Zhang Liyin comes from a musical family, with both parents being professional violinists. At the age of three, she began to learn to play the violin. At around the age of nine she began listening to pop music instead of classical, against her parent's wishes, and hoped to become a singer. At the age of twelve she auditioned for and was accepted into the Xi-Chan Music College's middle school for violin, where she scored the top score. Eventually her parents began supporting her and she was selected as one of the top 10 teenage singers in the national singing competition in Beijing.
Zhang was born in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. She is a member of the Yi people. Her parents took her to their classical concerts and exposed her to a variety of music. At the age of three, she began to learn the violin. Zhang was so interested in classical, American, and European pop music that she claims she never sang children's songs when she was a child. She also developed the ability to sing a song after hearing it only once. When she was nine years old, she showed her musical ability when she sang Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On".
As she grew older, Zhang became more absorbed into pop music than classical music. She secretly listened to pop music because her parents were against it. When she was twelve, she was accepted into a middle school affiliated to Sichuan Conservatory of Music after scoring the highest with her violin talents, but she opted to become a singer instead. Eventually, her parents began to support her dream to become a singer and she gained confidence when she was selected as the top 10 adult singers in a national singing competition under a sponsorship in Shanghai, China.
Zhang was discovered by Korean entertainment company DR Music in 2002 while attending a Baby V.O.X. concert in China, and signed an eight-year contract with the company to last until May 2011. The next year, she moved to South Korea and started training at the age of fourteen. In August 2003, Zhang's mother requested DR Music to terminate Zhang's contract so Zhang could focus on her studies, but in the same month, Zhang signed a contract with S.M. Entertainment.
In 2003, Zhang Liyin was picked up by SM Entertainment and began training in secret. Her training included dance, martial arts, and foreign language, as well as extensive vocal training. Her dance skills include, but are not limited to: jazz, hip-hop, and body-popping. For her debut single, she covered Kelly Clarkson's duet with Justin Guarini, Timeless, in Korean and later released it in Chinese as well. Justin's parts were performed by Xiah Junsu of Dong Bang Shin Ki.
On June 18, 2007, DR Music filed a lawsuit against Zhang and S.M. Entertainment to get 200 million Korean won for compensation for her exclusive contract with them.
After a long year of absence without releasing any records, Zhang Liyin announced during an interview early December 2007 that her awaited debut album will be released in early 2008. When the album was released it became a smash hit becoming one of the top selling albums in China.
Zhang's debut was anticipated not only in South Korea, but all of Asia, due to S.M. Entertainment's advertising of her being the "Chinese BoA" as well as Lee Soo-man himself stating he was training her to be the next leader of the Korean Wave. Before her official debut, it was already known that her first song was a duet with popular TVXQ member Xiah, which generated even more interest in her. Before the official release of her single, "Timeless" was available for free download between August 31 and September 6 on her official website. "Timeless" is a South Korean cover of the original single by Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini.
On September 8, 2006, "Timeless" was released. The "Timeless" music video, which is a two-part instalment starring Lee Yeon-hee and Super Junior members Han Geng and Siwon, was ranked No. 1 on Melon's Video Chart for four full weeks. Within ten days of debuting, Zhang entered the "Take 7" chart on SBS's Inkigayo.
Zhang started promoting the second track of her debut single, "Y (Why...)," in December 2006. S.M. Entertainment also released a "Timeless" documentary version of her "Y (Why...)" music video. This music video reveals her hardships during training; it also showed many behind the scenes clips of her promotion of "Timeless", including never-before-seen footage of her with Xiah. However, promotions for "Y (Why...)" ended quickly, and S.M. Entertainment announced that she would be on hiatus from the music industry throughout the rest of the year to prepare for her major debut in China in the end of the year. Zhang made a surprising guest appearance at TVXQ's second Asia tour concert in Seoul, South Korea on February 23, 2007. She performed "TRI-ANGLE" with TVXQ, singing a part in the song that was previously performed by BoA. She made a second appearance with TVXQ on November 24, 2007 in Malaysia for the same concert, and was TVXQ's regular guest star for their "O" Asia tour until its finale in June 2008.
