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Peking University chief apologises after muddying motto with mispronunciation

Lin Jianhua was trying to inspire students at a 120th anniversary celebration for the prestigious college – but he got one word in his speech badly wrong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2018, 1:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 May, 2018, 5:34pm

The president of China’s most prestigious university has apologised for mispronouncing a word as he tried to inspire students with an ancient motto – telling them not to “have noble aspirations like swans” but to “have big ambitions”.

Just two days earlier, President Xi Jinping used the same motto, but correctly pronounced – li honghu zhi – to encourage patriotism among young people at a symposium on the campus in Beijing.

Lin Jianhua, president of Peking University, was sitting right beside Xi that day. But on Friday, as he addressed hundreds of students, staff, alumni and government officials at a 120th anniversary celebration, he got one word in his speech badly wrong.

In Chinese, the word honghu means swan – a symbol of nobility and great vision. But the university president read it as honghao, or big, which muddied the meaning of the motto.

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The red-faced 62-year-old posted an apology on the university’s internal communications platform on Saturday that was widely shared online.

“I’m very sorry … To be honest, I’m really unfamiliar with its pronunciation, but now I’ve learned it the hard way,” Lin wrote.

Lin, a chemist, took the helm at the university, which was founded during the political reforms of the late Qing dynasty, in 2015. He holds the No 2 position there, after the university’s Communist Party secretary Hao Ping. Both appointments are made by the party’s Organisation Department and they are ranked at deputy ministerial level.

The gaffe quickly found its way onto Chinese social media – with audience members posting about the mispronunciation and the whole event broadcast live on the internet and television – leading many to question Lin’s literacy level.

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Facing a flood of criticism, Lin put the mistake down to gaps in his early education because of the Cultural Revolution, a decade of chaos and upheaval that ended in 1976.

“The Cultural Revolution started when I was in Grade Five,” Lin wrote. “[We] had no textbooks for several years, and the teachers just asked us to recite the Quotations from Chairman Mao ... My knowledge of contemporary and modern Chinese history initially came from the Selected Works of Mao Zedong and their notes.”

But that was no excuse for some internet users.

“You can’t blame everything on [the Cultural Revolution],” one person wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter.