Peking University president misreads an unobscure character: monumental implications

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In an address celebrating the 120th anniversary of Peking University, the president of said institution, Lin Jianhua, misread hóng zhì 鸿鹄志 ("grand, lofty aspiration") as hónghào zhì 鸿皓志 (doesn't really mean anything).  The blunder swiftly spread on the internet, leading Lin to issue an apology.  See this article in Chinese.

When the president of the PRC makes a similar mistake, no apology is forthcoming.  Witness Xi Jinping misreading kuānnóng 宽农 ("lenient to farmers") as kuānyī 宽衣 ("loosen clothing") — with disastrously salacious results — where both nóng 农 ("agriculture; farmers") and yī 衣 ("clothing") are high frequency characters.  Never mind that Xi's (probably ghostwritten) Ph.D. dissertation was about Zhōngguó nóngcūn shìchǎnghuà yánjiū 中国农村市场化研究 ("Tentative Study of Agricultural Marketization"), for which see this remarkable post on the "Dim Sums" blog.


"Annals of literary vs. vernacular, part 2" (9/4/16)

For another horrendous gaffe by Xi Jinping, see:

"Latin Caesar –> Tibetan Gesar –> Xi Jinpingian Sager" (3/20/18)

The character misread by Lin, hú 鹄 is no. 4,238 in a list of the 9,933 most common Chinese characters.  It occurs 445 times in a corpus of 193,504,018 total characters (source)

Xi's misread nóng 农 is no. 465 on the same list, and his yī 衣 is no. 725.

Lin's misreading of 鹄 ("swan") as hào 皓 ("bright; luminous; hoary"), although sensational on social media, is actually the least of Peking University's public relations crises at the current moment.  Far greater is the negative publicity surrounding its suppression of the #MeToo movement on campus, and most serious of all are its harsh attempts to silence discontent over the mishandling of a professor-student rape-suicide case dating back twenty years that has recently come under the spotlight, especially when the main complainant is not backing down, even under tremendous threats from the University.

"As Peking University Marks 120 Years, Student Demands For Transparency Are Quashed", Anthony Kuhn, NPR (5/4/18)

"Outrage as Chinese university tries to silence student #MeToo activist", CNN

The situation is particularly volatile in light of the fact that the alleged rapist subsequently was hired in high profile positions at other distinguished universities and students elsewhere are seething with discontent over this and similar matters.

"Top Shanghai academic’s sacking the latest to be censored in China’s #MeToo saga:  Demand for information as deputy dean is dismissed over accusations from several female students and lecturer’s article is taken offline“, SCMP (4/27/18)

"#MeToo activists in China are turning to the blockchain to dodge censorship", Quartz

"Chinese #MeToo Student Activists Use Blockchain to Fight Censors", Bloomberg

One thing I can say for certain is that not since June 4, 1989 (the date of the Tiananmen Massacre, the 29th anniversary of which is fast approaching) have we seen such massive anti-government sentiment among students.

[h.t. Geoff Wade]


  1. Arthur Waldron said,

    May 5, 2018 @ 11:34 pm

    I feel the earth move under my feet

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 1:36 am

    I don't think that presidents of élite institutions are necessarily any more infallible than we lesser mortals. I remember only too clearly attending the inaugural lecture by a new head of geography who was introduced by the Principal as being about to speak on the subject of the /məʊdʒeɪv/ Desert. The ability of anyone to read Hanzi fluently and at speed continues to amaze me.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 7:16 am

    @Philip Taylor

    "The ability of anyone to read Hanzi fluently and at speed continues to amaze me."

    I heartily concur.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 7:17 am

    @Arthur Waldron

    "I feel the earth move under my feet."

    I do too.

