Li Dazhao was born in Leting County of Tangshan, Hebei Province. From 1913, he studied in Japan, learning socialist ideology and Marxist philosophy. Three years later, Li returned to China and became involved in the New Culture Movement.
Accepting the invitation of Cai Yuanpei, president of Peking University, in 1918, Li became the head librarian as well as a professor in economics at the university. Right after the October Revolution in Russia, he was among the first of the Chinese intellectuals who supported the Bolshevik government in Russia. He also wrote in Chen Duxiu's magazine ''New Youth'' (Xinqingnian in Chinese).
Li was a leader of China's May Fourth Movement (1919) and established the Beijing Communist leading group. His works and thoughts had a major influence on many Chinese revolutionary leaders, including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.
Li was one of the main establishers of the Communist Party of China (CPC), directing the revolutionary movements of northern China. After the failure of a series of strikes, the CPC realized the importance of collaboration with the Kuomintang (KMT). On behalf of the CPC, he went to Shanghai to hold talks with Dr. Sun Yat-sen concerning the CPC-KMT collaboration and was elected to the KMT's Central Executive Committee at its First National Congress in 1924.
Li was captured and executed on the orders of the warlord Zhang Zuolin at the age of 38 in 1927.