Born to musician parents, Zhang began to learn music as a child with her mother on a piano built by her father. She continued her music studies at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She began conducting studies at age 16, and received her bachelor's and master's degrees from the conservatory in Beijing. Her first conducting appearance was at age 19 with the China National Opera Orchestra in a production of The Marriage of Figaro. She served as conductor-in-residence of the China Opera House in Beijing, and conductor of the Jinfan Symphony Orchestra.
Zhang moved to the United States in 1998. She studied for her doctorate in music at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and also served for four years as music director of the university's Concert Orchestra. In 2002, she shared in the first prize of the first Maazel/Vilar Conductors' Competition. She served as a cover conductor with the New York Philharmonic from 2002 to 2004. She became an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic in 2004, and her conducting debut with the orchestra was in a Young People's Concert that year. In January 2005, she made her Philharmonic subscription debut in January 2005 on a program shared with Lorin Maazel. Maazel subsequently appointed Xian Zhang as the orchestra's associate conductor in 2005, a post she held for several years.
Zhang served as the fifth music director of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra from 2005 to 2007. In January 2008, she became the first woman to conduct the Staatskapelle Dresden in its principal hall. In March 2009, the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi announced the appointment of Zhang as its next music director, the first woman to be named music director of an Italian symphony orchestra, effective with the 2009-2010 season. In December 2010, the Nederlandse Orkest- en Ensemble-Academie (NJO; Dutch Orchestra and Ensemble Academy) named Zhang its artistic leader, as of the summer of 2011. She held the NJO post until September 2015. With the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, she completed her tenure as music director in 2016, and now has the title of Direttore Emerito (conductor emeritus) with the ensemble.
Zhang first guest-conducted the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in 2010, and returned for further guest appearances in February 2012 and May 2015. In November 2015, the NJSO announced her appointment as its 14th music director, effective in September 2016, with an initial contract of 4 years. She is the first female conductor to be named music director of the NJSO. In June 2018, the NJSO announced the extension of her contract through the 2023-2024 season. In December 2015, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBC NOW) announced her appointment as its next principal guest conductor, effective with the 2016-2017 season, with an initial contract of 3 years. She is the first female conductor named to a titled post with any BBC orchestra. In this capacity, with the BBC NOW, she was the first woman conductor ever to conduct the annual Prom which includes the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven, on 30 July 2017.
Zhang and her husband Yang Lei have two sons.
- Michael Cooper (2016-10-26). "New Jersey Symphony's New Director on Defining Her Own Sound". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-06-12.
- Ralph Blumenthal (2002-09-30). "And Then There Were Two; Prize Is Shared in Conductors' Competition". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-14.
- Vivien Schweitzer (2008-02-03). "A Lengthy Journey, Nowhere Near Over". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-14.
- Tom Service (2007-10-05). "The sounds of the future". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-04-14.
- Blair Tindall (14 January 2005). "Call Me Madame Maestro". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-09-28.
- Allan Kozinn (2005-01-13). "A Young Conductor Accepts an Eclectic Assignment". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-14.
- Anthony Tommasini (2006-03-18). "Young Conductor Enters, Bringing an Infusion of Vitality". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-14.
- "Xian Zhang steps down as Symphony conductor". Sioux City Journal. 2007-05-11. Retrieved 2009-04-14.
- Bradley Bambarger (2008-07-03). "New York Philharmonic stages free concert in Holmdel". The Star-Ledger. Retrieved 2009-04-14.
- "Xian Zhang: è donna il nuovo Direttore Musicale della Verdi" (Press release). Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. 31 March 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-13.
- Charles Searson, "Italy appoints its first female principal conductor". Gramophone, 6 April 2009.
- "Xian Zhang nieuwe artistiek leider" (Press release). Nederlandse Orkest- en Ensemble-Academie. 14 December 2010. Retrieved 2011-04-23.
- Ronni Reich (2012-02-24). "'Inspiration' strikes: Xian Zhang to conduct New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for three Spanish-themed shows". Newark Star-Ledger. Retrieved 2015-11-21.
- Ronni Reich (2015-05-05). "Xian Zhang returns to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra". Newark Star-Ledger. Retrieved 2015-11-21.
- "New Jersey Symphony Orchestra announces Xian Zhang as its 14th music director" (Press release). New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. 2015-11-16. Retrieved 2015-11-21.
- James C Taylor (2015-11-16). "Brava, maestra: NJSO appoints its first female music director". Newark Star-Ledger. Retrieved 2015-11-21.
- "New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Xian Zhang Extends Contract for Four Years" (Press release). New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. 2018-06-10. Retrieved 2018-06-11.
- "BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales appoints Xian Zhang as Principal Guest Conductor" (Press release). BBC Media Centre. 2015-12-01. Retrieved 2015-12-01.
- Barry Millington (2017-07-31). "Proms 2017, review: BBCNOW / Zhang". Evening Standard. Retrieved 2017-08-02.
Stephen Rogers Radcliffe
| Music Director, Sioux City Symphony Orchestra
| Music Director, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Claus Peter Flor
Reinbert de Leeuw
| Artistic Director, Nederlandse Orkest- en Ensemble-Academie
Ewout van Dingstee (director and artistic manager) and Antony Hermus (artistic adviser)
| Music Director, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra