Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Chinese parents. His maternal great-grandfather was Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China, and his father, Yuan Kuo Lee, had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong in China before leaving for Indonesia. In Jakarta, the senior Lee taught English and philosophy at Gamaliel University, which he helped establish. As a result of anti-Chinese sentiment, Lee’s father spent a year as a political prisoner in President Sukarno’s jails. In 1959, as the Lee family was being shipped to a detention center where they would be forced to live on a remote island, they were rescued by a former student of Yuan Kuo Lee, who helped the family escape. They were taken in by a member of the congregation of the Ling Liang Assembly.
Fleeing from Sukarno, the family spent five years traveling throughout Hong Kong, Macao, and Japan. Lee’s father preached in Hong Kong, where he drew large crowds for his revival meetings. After the family arrived in the United States in 1964, Lee’s father became a Presbyterian minister in a small town in western Pennsylvania.
Li-Young Lee attended high school in Pennsylvania and earned a B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1979. As an undergraduate, he was allowed to take a graduate workshop in poetry taught by Gerald Stern, who later wrote the foreword to Lee’s first book of poetry, Rose. In 1978, Lee married Donna L. Lee, and he and his wife settled in Chicago with their two sons. He attended the University of Arizona, Tucson, from 1979 to 1980, and the State University of New York, Brockport, from 1980 to 1981. He worked as an artist for a fashion accessories company and taught at Northwestern University and the University of Iowa. Lee’s father became blind and helpless as he aged, so Lee cared for his father until his death in 1989.