Tan Anthony Lin was born on April 24, 1957 Seattle, Washington, United States. His parents were Chinese-American immigrants born in Shanghai, China, and Beijing, China. They migrated to the United States from China, his father in 1948 and his mother in 1949.
His father, Henry Huan Lin was a ceramist and former dean of the Ohio University College of Fine Arts. His mother, Julia Chang Lin, born in Shanghai, was a poet and taught literature at Ohio University. Tan Lin is the nephew of Lin Huiyin, who is said to be the first female architect in China. Lin Chang-min, a Hanlin of the Qing dynasty, the emperor's teacher, was the father of Lin Huiyin and great-grandfather of Tan.
The Lin family moved to Athens, Ohio, and in 1959, Tan's sister, Maya Ying Lin, was born. She is an American designer and artist who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.