  5. WSM said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 8:31 am

    I frankly found his response to the incident, concerning his lack of proper education during the Cultural Revolution, much more memorable, and poignant, than anything about the incident itself, which as Philip Taylor notes seems to be much ado about mistakes that everyone, including Xi Jinping the Great, make from time time.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 10:19 am

    I am not sure about calling these 9933 the "most common Chinese characters" from the standpoint of implicature… nor about considering 鹄 "unobscure" :D

    Looking at the list, it is interesting to note that 99% of corpus tokens are covered by the time we get to character #2838, and 99.9% are covered by character #4818 — not even halfway through the list. At the 99% mark we are still among characters which seem essential for basic literacy; at the 99.9% mark, we are among characters mastery of which no single earthly venture could possibly be a less worthwhile investment of time and effort.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 11:04 am

    "I am not sure about calling these 9933 the 'most common Chinese characters'"….

    They are far more common than the other 90,000 or so characters that are in data bases and mega dictionaries.

    鹄 is well enough known for the President of Peking University and many other supposedly learned persons to want to use it in their flowery speech / writing.

    But I agree that mastering characters above #4818 is a waste of human effort. What to do about them? There they are, clogging up our information systems and bogging down our students' brains.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 11:05 am

    Report from Peking University

    Ideological clampdown; May 4th Movement (Emperor Xi's bitterly ironic celebratory visit to the campus a few days ago); harsh suppression of #MeToo and opposition to the notorious professor-student rape-suicide affair; "Marx Was Right"

    I wrote to a colleague who has a significant position at Peking University and who has been living in Beijing for more than two decades:


    I've heard from many sources that the atmosphere at Peking U right now is just horrible because of the harsh repression of the #MeToo and professor-student rape-suicide business.

    Any details about what's going on?


    He replied:

    Yes, indeed, pretty demoralizing. The #MeToo scandal and student suicide has sparked a great deal of outrage, and especially after several students tried to put up big character posters to protest the administrative silence on the issue. Some posters appeared on the bulletin boards in the area that used to be called the 三角地, but isn't very triangular now after the campus reconstruction. The posters were taken down, and now there seem to be plainclothes police in the area at night to make sure no more such posters go up.

    Several PKU professors protested the dropping of term limits in the PRC constitution, and Li Chenjian, vice dean of the Cai Yuanpei College [VHM: elite program founded by my friend Zhu Qingzhi] resigned. Many professors are not happy about any of this, but aren't able to say much. Or if they post on social media it gets taken down immediately.

    The irony that this sort of ideological clampdown is happening now on the May 4 anniversary is not lost on the PKU intellectuals.

    I don't have time to go into detail right now, but these are indeed interesting times.

    And if you want a good laugh/cry, check out the latest show CCTV show《马克思是对的》"Marx was Right!"

  9. Tom said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 12:01 pm

    Two presidents apparently afflicted by the medieval demon Titivillus, whose job it was to "brynge my master a thousande pokes full of faylynges, and of neglygences in syllables and wordes" (according to a 15th century treatise.) I feel their pain.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

    The predator professor was a prominent linguist

    In the field of generative grammar (Chomsky; James Huang)

    Interesting details from Tsu-Lin Mei:

    For suppression of the #Me Too and professor-student sexual harassment case, read in English Google “Professor Shen Yang sexual harassment” or in Chinese “沈陽性侵“ you will get an illustrated, full account, with pictures of 高岩,the victim, and Professor Shen Yang, the sexual predator, and pictures of Beida students posting 大字报 in support of Yue Xin 岳昕, a Peking University student who demands that the university authorities come clean with the case against Shen Yang in 1998. I was on the Beida campus in 1999 & 2000 and I cannot pretend that I knew nothing about it; I heard rumors from several reliable sources. Shen Yang is in the field of Modern Chinese grammar, especially generative grammar emanating from Chomsky in the 1980’s. My former colleague James Huang, now at Harvard, also subscribes to this theory. My wife reminded me that we had dinner with Shen Yang at Harvard but did not talk to him when Harvard was the host of IACL conference. Shen Yang has left Beida for 南京大學 which fired him in April.

