There are competing accounts of Li's life that surfaced before and after the suppression of Falun Gong began in July 1999, and there is very little authoritative information on his early life. Accounts between Li’s supporters and detractors diverge significantly, and as a result, can be understood within the context of the political and spiritual purposes for which different narratives were developed.
An unofficial biography appeared in the first of Li’s major publications, Zhongguo Falun Gong, and was authored by journalist Zhu Huiguang. A second, official spiritual biography appeared in early editions of Falun Gong’s primary text, Zhuan Falun, and was authored by the Falun Dafa Research Society. These biographies placed emphasis on Li’s spiritual development, with minimal details on Li’s ordinary work or family life. The style and content of these biographies is consistent with the "centuries-old tradition of religious biography in China". As Benjamin Penny writes, "as with its precursors [in Chinese history], this biography seeks to establish a genealogy of the figure whose life is recorded and to buttress the orthodoxy of his doctrine." Both biographies were omitted from later printings of Falun Gong books, as Li explained that he did not want people to focus their attention on his own history or circumstances.
These biographies state that Li was born on 13 May 1951, in the town of Gongzhuling, Jilin Province. The first account, by Zhu Huiguang, stated that Li’s family lived amidst poverty, with his mother earning a wage of only 30 yuan. In this edition, Li was described as developing a "spirit of bearing hardships and tolerating hard work" as he helped care for his younger siblings. The second, official version of his biography emphasized Li’s average social background, stating that he belonged to "ordinary intellectual’s family".
Both biographies ascribe to Li innate virtues of compassion and discipline. The official biography focuses mainly on the lineage of Daoist and Buddhist masters who he says provided Li with instruction from an early age. At four, he was trained by Quan Jue, the Tenth Heir to the Great Law of the Buddha School. By age eight, he had acquired "the superb great law with supernatural powers", which was supposed to include invisibility, levitation, etc. Master Quan left him at age twelve, to be replaced by Taoist master Baji Zhenren, who provided instruction in martial arts and physical skills.
A third Master arrived in 1972 from the Great Way School. Zhendaozi (literally, "True Taoist"), came from the Changbai Mountains near the North Korean border. Unlike Li’s other spiritual tutors, the True Taoist wore ordinary attire, and taught Li the way of inner cultivation through Qigong, stressing xinxing (i.e. "mind or heart nature, moral character"). Li’s training in this period mostly took place under cover of night, possibly due to the political environment of the Cultural Revolution.
Zhu Haiguang’s version of the biography notes that Li consistently refused to partake in the campaigns of the Cultural Revolution, never joining the Red Guards or communist organizations.
A fourth Master — a woman from the Buddha School—began instructing Li in 1974. After training with these four Masters, Li's "energy potency had reached a very high level". His personal development plateaued around this time, with the biography stating that Li was able "to see the truth of the universe, many more beautiful things which have existed there for a long time, as well as the origin, development and future of mankind".
In 1982, Li moved to the city of Changchun for "civilian employment", the implication being that his previous work was with the military. At some point in the 1980s, Li married and had a daughter.
In 1984, Li began synthesizing the teachings he received into what would become Falun Dafa. The practice would not be exactly the same as what had been transmitted to him, as those systems were not suitable to be "popularised on a large scale". Li began observing the teaching methods of other qigong masters, and by 1989 had finalised his qigong system. For the next three years until 1992, Li was said to have begun testing the system with a small group of students.
Falun Gong books published after 1999 no longer contain biographies of Li. These changes reflected a larger trend of Li retreating from the public eye. Since 2000 he has rarely appeared in public, his presence almost entirely being electronic or re-routed through quotations on Falun Gong's websites. Li Hongzhi's biography was removed from Falun Gong websites some time after 2001.
The Chinese government began publishing biographies of Li after the suppression of Falun Gong began in July 1999. As such, details on Li's life published in the PRC can be understood as part of the government's publicity campaign against Falun Gong. Their objective was to "demonstrate that Li Hongzhi was thoroughly ordinary and that his claims to exceptional abilities and experiences were fraudulent".
