Doubtless and Clueless at Peking University


The Best China (XII)


The Chinese authorities were on high alert in the lead up to and during the celebration of May Fourth China Youth Festival in 2018. The date was also used to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Peking University and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, whose philosophy is officially espoused by the Communist party-state. In keeping with the new era of Party puffery (one reminiscent of the bombast of Chen Boda 陳伯達 in the High-Maoist era, whose sychophancy included such gems as: 偉大的無產階級革命家──毛主席就在我們身邊,我們要向他學習、學習、再學習。), Wang Huning 王滬甯, Xi Jinping’s major-domo cum ideologue, has now declared Xi Thought to be the ‘Marxism of the Twenty-first Century’. Or as he put it in just so many words:


A sole dissenting voice was raised when Fan Liqin 樊立勤, a 73-year-old former teacher, put up a Big Character Poster in which he criticised Xi Jinping’s grab for power and the new personality cult. Fan was immediately apprised of the fact that in the New Epoch there is no room for doubt or independent critique.


A trivial error in a speech made by Lin Jianhua 林建華, the President of Peking University and the number two authority figure at China’s most prestigious institution of higher education (the real man in charge is the Communist Party Secretary, Hao Ping 郝平), led to an outpouring on the Internet that was not easily silenced. Popular contempt for the hapless university bureaucrat was probably aggravated by the university’s egregious failure to deal with the legitimate and modest #MeToo complaints of Yue Xin 岳昕 the previous month. And then there was the actual content of Lin’s speech, the subject of Lee Yee’s essay below.

This is the latest in our series The Best China, as well as being an addendum to our commemoration, May Fourth at Ninety-nine, China Heritage, 4 May 2018. 

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
8 May 2018

Further Reading:

The Ambition of a Swan
The Ability of a Sparrow


yàn què ān zhī hóng hú zhī zhì

Lee Yee 李怡

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


There was widespread online derision when, during a speech commemorating the 120th anniversary of Peking University, the president of the university, Lin Jianhua, mis-read the common Classical Chinese expression ‘The Aspirations of a Soaring Swan’ hóng hú zhī zhì 鴻鵠之志 as ‘The Ambition of Bigness’ hóng hào zhī zhì 鴻浩之志. Lin published an apology on the university website [which was then praised by in an opinion piece published by People’s Daily and defended by the lickspittle Global Times. For the text of Lin’s letter, see the end of this essay. — Ed.] he would have been better off without issuing an apology at all. But, in the event, Lin produced a written mea culpa that only served to further reveal his academic and intellectual limitations. It also demonstrated the kind of education encouraged at a place that advertises itself as China’s leading tertiary institution. In the process, Lin unintentionally revealed that the aims of education under China’s present-day autocracy can’t compare with the science-based culture pursued at Peking University a century ago. 北京大學校長林建華在北大120周年慶典致辭時,將成語「鴻鵠之志」讀成「鴻浩之志」,輿論譁然。林建華在北大校園網發表公開信道歉。但不道歉還好,一封道歉信,卻不僅把這位校長落伍的治學治校理念暴露,而且也從這個中國首屈一指的大學教育中,看出中國在專權政治主導下,對科學文明的追求,本質上比100年前還落後。

President Lin Jianhua begins his letter of regret with an admission that although his linguistic skills are flawed, ultimately one must blames the gaps in his primary and secondary education on the stagnant era of the Cultural Revolution. It’s the fault of the past! Regardless of this self-justification, I’m of the opinion that any competent speaker should at least be smart enough to go through their text carefully before presenting it in public. 林建華首先承認自己文字功底不好,並怪罪自己讀中小學正值文革時教育停滯,把個人錯誤推給時代。實際上文字功底再好的人,發表演講前也應該對講稿有充份準備吧。

Lin proceeds with suitable modesty to admit that he is far from being a ‘perfect person’ — as though anyone ever suggested otherwise. Then he makes a pre-emptive claim that he is the real author of his published academic oeuvre, as though the mispronunciation of this one expression might metastasize into a situation in which people question the legitimacy of his entire academic achievement. 林建華繼而表明自己不是完人,說得好像有人預設他是完人似的;隨後表示他的著作是自己寫的,生怕因白字問題擴散成學術醜聞。

It gets even better. Lin goes on to say: 接下去那一段就精彩了,他寫道:

What has caused me disappointment and a sense of guilt is that the disproportionate attention given to my error has distracted people from the core message that I wanted to convey in my speech, that is to say: ‘Questioning and Doubt do not generate or add value; they are a hindrance on our march along the path to the future. What helps us forge ahead is unerring confidence, the courage to face reality and future-oriented action.’「真正讓我感到失望和內疚的,是我的這個錯誤所引起的關注,使人們忽視了我希望通過致辭讓大家理解的思想:『焦慮與質疑並不能創造價值,反而會阻礙我們邁向未來的腳步。能夠讓我們走向未來的,是堅定的信心、直面現實的勇氣和直面未來的行動。』」