  11. liuyao said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

    Part of the reason why it became such a big deal was that the phrase 鸿鹄之志 had entered middle school textbook in the mainland, in the excerpt from the Biography of Chen She (a peasant rebel that led to the fall of the Qin dynasty) from the Shiji, or the Records of the Grand Historian, obviously for ideological reasons. Generations of students, or netizens old and young, are all familiar with it; the full sentence being 燕雀安知鸿鹄之志哉. It should also be mentioned that the character 鹄 alone rarely appear in any other context (and one may also argue what species of bird it really is). I'm curious if people from Hong Kong and Taiwan would think it is an easy character to read.

    This incident also reflects the widely held view that the correct pronunciation of characters is the first sign of one's education; there's the old saying 秀才识字读半边, a xiucai (probably equivalent to a primary school graduate) reads a character by its (phonetic) half. In this case Lin did not just read the phonetic half, but made an "educated" (but incorrect) guess based on other characters that shared the component. As often raised here at LL, looking up a dictionary is a tedious task, and without hearing it one often would guess the pronunciation; over time, unless someone corrects him, he may reinforce it every time he reads the character. Not unlike how the c in Caesar and Cicero had become soft in English.

  12. Gordon Wan said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 10:20 pm

    Some comments seem to convey a meaning that the university president's mistake can be understandable and tolerable. After all, reading Chinese characters are always troublesome for many Americans. This kinds of comments in effect mirror the commentators' ignorance about China's history, literature, and politics. First, the two characters, 鸿鹄, are not uncommon at all. They appeared in China's number one history book, Shiji and were used to describe an important historic rebel, Chen Sheng, in late Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC). Chen Sheng's story plus the two characters were widely adopted in almost all elementary and secondary school history textbooks. How could he misread them? According to the president's beautiful excuse, he was very poorly educated in a Mongolian rural place when he was young. Granted, that makes sense. But what has he been doing, for God's sake, as he had many opportunities to learn that at the college or teach himself? In China's long history, reading history books was a must lesson that every Chinese official was supposed to learn because people believed reading history makes them smarter, wiser, and more upright. It was shameful for not knowing common sense. 鸿鹄, is actually a common sense. Image how could this kind of person become an elite university president? His misreading exactly mirrors the corrupted politics over that place.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    May 7, 2018 @ 8:14 am

    WSM : "To be sure, along the lines of not knowing how to pronounce “Mojave”, it’s silly to not to double check you know how to read out your own speech. But only 'silly'; this (and the similar incident with Xi) seem like mere pretexts to launch into political invective that has nothing to do with the linguistic issues at play". I completely agree.

  14. ajay said,

    May 8, 2018 @ 4:13 am

    I remember only too clearly attending the inaugural lecture by a new head of geography who was introduced by the Principal as being about to speak on the subject of the /məʊdʒeɪv/ Desert.

    Presumably he was educated at UC Burkeley?

  15. william holmes said,

    May 10, 2018 @ 11:14 am

    Below are links to two comments (in Chinese) regarding Lin Jianhua's "apology" for his mispronunciation, both focusing on Lin's disparagement of the "anxiety and doubting" (焦虑与质疑)which he blames for the commotion over his error. (Lin's statement, which is set out in the second link, starts with the following: 焦虑与质疑并不能创造价值,反而会阻碍我们迈向未来的脚步)。

    Others have presumably seen other reactions.

    Here, the comment on caixinblog (5/7/18) by now-retired People's U. history prof. Zhang Ming (张鸣):

    If you go to Zhang Ming’s archive (on blog.caixin) you will find some eye-catching posts on subjects including the current state of Chinese higher education; also (after the scrapping of term limits) on learning from history.

    Here, a comment by 王军 from Financial Times/Chinese edition (5/8):

  16. John Rohsenow said,

    May 12, 2018 @ 2:14 am

    Lin’s linguistic lapse: Controversy over Peking University’s speech
    May 11, 2018 (WiC 408)

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