My Take
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 2:41am

The Harvard hoax that China fell for


Alex Lo is a senior writer at the South China Morning Post. He writes editorials and the daily “My Take” column on page 2.

In contemporary mainland folklore, there is a mythical place that guarantees academic excellence, lifelong success and everlasting respect and prestige. Its name is Harvard.

This great American institution of higher learning looms large in the collective imagination of mainland students - ambitious ones, anyway.

A whole generation has therefore drawn inspiration from an apparent hoax known as "the allocutions on the wall of a Harvard library", which has been circulating on the mainland internet and which is the subject of a hilarious Wall Street Journal article by Harvard professor and librarian Robert Darnton.

The professor has, once and for all, dispelled the existence of the allocutions. However, he does confirm there are many messages in the toilets of Harvard's 73 libraries - 73! - but they don't remotely approach the sagacity and wisdom imagined in those fictional allocutions.

An allocution is a formal address, like Address to the German Nation by philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But unlike the stirring rhetoric in these addresses, the fake allocutions are written mostly in broken English, which Darnton likens to fortune cookie messages.

"Happiness may not be ranked, but success will at the top."

"Even now, opponents also kept banging on the page."

"If you study one more hour, you will have a better husband."

And, "Please enjoy the unavoidable suffering", a reference presumably to the intense and unrelenting study at Harvard.

The image that emerges from the allocutions is that Harvard professors are the closest thing on earth to gods, and their students are all monk-like scholars completely devoted to their study and nothing else.

But the Journal being America's premier China-bashing publication, Darnton rather spoils the fun by fretting about the illusions and myths that the new Chinese leaders and ordinary citizens supposedly believe about the United States, of which the allocutions list is just an example.

Rest assured, professor. If this is the kind of misconception the Chinese have about Americans, the US has nothing to worry about from the Middle Kingdom.


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