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.
Li-Young Lee, one of the most widely acclaimed American poets at the turn of the twenty-first century, was born in Indonesia, of Chinese descent. He emigrated to the United States in 1964. After attending high school in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, he studied poetry with Gerald Stern at University of Pittsburgh, receiving a B.A. in 1979. He then did graduate studies at the University of Arizona and State University of New York, Brockport, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1998. Lee and his wife, Donna, whom he married in 1978, and their two children made Chicago their home, living in a building with other family members, including Lee’s artist brother, Li Lin Lee, whose wife is Donna’s twin sister. Although Lee had taught at several prestigious universities, he preferred to work at a Chicago warehouse.
Lee is praised for his finely crafted poems, which are luminous with sensuous imagery, infused with profound spirituality, and sonorous with biblical resonances. His first book won New York University’s Delmore Schwartz Prize, its successor, the prestigious Lamont Award of the Academy of American Poets. His memoir won the American Book Award. Lee also garnered grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
His family’s diasporic experience and Chinese ethnicity are important factors in Lee’s writing. In fact, as Lee recounted in The Winged Seed, his mother, Joice Jiaying Yuan, is the granddaughter of the fifth wife of General Yuan Shih-kai (1859-1916), the first president of the Republic of China. The family figure who has loomed largest in Lee’s works, however, is his father, Richard Kuo Yuan (Perfect Nation) Lee. Lee’s Peking-born father had been a physician who counted among his patients Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. In the 1950’s, Kuo Yuan migrated from China to Indonesia; there he became vice president of Gamaliel University, a small private college where he taught medicine and philosophy. That country was then experiencing Indonesian president Achmad Sukarno’s “guided democracy” (which made Sukarno president for life). An anti-Chinese pogrom swept...
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