Peking University president Lin Jianhua became a national laughing-stock for mispronouncing a classic Chinese phrase at an anniversary speech on May 4, 2018. Photo: DFIC
Peking University president Lin Jianhua became a national laughing-stock for mispronouncing a classic Chinese phrase at an anniversary speech on May 4, 2018. Photo: DFIC

The president of Peking University, one of China’s most revered institutions of tertiary education, made a fool of himself last week at an otherwise exhilarating ceremony to mark its 120th anniversary.

Lin Jianhua became a national laughing-stock when he fumbled and mispronounced hong hu, the classical Chinese equivalent of “swan,” as hong hao in a televised speech in front of a packed auditorium. The audience included Yale University president Peter Salovey and Thai Princess Sirindhorn.   

The ceremony was held last Friday to mark the 120th anniversary of Peking University. Photo: PKU

But Lin’s blunder stole the limelight of the euphoric occasion, with numerous PKU students, staff members, alumni and the masses wondering how such an eminent academic and head of a prestigious university could have made such a laughable error. 

Lin has emerged particularly badly from the faux pas as it was supreme Communist Party chieftain Xi Jinping who had quoted the phrase hong hu – from a monumental work from the Western Han Dynasty of around 200 BC – to exhort PKU students to aim high and strive for excellence, during an inspection of the campus at the end of last month.

Lin had meant to echo Xi’s rallying cry in his address, but the mispronunciation only laid bare his ignorance while trying to score some brownie points.  

Communist Party of China General Secretary Xi Jinping is seen greeting PKU students during an inspection tour last month. Photo: PKU

Netizens have come up with the epithet “PKU’s illiterate president” while having a field day mocking the unfortunate incident that tarnished PKU’s reputation, with further exposés of Lin’s many mispronunciations in other speeches and interviews over the years.  

The consensus was that Lin should have looked up words he didn’t know in a dictionary and gone through the speech beforehand. 

Some prominent scholars and commentators in China have prodded Lin to resign in a dignified manner to contain the damage to the reputation of the university.  

Nonetheless, the embarrassed Lin decided to break his silence and issued an apology last weekend, admitting that he had not known the proper pronunciation of the literary phrase until he made the mistake. 

Lin, a chemist by training, said in a letter to PKU students and staff that he had not acquired basic knowledge in classic Chinese literature as his education in primary and secondary school had been disrupted by the Cultural Revolution.  

“The purpose of the letter is to let you know the real me, instead of defending my ignorance or the mistake,” he wrote, “Your president is a person with a deficiency who can make mistakes.” 

But feedback has been mixed, with some urging tolerance as everyone can be fallible at times, but more are raising doubts, as Lin noted at the end of his post that “anxiety and impugning are of no value but may hold us back from forging ahead.”  

Lin has again found himself at the receiving end of fresh flak as he appeared to belittle the significance of critical thinking in research and tertiary education.

Some observers point out that as the party-appointed head of a university, Lin’s mindset of monocultural and ideological allegiance is not at all surprising.  

Many are also comparing Lin unfavorably with the late Cai Yuanpei, one of the most esteemed educators and academics in modern Chinese history, who served as PKU president between 1916 and 1927 and put in a lot of effort to reform and rejuvenate the institution during his tenure to champion freedom of thought.   

Lin earned his PhD in chemistry in 1986 at Peking University and was a research fellow at Iowa State University in the early 1990s. Previously he also stirred controversy when heading Chongqing University and Zhejiang University when students questioned his policies as well as his academic competence.