Carving out a niche

The head of Lanzhou University’s Dunhuang studies program has spent years building up a global reference resource for academics.

The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang in Northwest China’s Gansu province have gifted the world with treasured murals, beautiful sculptures and literature of rich historical, cultural and artistic value. This led to the worldwide emergence of Dunhuang studies in the early 20th century.

Zheng Binglin, a professor at Lanzhou University and director of the university’s Institute of Dunhuang Studies, has devoted over three decades to the development of this discipline in China.

Although he has been leading the institute for 20 years and bears multiple academic titles and honors, Zheng talks candidly about his experience of growing up in a rural area and the fact that he knew nothing about Dunhuang studies before he entered university.

He was born in Shaanxi province in 1956. Zheng studied at a rural high school, where he spent a year learning to drive a tractor. After graduation, he was predictably hired as a tractor driver.

But one day at work during the autumn of 1977, he heard that university entrance examinations were to take place the following month, which presented him with “an opportunity to leave for the big city” and change his life.

With only minimal preparation time but a willingness to fight to the bitter end, Zheng was admitted to Lanzhou University to study history.

He was employed upon graduation in 1982 at his alma mater to work as a lecturer specializing in Dunhuang studies.

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