Zhongshan Li

Professor of Mathematics

Graduate Director of Mathematics

Georgia State University

I, Zhongshan (Jason) Li, a native of Gansu Province, China, was born in 1963 to a poor farmer's family in the village of Yequan, Yongdeng County, which administratively belongs to the City of Lanzhou.  

Even though the living conditions were harsh, my childhood was full of pleasant memories. I had four elder sisters, two little brothers, and a little sister. My Mom, Dad, Grandpa, and my sisters and brothers all showered me with love. I used to go to nearby villages with my grandpa, who was a country doctor. I remember that once he even cured a young man of a rare disease that a large hospital in Lanzhou declared incurable.

At the age of 7, I went to Wen River Elementary School. Something mysterious happened on my very first day in school---on the way back home for lunch, I felt so hungry and exhausted that I could not walk at all. My elder sister, Guifang, tried to carry me on her back, but she was unable to do so. After all, she was only 11 and I was probably a little heavier than she was. Fortunately, a kind woman working in a field near the road noticed our predicament and offered to help. She carried me on her back all the way to my home (about 1/3 mile from the school). When I got home, Mom was quite worried and thought I was very sick, though I told her that I was just VERY hungry. After I eating lunch, I was up and running again, and went to school happily that afternoon.

Grandpa doted on me and protected me. But Grandpa passed away when I was in the first grade in elementary school, which made it possible for my Dad to be very strict with me in terms of discipline. Dad had great expectations of me, and always encouraged me to do my best. However, in elementary school, I was much more interested in playing than studying. When I was caught playing truancy (which I committed exactly once in elementary school and was indeed caught by my Dad) or doing some bad mischief, whipping was almost certain to befall me. But I could expect my sisters to come to my rescue. They used to plea on my behalf, and promised to help me with my school work and prevent me from going astray.  

Dad was often away from home, since he was the head of about a dozen villagers who worked in the city (Lanzhou) to transport building materials using two horse-drawn carts to make some money for the village. Life was very hard then, especially for the adults, because they had to try to feed the whole family. Even though we grew wheat there, a very large proportion of the harvest was required to be sold to the government every year at a low price, we were at times on the verge of starvation, and ate more corn flour which was about half price as wheat flour. I was not starved since I would eat ANY food---an invaluable trait that I can boast about today. Unfortunately, Mom fell ill when I was in the third grade. The family accumulated a large debt due to hospital fees. However, the hospital in Lanzhou that cured my Mom eventually waived our remaining debt, after realizing the family's abject conditions.

In 1975, I entered Yequan Middle School, where most teachers were local high school graduates with no further training. That marked an interesting transition in me. For reasons not even clear to me, I suddenly became fond of studying! In a region where a library is unheard of, as a first-generation middle schooler, I had a lot of trouble finding extracurricular study materials, but I thoroughly studied the few good books I could get. Dad used to urge me to study hard, but now he had to tell me to get sufficient rest at night. By local standard, Dad was an educated man---he had been to a private school (there were no public schools in rural areas in China during his youth) for two or three years, all because one of his wealthier cousins was going to a school (with only one teacher) and needed company. But when I was in middle school, Dad could no longer understand some subjects I was learning at school,  such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry. The fact that I could use variables to represent numbers and magically solve difficult problems Dad posed to me was all beyond him. He had lots of respect and awe for modern mathematics. That is an important reason why I became more and more interested in mathematics.

As fate may have it, Yequan Middle School somehow got approval to become middle school plus high school in 1977. With Dad not at home, I was unable to go to a regular high school, and stayed at Yequan Middle School as a first-year high school student. [The high school portion of Yequan Middle School operated for only three years before it was terminated.] In 1978, with the enthusiastic encouragement of my math teacher, Mr. Mingxi Wang (who was a recent high school graduate with a passion for teaching), I took the national College Entrance Examinations while I was in my first year in high school. My beloved teacher Mr. Wang also took the same College Entrance Exams and was admitted to a two-year college. I actually surpassed the minimum requirement for 4-year college admission, without ever systematically studying the materials for the second year in high school. In those days, high school study in China only lasted two years. While waiting for my scores from the 1978 College Entrance Examinations, with the help of the principal of Yequan Middle School, where most teachers had no training beyond high school,  I transferred to a much better high school, Yongdeng Number 2 High School, where I received valuable guidance and mentoring from outstanding teachers with college degrees such Mr. ChongEn Zhan (mathematics), Mr.  Jigang He (physics), Mrs. Qiuxia Sun (chemistry). Fortunately for me, I did not go to college that year, as my scores on the 1978 College Entrance Exams were not good enough for me to enter a leading university.

In 1979, I took part in some county, city, provincial, and national mathematics competitions and got several prizes for excellent achievements. I finally placed second, and won First Class Prize in the Gansu Province Mathematics Competition. As a prize, I got a fancy short-wave radio, which later on helped me a lot with my study of English in college. I enjoyed listening to the Voice of America, BBC, Radio Beijing, and Radio Moscow.

I easily passed the national College Entrance Examination in 1979 and entered Lanzhou University, one of the leading universities in China. Thus began my four years of rigorous training in mathematics at Lanzhou University. At the same time, I started learning English (my first foreign language, for Yequan Middle School did not offer any foreign language course then). In fact, at times I was even more interested in studying English than mathematics, and by my sophomore year I was able to read mathematics books written in English.

My favorite teacher during my first two years at Lanzhou University was my mathematical analysis instructor, Prof. Yaxuan Niu. I got perfect scores on a few mathematical analysis tests. In each course, we had only two assessment measures used to determine the grade: the mid-term test and the final examination. I did all exercises in the calculus textbooks I had, and tried many challenging problems from other sources, including an authoritative collection of thousands of problems by a Russian mathematician. At that time, I thought that mathematical analysis was going to be my career.

But in my junior and senior years, I was influenced by my abstract algebra instructor, Prof. Yuqi, Guo. I also sat in his graduate course in algebra and got more interested in Algebra---The area I have been working in till now. Under his direction, I wrote a paper "On the decomposition of languages over a free monoid".

Upon graduation from Lanzhou University in 1983, I was admitted to Beijing Normal University as a Master of Science graduate student with concentration in abstract algebra, under the direction of Prof. Shaoxue Liu, a leading algebraist in China. I took courses in advance abstract algebra, commutative algebra, homological algebra, radical theory of rings, algebraic topology, Lie algebra, and algebraic geometry. My thesis was titled "Principal Torsion Theory Rings".

While a graduate student at Beijing Normal University, I participated in a ring theory seminar at Fudan University, where Professor Jiang Luh of North Carolina State University gave several interesting lectures on commutativity of rings and the structure of primitive rings. In Spring 1987, I entered the PhD program in mathematics of North Carolina State University. After getting my PhD in math (under the direction of Prof. Jiang Luh and Mohan Putcha) in 1990, I worked for one year as a visiting instructor at NCSU.  I concentrated in algebra and published two papers on matrix theory while at NCSU, as a result of discussions with Prof. Robert Hartwig, who was my Matrix Theory instructor.  

Since 1991, I have been working at Georgia State University. Thanks to two influential GSU colleagues and collaborators, Professors Frank Hall and Carolyn Eschenbach, my primary research interested shifted to combinatorial matrix theory. Please refer to my CURRICULUM VITAE for information concerning my work at GSU.