Lydia Chen arrived in the United States at age five. Her parents had left war-torn Shanghai to make new lives in Hong Kong, Brazil, and then New Jersey, New York, and Illinois. 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 traveled to in China in the 1980s. She worked in Beijing, where she met young artists eager to learn about Western modernity and individualism. In 1991, as a graduate student, she produced her first documentary, Inner Visions: Avant-Garde Art in China. She wanted to learn how childhood during the Cultural Revolution, exposure to Western ideas in the 1980s, and the shock of the Tiananmen suppression in 1989 affected the ideas of artists in Beijing. She spent the summer of 1991 interviewing dozens of artists and bicycling to quiet exhibitions, finally focusing on Su Xinping, Xia Xiaowan, and Blue Belly (two artists, named Mushi and Heiyang) as her main characters.
Lydia returned to Beijing in the early 2000s, working at the American Chamber of Commerce in China 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 began to pursue her dream project: resuming the story of Chinese artists in a fast-changing society. She reconnected with Su Xinping, Xia Xiaowan, and both Heiyang and Mushi to recruit their participation (Heiyang declined). She received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant in 2015-16, which greatly supported her research. She completed Art in Smog in 2018 and has been implementing outreach. In 2019 she moved to Philadelphia to join vibrant arts community there.