Celebrity Liu Yifei, China’s ‘Fairy Sister,’ Casts Her Spell on the World

Liu Yifei, China’s ‘Fairy Sister,’ Casts Her Spell on the World

Best-known in the West for starring in Disney’s ‘Mulan,’ the Wuhan-born actress has accomplished an astounding amount in little time

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5 months ago 4 mins read

Walks of Fame is a monthly column where we profile a famous individual from China (or of Chinese heritage) whom you should know more about. In this edition, we introduce you to Chinese American actress Liu Yifei and her famous movies and TV shows from Hollywood blockbuster Mulanto Chinese hit drama Dream of Splendor.


Formerly based in Queens, New York, little did 10-year-old Liu Yifei (then known as Liu Ximeizi) guess that she would one day be called a “triple threat” by Vogue. The actress, who has appeared in countless blockbuster films and TV dramas such as The Return of the Condor Heroes, A Dream of Splendor, and Disney’s Mulan, is also an accomplished singer, and a model.


Fans in China, who fondly call Liu ‘Fairy Sister’ for her natural and ethereal beauty, closely watch her on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, where she has a whopping 70 million followers.


In this month’s edition of Walks of Fame, RADII explores Liu’s rise to stardom while covering both her accomplishments and controversies.

From Wuhan to New York and Beijing

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Liu Yifei dressed in traditional Chinese attire as a child. Image via Weibo


Born as An Feng in Wuhan, China in the Year of the Rabbit, or on August 25, 1987, specifically, Liu Yifei had grand ambitions as a little girl. Synonymous with her sweet appearance, she did some modeling at the age of 8, and pursued acting in her teens.


After Liu’s parents divorced when she was 10, she and her mother migrated to the U.S., and she changed her name from An Feng to Liu Ximeizi. The mother-daughter duo settled down in Queens, New York City, the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the world.


According to Harper’s Bazaar, Liu led a pretty normal life between the ages of 10 to 14. Some highlights from this period of her life include learning English at a public school and being naturalized as an American citizen.


At the age of 15, the ambitious youth convinced her mother to return to China so she could pursue a career in acting; that year itself, she was accepted into the prestigious Performance Institute of Beijing Film Academy.


Adopting the stage name ‘Liu Yifei,’ she gradually rose as one of China’s A-List celebrities.

The ‘Triple Threat’ Factor

Shortly after enrolling at the Beijing Film Academy, Liu received multiple offers to star in TV series. 2003 saw her first TV appearance as an entitled young lady in period drama The Story of a Noble Family.


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Liu Yifei as Bai Xiuzhu in The Story of a Noble Family. Image via IMDb


But her breakout role was in wuxia or martial arts drama Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (2003), a TV adaption of Jin Yong’s namesake novel.

As acting offers began to pour in, so too did Liu’s fame grow. The actress, who tends to be typecast as a beautiful and strong noblewoman with magical or martial arts skills, earned the nickname ‘Fairy Sister’ after appearing in Chinese films and TV shows like The Return of the Chinese Paladin (2005), Condor Horses (2006), and The Forbidden Kingdom (2008).


Hollywood beckoned, and Liu soon found herself starring opposite Jackie Chan and Jet Li in wuxia film Forbidden Kingdom (2008) and Nicholas Cage in action film Outcast (2014).


In 2009, Liu Yifei was crowned one of China’s four most bankable actresses, a clear indicator of her having ‘made it.’

Acting aside, Liu had her sights set on a singing career, and signed on with Sony Music entertainment in Japan in 2005.


In just a year, she released two albums: a namesake album with Mandarin songs and a Japanese album titled All My Words. Her single ‘Mayonaka No Door’ even became the end credits theme song for Japanese anime series Powerpuff Girls Z.

All this time, the actress-singer was also getting endorsed by big name brands like Adidas, Shiseido, Dior, and Armani. On more than one occasion, she was picked as the cover model for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.


Even so, Liu considers acting her true calling. “Honestly, I think there are many celebrities out there who are prettier than me,” said the star candidly during an interview with Cosmopolitan Korea.


“As an actress, it’s not only about looking good on camera, but being able to deliver the right emotions for the characters you play. This makes you more attractive on the screen. That’s why I focus more on acting rather than my appearance.”

A Role Worth Fighting For

Many voiced their doubts when Liu Yifei was chosen to play Mulan in Disney’s 2020 live-action film.

In an earlier deep-dive on the figure of famous female warrior Hua Mulan, RADII highlighted the heroine’s appearances in ancient poems as well as contemporary stories. First depicted in the ‘Ballad of Mulan’ from the 6th century, the female warrior disguises herself as a man to serve in the army and ultimately saves her homeland — a trajectory that repeats itself in Disney’s first animated version of Mulan (1998).


Chinese audiences were adamant that Liu wasn’t a good fit for the role. In fact, the star was nominated the ‘worst actress in China’ thrice on IMDb-like platform Douban.


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Liu Yifei in Disney’s live-action take on Mulan. Image via IMDb


Regardless of haters, Liu fought tooth and nail to earn the role of Mulan.


According to The Hollywood Reporter, director Niki Caro’s casting process proved extremely selective. Over 1,000 aspiring actresses across the globe vied for the role, which required speaking fluent English, being trained in martial arts, and having experience in front of the camera.


Liu, with her wuxia background and experience of living in both China and the U.S, proved perfect for the role. Plus, her singing experience gave her an edge over her contenders.

Chinese audiences appreciated the film’s visuals but criticized its storyline and makeup. On this last note, Weibo users even started a makeup challenge to improve upon Mulan’s makeup.


Moreover, Liu received flack in China for describing herself as “Asian” instead of “Chinese” during Mulan’s red carpet premiere. Some nationalists were quick to complain and asked for the celebrity to be canceled.


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Liu Yifei and her frowned-upon makeup in Disney’s Mulan. Image via IMDb


Despite all the hullaballoo surrounding Disney’s live-action Mulan, the movie propelled Liu into the global limelight, and cemented her status as one of China’s most iconic actresses.


Not long after the film’s release, Louis Vuitton approached the star to become one of the luxury brand’s new ambassadors.

Return to C-drama

Earlier this year, fans of Liu were over the moon to learn that she would be returning to historical C-dramas; after all, she had taken a break of 16 long years from the TV genre.


The drama in question, A Dream of Splendor, tells the story of three women as they transform a small tea shop into a successful business.


A massive hit in China, A Dream of Splendor garnered over 500 million views within days of being released, and has a high score of 8/10 on Douban. Furthermore, a Weibo hashtag related to the series has been viewed over 16 billion times. Weibo users ship Liu’s character and the handsome commander played by Chen Xiao.


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Liu Yifei as Zhao Paner in A Dream of Splendor. Image via Weibo


While Liu hasn’t had an easy time of fame in some ways, the sweet-looking star has nerves of steel and that ‘it’ factor that makes her one of China’s most prominent celebrities.


Plus, the household name has her whole future ahead of her — Liu turns 35 in just a few days from the time of writing.


Cover image via IMDb

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