Courtesy vehicles custom designed for the 120th anniversary of Peking University. Online opinion suggested that following the celebrations the minibuses would be sold and repurposed as hearses

If this was just a way to excuse himself for misreading that one Chinese Character — by offering a distraction related to his speech as a whole — it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But if he really believes that Questioning and Doubt are without value, and that this attitude informs his governance of Peking University, then that is tantamount to flouting of the underlying principles of Science and Civilisation themselves. 如果他這段認為人們最應該關注的話,是想說對他讀錯字的質疑沒有價值,那他不過是為自己開脫而已,也無大礙;但如果他真的認為「焦慮和質疑」沒有價值,並以此作為治學治校理念的話,那就徹頭徹尾是反科學和反文明了。

Everyone knows that the basic principle of science is that of Independent Enquiry, and that the motivating force behind this is the ability to question. Without Questioning unexamined truisms are allowed to enjoy the authority of Truth; what is commonplace will become common knowledge. Without Questioning, Europe would never have moved out of the Middle Ages; without Questioning, Newton would never have developed the Principles of Universal Gravitation; without Questioning, Albert Einstein wouldn’t have formulated his Theory of Relativity. Throughout the history of science, what breakthroughs have not come about because of Independent Enquiry and Doubt? 眾所周知,科學精神的本質就是批判精神,科學的原動力就是質疑。沒有質疑,陳見就會成為真理,熟視就讓人無睹。沒有質疑,歐洲走不出中世紀;沒有質疑,牛頓發現不了萬有引力定律;沒有質疑,愛因斯坦提不出相對論。一部人類科學發展歷史,哪個重要突破跟「質疑與焦慮」無關?

Of course, Independent Enquiry in itself is not going to generate value, but Enquiry leads to and inspires the creation of value. Scientific discoveries come about because of Enquiry, for only then can there be creativity. To cut everything from the same cloth isn’t the way to produce anything new. You could say that only through Enquiry is it possible to create the conditions for human progress; all advances in the history of human civilisation are the result of Doubts and Enquiry. This is scientific ABC. What does it mean for a scholar — no, for the president of a university claiming to be ‘China’s Harvard’ — to come out with such anti-science folderol while smugly claiming that this is his important contribution? 質疑本身的確不會創造價值,但質疑能引領和激發價值創造。科學的發見,是先有質疑,後有創造。沒有質疑,依樣畫葫蘆,根本無需創造。可以說,質疑才能打開人類命運的進步空間,人類社會取得的一切文明進步都始於質疑。這是最基本的常識,一個學者,一個號稱是中國哈佛的大學校長,怎麼會說出這樣反科學卻自認為最重要的話?

In terms of logic alone, does Lin’s emphasis on ‘the courage to face reality’, ‘acts that are future-oriented’ include the daring to confront face on ‘Doubting and Enquiry’? Does it encompass actions that confront acts of Enquiry? Is the future dependent upon Enquiry and Doubting or is the future about how to avoid them? 就語言邏輯來說也有問題,他強調的「直面現實的勇氣」、「直面未來的行動」,包括不包括直面「焦慮與質疑」的勇氣?包括不包括直面質疑的行動?是直面焦慮與質疑才有未來呢,還是迴避焦慮與質疑才有未來?

It’s evident that, as the president of Peking University, the true task of this man beholden to the Communist Party, is the suppression of students who Question and Doubt; after all, if people ask questions, that may well lead to a loss of control. In other words, you, President Lin, want students to cast aside their critical independence to be the meek and mild tools of the Party. Only then can you all confidently ‘march towards the future’. Of course, the future that awaits such creatures is one that ensures that they can advance up the bureaucratic ladder and enjoy party-state largesse. It certainly won’t be a future about scientific discovery and the search for Truth. 很明顯,作為北大校長,黨領導的任務就是要抑制學生的焦慮和質疑,防止質疑不受約束,導致治理失控;就是要學生放棄批判精神,乖乖地做黨的工具,這樣才不會阻礙他們「邁向未來」。不過這未來也許是升官發財的未來,卻一定不是追求科學與真知的未來。

Compared to the Peking University of century ago, an institution with Cai Yuanpei as its president, the PKU of today has launched a volte-face. 與100年前的北大、蔡元培校長時代的北大相比,現在是大開倒車。

‘Enquiry and Doubt are an expression of the tradition of Democracy and Science at Peking University!’ 「質疑和焦慮是北大民主與科學傳統的表現之一!」

These are the words of Ding Shisun, the president of Peking University from 1984 to 1989, a man who thought he was a failure. 1984-89年任北大校長並自認為是一個失敗的校長的丁石孫這樣說。

— 李怡, 世道人生: 焦慮與質疑, 蘋果日報, 2018年5月8日

Lin Jianhua’s Letter to Faculty and Students at
Peking University, 5 May 2018

President Lin’s Apology cum Justification