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Lin’s linguistic lapse

Controversy over Peking University’s speech

Lin’s linguistic lapse

As one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in China, Peking University has produced brilliant writers, thinkers, scientists, entrepreneurs and politicians.

Last week it celebrated its 120th birthday with great fanfare, with government officials, dignitaries and prominent alumni attending the celebration ceremony on campus.

However, the single most discussed topic in the days afterwards was a mispronunciation by the university’s president Lin Jianhua during his speech at the event.

Telling the students they should “love the country, be faithful to the country, be faithful to the people… set goals, set Honghu-type of goals,” Lin mispronounced Honghu, an ancient word referring to high-flying swans.

Instead, he said honghao which doesn’t mean anything.

The mistake went viral across social media in no time. People were amazed by the error. Some were aghast. Many – including myself – couldn’t believe that the head of China’s Harvard-equivalent could make such a lowbrow mistake. Even primary school kids know how to pronounce Honghu because of a famous tale which appears in textbooks. The story is about a peasant rebellion in the Qin Dynasty led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, who coined the phrase “how can swallows understand the ambitions of the big swans [honghu]?”

Professor Lin published an open letter a day after the event, apologising. He also tried to explain why he didn’t have a good foundation in the Chinese language. “When the Cultural Revolution started, I was in primary school,” he wrote. “For several years, we didn’t have textbooks, so the teachers only let us recite Chairman Mao’s writings… My knowledge of China’s recent history came initially from Mao’s works… I didn’t learn grammar before I went to Peking University (majoring in chemistry) and even after university my grammar was still muddled, which also made it difficult for me to learn English.”

While expressing regret for letting the university down, Lin also pointed out that he was someone who “has defects and also makes mistakes”. He was unhappy that his error might have overshadowed his key messages to the students too: “Anxiety and questioning will not create value, on the contrary, it will hinder our advancement to the future. What CAN lead us to the future are solid determination, courage to face up to reality and actions to face up to the future.”

Some netizens appreciated his honesty and the humble tone in the letter. A couple of senior Peking University alumni I know also defended Lin, saying he is a down-to-earth, hardworking person who is an asset to the university.

Other articles posted online called for his resignation, not only because of his verbal mistake but also for following Party directives in curtailing student discussion of the recent MeToo movement on Peking University’s campus (see WiC404).

Other respondents regretted that Lin and his ilk pale in comparison to the older generations of university presidents like Cai Yuanpei, Hu Shi and Zhou Peiyuan – both in academic accomplishments and educational philosophy.

While I was shocked by someone so senior making such a basic error, I believe Lin is likely to be a nice and decent academic.

I have mixed feelings too about the backlash on social media. At times the attacks felt like digital versions of the ‘struggle sessions’ of the Cultural Revolution – something of an irony given that Lin squarely blames that turbulent decade for his grammatical shortfalls.

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