Zhang's first Mandarin album, I Will was originally announced to be released in late 2007, but the release date was pushed to early March 2008. The album was finally released in different regions of China starting March 3, 2008 and on March 28, 2008, I Will made its Asia-wide release. Before the release of the album, two music videos were released on February 27, 2008 to promote the album. Similar to "Timeless", the two music videos "I Will" and "The Left Shore of Happiness", are one story but separated to two parts. Han Geng, Siwon, and Lee Yeon-hee are also the cast for those two music videos.
After the album's release, Zhang received praise from various industry professionals. Golden Melody Award-winning Taiwanese American singer-songwriter Leehom Wang complimented Zhang's singing and was surprised to hear such a strong voice coming from only a nineteen-year-old. During a radio broadcast, Hong Kong-based singer-songwriter, Hins Cheung compared her "soulful" vocals to well-known R&B vocalists such as Whitney Houston, Leona Lewis and Christina Aguilera. He was impressed at the "international-level music" of the release and said he felt there was a lot of "power in this nineteen-year-old."
On May 25, 2008, Zhang received her first award, following the release of her Chinese album, at the 5th Annual Music King Global Chinese Ultimate Song Chart Awards for Female Mainland Newcomer with Most Potential. In her speech, she expressed wishes for more financial support towards the Sichuan earthquake that had devastated home province two weeks earlier. Throughout the months of May and June, Zhang attended many online interviews and made numerous variety show appearances, as well as a short university tour to raise money for the Sichuan earthquake. A solo fan meeting for Zhang was held on July 5, 2008 in Beijing. Besides performing songs from I Will, she also covered songs from notable R&B female singers Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera.
On September 13, 2008, fans first heard confirmed news of Zhang's repackage album, which would feature the track "Believe in Love", as well as plans for her second Chinese album. Despite this, the repackage album still has not been released and there has been no other announcements of it being sold in the future.
While Korea's Mnet/MK Music Festival was being held on the same night, Zhang attended the 6th Annual Southeast Music Ranking on November 15, 2008, winning the award for Best Mainland Newcomer. Her win was followed by numerous invitations to other award shows throughout the month of December, including the 2008 Tencent Star Ceremony, BQ 2008 Celebrity Ranking, and the 1st Annual Mengniu New Music Festival.
The beginning of 2009 saw Zhang's Chinese activities come to an end as she started preparations for her second album. Activities for Chinese New Year brought her alongside Super Junior-M to many activities, including her first appearance on China's biggest television broadcaster, CCTV, for the Dance & Music Spring Festival Gala. She was also in Shanghai on January 9 to film for a song collaboration between many popular Chinese pop artists, such as Show Lo, Fish Leong and BoBo.
On February 6, 2009, Zhang flew to Thailand for the second time in her career to attend the Bangkok concert stop in the SMTown Live '08 tour. For that weekend, her activity schedule was tight as she was required to fly throughout Asia for activities. Less than 10 hours after the end of the Bangkok concert, Zhang flew with members of Super Junior-M to Guangzhou, Guangdong, China to participate in the 8th Annual Future Star Competition, which also featured JJ Lin, Eric Tsang and Dicky Cheung. She returned to South Korea for album preparations on February 9, 2009.
On March 7, 2009, Zhang was the opening act for the last Super Show concert in Chengdu on March 7, 2009, singing "I Will" and "The Left Shore of Happiness".
Aside from a performance at the Descendants of the Dragon concert hosted by Jackie Chan, Zhang was relatively inactive as she remained in South Korea to record her second single.
Finally, a year and a half after the release of her first album, a teaser for her upcoming song, "Moving On" was released on October 15. Four days later, the full music video was released through S.M. Entertainment and Sohu. The music video features Zhang reflecting back on her memories of the fictional relationship between Donghae (of Super Junior) and herself before they break up.
Despite fans' general disappointment towards the music video being only a slideshow of photos, it was highly anticipated.
