Lydia Chen was born in Hong Kong, lived in Brazil, and arrived in the United States at age five. She received her B.A. in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College and her master’s degrees in journalism and Asian studies from the University of California at Berkeley.
She first lived in China in the 1980s, when she met young artists eager to learn about Western modernity and individualism. While in journalism school in the early 1990s, she produced her first documentary, Inner Visions: Avant-Garde Art in China. She wanted to find out what happened to the exuberance of the 1980s in the aftermath of the military suppression in Tiananmen Square and how art expressed those feelings.
Lydia lived again in Beijing as China entered the 21st century, working as communications director at the American Chamber of Commerce when China joined the WTO. She later became associate director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University and executive director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard.
In 2014, she gave up the security of university administration in order to pursue her dream project: resuming the story of Chinese artists in search of modernity. She received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant in 2015-16, which greatly supported her research in China.