dramas instead. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that many of her later roles were as stateswomen in the wuxia world.
- Dance Battler: Cheng graduated from dance school prior to being an actress, and most of her fighting moves resemble dance moves.
- Red Baron : The Queen of Swords.
- Those Two Actors: Often stars alongside Yueh Hua, another martial arts veteran of Shaw Brothers.
- Wuxia: Many of her older films are from this genre.
Films starring Cheng Pei-Pei:
- Come Drink With Me
- Golden Swallow (sequel to Come Drink With Me, Cheng reprises her role as the eponymous swordswoman Golden Swallow)
- Shadow Whip
- That Fiery Girl
- The Flying Dagger
- Flirting Scholar
- The Jade Raksha
- Brothers Five
- The Monkey Goes West — she plays the White Bone Demon in the second film, Princess Iron Fan. This is the first and only instance where Cheng Pei-pei and Yueh Hua played enemies in their numerous onscreen collaborations.
- Dragon Swamp - in an Acting for Two role, where Cheng plays a mother and daughter
- The Lady Hermit
- The Golden Sword
- The Thundering Sword
- Raw Courage
- Attack Of The Kung Fu Girls
- Lady of Steel
- My Lucky Stars (appears in one of the spin-offs, How to Meet the Lucky Stars)
- Wing Chun
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- Flying Dragon Leaping Tiger
- Shadow Mask
- Naked Weapon
- Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (guest star)
- Mulan (2020)