The president of China’s oldest and most prestigious university found himself in hot water last Friday after getting his bird words wrong.
How a mispronounced bird could crush a university’s reputation
Lin Jianhua, an established chemist who’s served as the president of Peking University since 2015, was caught up in a whirlwind of criticism when he mispronounced a literary idiom encouraging students to have lofty ambitions.
“Swallows and sparrows (yanque) cannot know the will of wild geese and swans (honghu),” the poetic saying goes.
The only problem: Lin said “honghao” instead of “honghu” – a understandable mistake for the everyman, given that the characters look similar and are not frequently used.
But it’s not what you would expect of the leader of China’s top university, perhaps.
Lin was bombarded with comments from students and internet users calling him unfit for his job after speaking in a high-profile event celebrating Peking University’s 120th anniversary last Friday.
The event has further damaged the reputation of one of China’s top universities, which was already reeling from accusations of a cover-up following the revival of a two-decades-old sexual misconduct case.
Blaming the Revolution
Lin wasted no time in publishing an apology letter on Peking University’s online bulletin board admitting his mistake. “Your president is not a perfect person,” he wrote in the letter addressing the students. “I have shortcomings and I make mistakes too.”
He attributed his mistakes to a lack of “literary foundation” caused by the Cultural Revolution, describing a childhood spent on a small farm in Inner Mongolia with little access to books other than those about Mao Zedong or Soviet socialism.
“When I was in school, the Cultural Revolution has practically brought all education to an halt,” he said. “The basic education I received was neither complete nor systematic.”
The 10-year Cultural Revolution was a campaign launched by Chairman Mao in 1966 to remove remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from the society.
Countless books and treasures were burned and young people and intellectuals were sent to the countryside to be “re-educated” by peasants.
Although Cultural Revolution was widely considered a trauma that left an entire generation of youth deprived of an education, many internet users think Lin was using it as an excuse for his ignorance.
“For the past few decades, many people have used the Cultural Revolution as a harbor for their evilness, hypocrisy, mediocrity and ignorance,” Sun Xiliang, a professor from Zhongnan University, wrote in a commentary.
“It has nothing to do with educational background,” said a user of Weibo, China’s Twitter-like website. “It’s clear these university officials don’t write their own speeches. They don’t even read it when someone else has written one for them.”
A crisis of reputation
The response to Lin’s apology reflects on the bigger problem of the reputation of Peking University, which is now hanging by a thread.
“Anxiety and doubt can’t create any values. Instead, they will impede our march forward,” said Lin, trying to encourage people to look beyond the mistake and see his intended meaning.
But online, readers were offended by the statement.
“Don’t anxiety and doubt drive changes and progress in our society?” asked one user on the Twitter-like platform Weibo. “What would become of us if we cannot raise doubt.”
“If anxiety and doubt don’t create values, would obedience and submission do?” another questions sarcastically.
It was precisely anxiety and doubt that recently helped a Peking University University expose a sex scandal that happened 20 years ago on campus.
Although a professor who allegedly molested a student was sacked after a public outcry last month, many accused the university of sweeping the scandal under the rug.
In the following weeks, a few current Peking university students who asked for the university to publish relevant files about the case were silenced by school officials.
One student, Yue Xin, published an open letter describing how school officials had harassed her family and threatened to bar her from graduating if she did not stop pursuing the matter.
“My mother was driven to an emotional breakdown after school officials twisted basic facts in a call with her,” Yue said in the letter. “The school has stepped out of line and I’m furious.”
For more than 100 years, Peking University has produced hundreds of highly respected scholars.
After Lin’s slip of the tongue, however, many are nostalgic for the glory days of Peking University, when Cai Yuanpei, one of its most renowned and liberal presidents, spearheaded China’s modern education reforms in the early 1900s.
“If we swap Cai Yuanpei from 1919 with Lin Jianhua from 2018… Peking University probably would never have existed,” wrote blogger and commentator Yao Xiaoyuan.
The alarms are sounding for a university now more famous for its scandals and mispronounced words than its academics.