Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

Yiyun Li was born in Beijing, China, in 1972. Her father was a physicist and her mother a teacher. As a young child, Li learned how harsh the judicial system could be in the communist country. In 1978, when she was five and a half, the police drove through her neighborhood informing all the residents by loudspeaker that they were to assemble in an open field in ten minutes. In the field, four heavily bound men were placed on a temporary stage, and a police officer announced that they were counterrevolutionaries who had been sentenced to death. The sentence was to be carried out after the men had been paraded through all the local districts. At a signal from her daycare teacher, the five-year-old Li raised her fist, and along with everyone else, shouted a slogan calling for the men to be put to death.

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As Li grew up, her mother would close the windows of their house when Li's grandfather, who had fought in the nationalist army against the communists, denounced Mao Zedong, the communist leader. Li's mother warned her to be careful what she said when she was out of the house and could be overheard by others.

Li was a high school student in Beijing when in June 1989, the Chinese Army crushed the pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, killing thousands. She later said, according to Bob Thompson writing in the Washington Post on December 21, 2005, that everyone in Beijing knew someone who had been at the square that night, and she compared it to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

After the Tiananmen Square incident, the Chinese government ordered that every student at Beijing University was to attend a military camp for one year for purposes of political reeducation. In 1991, Li, a freshman student at the university, found herself at a military camp in central China. Though she already loathed the communist system, her enforced military service made her feel as if she were a victim of the regime, and her anger against the system continued to grow.

After she left the army, Li studied biology, with the goal of pursuing graduate study in the United States. In 1996, Li came to the United States, even though at the time she had only limited command of English. She enrolled in a Ph.D. program in immunology at the University of Iowa. She also took an adult education class in writing.

In 2000, Li realized that her ambition was to become not an immunologist but a writer. She accepted a master's degree in immunology and, in 2001, enrolled in a creative writing course at the University of Iowa. Her teacher was James Alan McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner. McPherson was deeply impressed by Li's story, "Immortality." Encouraged to continue writing, Li was admitted to the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she completed two more master's degrees, an MFA in fiction and an MFA in creative nonfiction writing. By this time, "Immortality" had been published in the Paris Review (2003) and a memoir by Li had been published in the New Yorker (2004). Soon, Random House had offered her a contract for a collection of short stories, which was published in 2005 as A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. The collection, which includes the story, "Immortality," received unanimous praise from reviewers and won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the largest short story prize in the world.

As of 2006, Li lived in Oakland, California, with her husband and their two sons.

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