Bai was born in Chengdu, People's Republic of China; "Bai", her family name, literally means "white". Ling, a common Chinese given name, means clever. Her father, Bai Yuxiang (白玉祥), was a musician in the People's Liberation Army, and later a music teacher. Her mother, Chen Binbin (陈彬彬), was a dancer, stage actress, and a literature teacher in Sichuan University; Bai's maternal grandfather was a military officer of Kuomintang's army, and thus was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.
In early 1980s, Bai Ling's parents divorced, and later remarried. Her mother remarried to the writer Xu Chi (徐迟), renowned for his report titled Goldbach's Conjecture, about Chinese mathematician Chen Jingrun. Bai Ling has one older sister Bai Jie (白洁), who works for the Chinese tax bureau, and a younger brother Bai Chen (白陈), who emigrated to Japan and works for an American company.
Bai has described herself as a very shy child who found that she best expressed herself through acting and performing. She has said that acting allows one to ignore how society tells one to behave and allows other parts within oneself to be expressed. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976), she learned how to perform by participating in Eight model plays her elementary school shows. After her graduation from middle school, she was sent to do labor work at Shuangliu (双流), a suburb county of Chengdu, where the Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport is located.
Before long, she managed to pass the People's Liberation Army's exams, and became an "artist soldier" at Linzhi, Tibet. Her main activity there was entertaining in the musical theater. She also served shortly as an Army nurse. Three years later, she was discharged from the army, and joined People's Art Theater of Chengdu, and became a professional actress. Her performance as a young man in the stage play Yueqin and Little Tiger drew the attention of movie director Teng Wenji (滕文骥), which gained her her first movie role in On The Beach （1985), as a village girl who becomes a factory worker and struggles against her father's will for her to marry her cousin.
In later years, she appeared in several movies. She temporarily moved to New York in 1991 to attend New York University's film department as a visiting scholar, but later obtained a special visa that allowed her to remain in the United States until she became a citizen in 1999.