Li was born in Leting , Hebei province to a peasant family. From 1913 to 1917 Li studied political economy at Waseda University in Japan before returning to China s in 1918.
As head librarian at the Peking University Library, he was among the first of the Chinese intellectuals who supported the Bolshevik government in the Soviet Union. He also wrote in Chen's New Youth and his works had a major influence on other Chinese as well. Mao Zedong was an assistant librarian during Li's tenure at the library, and Li was one of Mao's earliest and most prominent influences. By many accounts, Li was a and believed that the peasantry in China were to play an important role in China's revolution. As with many intellectuals of his time, the roots of Li's revolutionary thinking were actually mostly in Kropotkin's communist anarchism, but after the events of the May Fourth Movement and the failures of the anarchistic experiments of many intellectuals, like his compatriots, he turned more towards Marxism. Of course, the success of the Bolshevik Revolution was a major factor in the changing of his views. In later years, Li combined both his original nationalist and newly acquired Marxist views in order to contribute a strong political view to China .
Under the leadership of Li and Chen, the CPC developed a close relationship with the Comintern. At the direction of the Comintern, Li and Chen were inducted into the Kuomintang in 1922. Li was elected to the KMT's Central Executive Committee in 1924.
Tensions between the Comintern, the KMT, and the CPC presented opportunities for political intrigue and opportunism. With the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War, Li was captured during a raid on the Soviet embassy in Peking and, with nineteen others, he was executed on the orders of the warlord Zhang Zuolin on April 28, 1927.