Lang Lang was born in Shenyang, Liaoning, China on 14 June 1982. His father Lang Guoren is a member of the Manchu Niohuru clan, which brought forth a long line of Qing Empresses. The elder Lang is also a musician; he plays the traditional Chinese stringed instrument erhu. At the age of two, Lang watched the Tom and Jerry episode The Cat Concerto, which features Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Lang has said it was this—his first contact with Western classical music—that motivated him to learn the piano. He began piano lessons with Professor Zhu Ya-Fen at age three. At the age of five, he won first place at the Shenyang Piano Competition and performed his first public recital.
When Lang was nine years old, he intended to audition for Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music, but, having difficulties with his lessons, was expelled from his piano tutor's studio for "lack of talent". Another music teacher at his state school noticed Lang's sadness, and put the score of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 10 in C major, K. 330 on the piano; she asked him to play the second movement, which reminded Lang of his love for the instrument. "Playing the K. 330 brought me hope again," he recalled.
Lang was later admitted into the conservatory, where he studied under Professor Zhao Ping-Guo. In 1993, Lang won the Xinghai National Piano Competition in Beijing and in 1994 was awarded first prize for outstanding artistic performance at the Fourth International Competition for Young Pianists in Ettlingen, Germany. In 1995, at 13 years of age, he played the Op. 10 and Op. 25 études by Chopin at the Beijing Concert Hall; in the same year, Lang also won first place at the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Japan, playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert broadcast by NHK Television. When he was 14, Lang was a featured soloist at the China National Symphony's inaugural concert, which was broadcast by China Central Television and attended by President Jiang Zemin.
In 1997, at 15 years of age, Lang and his father left for the United States, where Lang began studies with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.