From the age of ten, Qian Yi studied classical Chinese opera (Kunqu) at the Shanghai Opera School. As a member of the Shanghai Opera Company, she became known for her leading roles in The Legend of the White Snake, The Water Margin and other standards of the classical Chinese opera repertoire. The Chinese Ministry of Culture recognized her as one of the country’s finest young Kunqu actors. The New York Times described her as “China's reigning opera princess”.

In 1998, Qian Yi was cast in the lead role of Lincoln Center Festival’s epic 19-hour production of The Peony Pavilion. The production toured internationally, playing at major international festivals in the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia. Her performance has been widely acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, garnering such superlatives as “radiant” (New York Times), “incomparable” (Wall Street Journal) and “spellbinding” (New York Magazine).

Since coming to the U.S., she has starred in numerous re-workings of Chinese opera for a western theater context, including Ghost Lovers (Spoleto USA), The Orphan of Zhao (Lincoln Center) and Snow in June (American Repertory Theater). Qian Yi had her western opera premiere, singing a leading role in the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter's Daughter.

More recently, Visual Artist Jennifer Wen Ma and composer Huang Ruo created an installation opera inspired in part by Qian Yi’s life, entitled Paradise Interrupted. The opera premiered at Spoleto USA and has subsequently been performed in major venues in America and Asia. Qian Yi plays the lead and contributed to the libretto. Her performance has received considerable acclaim, including “superb” (New York Times), “magnificent” (Opera News) and “electrifying” (The Wall Street Journal).

In film, Qian Yi starred in Alexander Ku’s Triple 8 Palace, an independent short film which received Official Selection at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Qian Yi also appeared in Dark Matter, an independent feature starring Meryl Streep and Liu Ye. In her latest role, Qian Yi stars in The Years Flow Like Water, another independent short which premiered at the 31st Asian American International Film Festival. Qian Yi also appears as herself in a Chinese Cracker, a feature length documentary about The Peony Pavilion.

Qian Yi has written two plays, A Robe for the Moon which was performed at the Kennedy Center Page to Stage New Play Festival and Fox Spirit. Qian Yi also developed a collaborative ensemble piece entitled Moonlight Meditation, various iterations of which have been performed at the Asia Society and other venues. The Washington Post described it as “a reverie of the past, in a thoroughly modern mind”.

Qian Yi continues to perform Chinese opera. She starred in the Contemporary Legend Theatre’s The Butterfly Dream, which premiered at Taiwan’s National Theater as part of its 20th anniversary celebration. She also starred in The Eternal Palace, which was performed in venues across the United States including the Smithsonian Freer+Sackler Galleries. In addition to these performances, she has brought her knowledge of Chinese traditional theater to American audiences in an academic context. She taught Chinese Opera movement at Barnard College, Columbia University, has given numerous lectures and demonstrations at universities and museums around the country and has participated in educational programs at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.