According to Chinese government accounts, Li Hongzhi was born Li Lai, on either 7 or 27 July 1952. As evidence of the claim, authorities quoted Pan Yufang, a midwife who stated that she vividly recalled delivering Li in July 1952. Pan’s account included the assertion that she used oxytocin to assist in the birth (an impossibility, Falun Gong sources point out, because oxytocin was not synthesized until the following year). Li's parents divorced whilst he was a toddler, and Li and his siblings remained with his mother. In 1955 they relocated to Changchun.
Li is said to have attended primary and middle school in Changchun between 1960 and 1970. As with most school-aged children in China, Li’s formal education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. He did not attend high school, but ultimately completed high school through correspondence courses in the 1980s. Chinese government accounts emphasize repeatedly that Li lacks a higher education, and was an undistinguished student, notable only for playing the trumpet.
After attaining his middle school diploma in 1970, Li was said to have held "a series of unremarkable jobs": between 1970 and 1972, Li worked at an army horse farm; from 1972 to 1978, was a trumpet player in a forest police unit in Jilin Province, and subsequently worked as a clerk in the Grain and Oil Procurement company in Changchun. Unnamed former classmates and co-workers cited in government accounts stress repeatedly that Li was unremarkable, that they never saw him practising qigong, and that they had no knowledge of the Buddhist and Daoist Masters Li claimed to have studied under.
A group of early adopters in Changchun became disenchanted after Li forbade his followers from charging fees for the practice at the end of 1994, amongst other things. The group left the Falun Gong movement, and proceeded to send to government ministries a series of accusations against Li, among them that he had not shown any supernatural powers during his youth. Falun Gong sent detailed rebuttals to the ministries. Following the suppression of Falun Gong in 1999, Chinese authorities republished all these accusations, point by point.
In September 1994, Li changed his date of birth in government records to 13 May 1951. According to Li, his date of birth had been misprinted as one of the pervasive bureaucratic errors of the Cultural Revolution, and he was merely correcting it. Government records originally said that he was born on 7 July 1952, although the Chinese government has sometimes given 27 July.
A group of disenchanted followers alleged at the end of 1994 that the birth date had been correct all along, and that Li had only wanted to align it with the birth date of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni (13 May 1951 fell on the 8th day of the fourth lunar moon, the celebration of Sakyamuni's birthday ). This accusation was repeated later by the Chinese authorities. Li rejected the allegation as a "smear", and said "I have never said that I am Sakyamuni. I am just a very ordinary man.". But he said "I'm not Jesus, and I'm not Sakyamuni, but the Fa has created millions and millions of Jesuses and Sakyamunis who have the courage to walk the path of Truth, who have the courage to risk their lives for the sake of the Truth, and who have the courage to devote their lives to saving sentient beings” (Teaching the Fa at the Washington, D.C. Fa Conference, 22 July 2002 Li Hongzhi)
Two points supporting Li's version are that bureaucratic errors of this nature were not uncommon during the Cultural Revolution, and that the new date was never used to make any promotional claim or to bolster Li's spiritual authority. Moreover, as Falun Gong sources have noted, Li would have had to produce corroborating evidence of the 13 May birth date in order to successfully change the government records.
Li Hongzhi introduced Falun Dafa, or the Great Law of the Wheel of Dharma, on 13 May 1992 (Li's 41st birthday as claimed) at the fifth Middle School in Changchun, Jilin. From 1992 to 1994 he traveled throughout China, giving lectures and teaching Falun Gong exercises; His following grew rapidly. Li's success was largely linked to the huge popularity enjoyed by qigong in the late 1980s and early 1990s under Deng Xiaoping's social liberalization. He differentiated Falun Gong by prioritising "accessibility to the public" and moral content, away from esoteric notions often found in other Qigong systems.
Falun Gong's teachings are compiled from Li's lectures, and he holds definitional power in the Falun Gong belief system. Li was also critical of alternative systems within the Qigong movement, stating it was "rife with false teachings and greedy and fraudulent 'masters'" and set out to rectify it. Li said that Falun Gong was a part of a "centuries-old tradition of cultivation", and in his texts would often attack those who taught "incorrect, deviant, or heterodox ways". Li differentiated Falun Gong from other movements in Qigong by emphasizing moral values aimed to "purify one's heart and attain spiritual salvation". rather than what he saw as undue emphasis on physical health and the development of supernatural powers.
Ian Johnson points out that during the greatest period of Falun Gong book sales in China, Li Hongzhi never received any royalties because all publications were bootleg. Li's success also had a large part to do with people seeking effective alternative medicine treatments at a time when China's health care system was struggling desperately to meet demand. As the Master of the Falun Gong cultivation system, Li claimed to "purify the students' bodies" and "unblock their main and collateral channels" and in doing so "remove the root of their disease", if they were ill. He also reputedly planted a Falun or "law wheel" in the abdomen of each student, and other "energy mechanisms" in other parts of their bodies. Li also described how his "Law bodies" will protect each practitioner and how he "clear[s] up the students' house and places of practice and then put[s] a covering of safety'".
According to Falun Gong groups, Li's early success was recognized at the 1992 and 1993 Beijing Oriental Health Expos. At the first of these events, the fair’s organizer remarked that Falun Gong and Li "received the most praise [of any qigong school] at the fair, and achieved very good therapeutic results". The event helped cement Li’s popularity in the qigong world, and journalistic reports of Falun Gong’s healing powers spread. The following year, Li was made a member of the organizing committee of the Beijing Health Expo, and won several awards and commendations at the event.
In this era, Li developed a positive rapport with the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). In 1993, he provided treatment for 100 police officers who had been injured on the job, earning praise from an organization under the MPS. Li gave lectures at the Public Security University in Beijing in 1994, and contributed proceeds from the seminars to a foundation for injured police officers. The publishing ceremony for Li’s seminal book, Zhuan Falun, was held in the auditorium of the Ministry of Public Security in January 1995.
In 1995, Li declared that he had finished teaching Falun Gong in China, and began spreading the practice abroad. His first stop in March 1995 was to the Chinese embassy in Paris, France, where he had been invited to teach the practice. This was followed by seminars in Sweden. Between 1995 and 1999, Li gave lectures in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, and Singapore. Falun Gong associations and clubs began appearing in Europe, North America and Australia, with activities centered mainly on university campuses.
In 1996, the city of Houston named Li as an honorary citizen and goodwill ambassador for his "unselfish public service for the benefit and welfare of mankind".
On 25 April 1999, about 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered near the central appeals office to demand an end to the escalating harassment against the movement, and request the release of the Tianjin practitioners. According to Benjamin Penny, practitioners sought redress from the leadership of the country by going to them and, "albeit very quietly and politely, making it clear that they would not be treated so shabbily."
After the event, Li received more measures of recognition from North American municipalities. In May 1999, Li was welcomed to Toronto with greetings from the Mayor of Toronto and the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, and in the two months that followed also received recognition from the cities of Chicago and San Jose.
Li Hongzhi moved to the United States in 1996 with his wife and daughter, and in 1998 became a U.S. permanent resident, settling in New York.
On 29 July 1999, after Falun Gong was banned, the Ministry of Public Security of China levelled a series of charges against Li, including the charge of "disturbing public order" and issued a circular indicating his status as being wanted and pressing for his arrest. At that time, Li Hongzhi was living in the United States. The Chinese government's request to Interpol for his arrest was rejected on the grounds that the request was a matter "of a political or religious character" and lacked information on any "ordinary law crime he would have committed" The Chinese government also revoked his passport, preventing him from travelling internationally.
By April 2001, Li Hongzhi had received over 340 awards and proclamations from Australia, Canada, China (before crackdown), Japan, Russia, and the U.S. in recognition of the extraordinary contributions to people's spiritual and physical health, and to freedom of belief in the world. These include certificates of recognition from several governmental bodies in the United States – including Honorary Citizenship awarded by The State of Georgia and city of Atlanta. On 14 March 2001, The Freedom House bestowed Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong with an International Religious Freedom Award for the advancement of religious and spiritual freedom at a ceremony in the United States Senate. In the same year, Li was ranked the most powerful communicator in Asia by Asiaweek magazine "for his power to inspire, to mobilize people and to spook Beijing". He was nominated for the 2001 Sakharov Prize by over 25 members of European Parliament, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 and 2001, and in 2013 was ranked by Foreign Policy Magazine as one of the 500 most powerful people in the world.