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After much speculation over who was cast for the female lead An Xin in Ann Hui's film Jade Goddess of Mercy, the role was finally offered to Zhao, and her performance was well received by critics.In 2004, the Chinese Association of Film Performing Arts presented her the Golden Phoenix Award for this role."I was too young to understand the role," she said, "but if you've been cast in a film by a famous director, no matter how well you did, other less-famous directors will also want to cast you." In 1996, Zhao was admitted to the School of Performing Arts, Beijing Film Academy (BFA) with the highest score national-wide. The hard work of the cast yielded unexpected results.She graduated 4 years later with Bachelor Degree of Performing Arts from BFA as one of the most outstanding graduates - Zhao scored five "A"s and nine "A-"s out of the 14 courses. In 1997, renowned novelist and producer Chiung Yao was casting for the TV series My Fair Princess, a joint production by mainland China and Taiwan which was adapted from Chiung Yao's own novel. And I never complained about the working conditions. This comedic period drama quickly became a phenomenal sensation and swept TV ratings in Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and Vietnam.Apart from school, she also received training in piano, dance, and Chinese ink wash painting.In 1993, while Zhao was still in school, the movie A Soul Haunted by Painting (1994), directed by Huang Shuqin, starring Gong Li and Derek Yee, was filming in Wuhu.It broke the box office record for films directed by female Chinese directors in a week, and eventually became one of the highest-grossing films in China.
She is considered one of the most popular actresses in China and Chinese-speaking regions, and one of the highest paid actresses.Zhao once again worked with Chiung Yao for the 2001 television series Romance in the Rain, a costume drama based in the 1930s and 1940s.Opposite to the funny princess she played in My Fair Princess, Zhao played a vengeful girl who tried to exact revenge against her parents.The series was a commercial success, and recorded the highest ratings of the year.and began to shift her career focus from TV to films. In 2001, she starred in the comedy film Shaolin Soccer alongside Hong Kong actor and director Stephen Chow.