Ji Xianlin was born in 1911 in the impoverished flatlands of Shandong province. After completing an undergraduate degree in European languages at Tsinghua University, Ji successfully competed for an exchange scholarship to the University of Göttingen, where he shifted his academic focus to Indology. Not long after returning to China after the Second World War, he founded Peking University’s Department of Eastern Languages, where he continued to teach for the rest of his career. Ji was a leading specialist in old Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit and Tocharian, but it was his nonfiction writings, such as Memories of the Cowshed, that made him an unlikely celebrity and public intellectual figure during the last decade of his life. Even Premier Wen Jiabao paid visits to the influential essayist, and made it known that he considered Ji a mentor.