On October 23, a week before the single's release across China, a joint press conference was held for both Zhang and Super Junior-M for them to officially announce their new releases to the Chinese media.
After three short months of promotions for "Moving On", Zhang announced on her Cyworld that she would be returning to South Korea on January 24 to prepare for her second Chinese album. Zhang posted on her Sina Weibo account that her album may be released in September or October. Despite this, the album was eventually delayed. During the summer of 2012, Zhang once again announced on her Weibo account that she is busy recording for her new album and it may be released in September or October. Unfortunately, the album release was once again pushed back. In June 2013, labelmate Zhou Mi posted on his official Weibo account hinting that a new album from Zhang may be forthcoming: "Good voices with great potential should not be buried; anticipating Liyin's transformation from a pupa to a butterfly! New album, hurry up and release!"
On February 3, it was announced that SM The Ballad would make their comeback in the month after more than 3 years of hiatus, and Zhang would join Shinee's Jonghyun, Super Junior's Yesung, Super Junior-M's Zhou Mi, TVXQ's Changmin, Girls' Generation's Taeyeon, Exo's Chen, and Krystal from f(x) in promoting a new EP called Breath. The eight members released their second EP on February 13, with Zhang performing the Chinese version of "Breath" with Chen. The Chinese version of "Breath" was promoted on various Chinese and Korean music shows including Hunan TV's The Lantern Festival, Arirang's Simply K-Pop, and SBS MTV's The Show.
Through various Korean news sites on May 23, 2014, it was revealed that Zhang would be releasing a new song in the summer. Fellow labelmate, f(x)'s Victoria, was cast as the lead actress. On June 18, news arrived that Zhang's music video filming was underway. SM confirmed with Korean media outlets that two more labelmates, EXO member Tao and actor Song Jae-rim were added to the cast. Zhang's third digital single Agape was released August 2, 2014, on Baidu Music exclusively for the Chinese market, before a wider release on Korean online music stores four days later. Agape was promoted on various Korean TV shows like Arirang's Simply K-Pop, SBS MTV's The Show and Mnet's M! Countdown. Zhang also made an appearance on CCTV Global Chinese Music Chart to promote the song in China.
On August 7, Zhang announced during a live Weibo interview that a new single will be released after promotions for Agape; the song and its music video will be a sequel to "Agape".
On September 20, Zhang released her fourth single Not Alone in China through Baidu and then later released in South Korea through Korean music sites MelOn, Genie, Naver and Bugs on September 22. The single is a remake of Tiffany's "By Myself" from the SBS drama series Ja Myung Go. The song is the continuation of the story line of her previous single Agape. To support the release of her latest single, Zhang had a showcase in Beijing on September 22 with EXO members Chen and Tao with Tasty as special guests. At the showcase, Zhang performed "Agape", "Back Then", "I Will", "Breath", and "Not Alone".
On February 28, 2017, on a live Yizhibo broadcast, Zhang revealed that her contract with SM Entertainment will expire in April 2017 and she decided to pursue her career in China. On August 15, Zhang's Weibo profile was updated to indicate that she was now managed by Beijing-based talent agency Show City Times; however, the company did not officially announce her until December 31, 2018, when a Weibo post was shared with her image attached.
[2008.03.03] Xing Yuan (I WILL) (星愿 (I WILL); Star Wish)
[2009.10.31] Qingtian, Yutian (晴天, 雨天; Sunny Day, Rainy Day)
IIIIII. Digital Singles
[2014.08.06] Ai de Dubai (Agape) (爱的独白)
[2014.09.22] Wo Yige Ren (Not Alone) (我一个人)
IIIIV. Other / Compilation
[2006.12.12] 2006 Winter SMTOWN (#9 Heaven)
[2007.04.30] Dear My Love OST (#2 Lovers)
[2007.07.05] 2007 Summer Vacation in SMTOWN.com (#2 Under The sea)
[2007.12.07] 2007 WINTER SMTOWN (#10 Oh Holy night)
[2011.12.13] 2011 SMTOWN Winter 'The Warmest Gift' (#8 The First Noel)