The president of Peking University made a public apology this weekend for mispronouncing a traditional Chinese idiom at the school's 120th anniversary ceremony.
In Lin Jianhua's speech on Friday, he referenced honghu, a type of Chinese swan known for being a high-flier and coming to symbolize people of noble ambition and lofty goals.
"How can the sparrow and the swallow know the will of the honghu?" goes the old saying that first appeared in the 2,000-year-old Sima Qian classic Records of the Grand Historian and then much later in middle school textbooks across the country.
"I'm very sorry that I mispronounced 'honghu' at the ceremony," Lin posted on the school's bulletin board forum on Saturday. "Your president is not a perfect person. He has weaknesses and makes mistakes."
Lin explained in the letter that the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was happening during his primary and secondary school years, "when education almost ground to a halt."
"The basic education I received was neither complete nor systematic," he said.
Lin said it was disappointing that "the public's concern for my mispronunciation outweighed the opinion I was trying to deliver in the speech, that anxiety and inquiry cannot create value but prevent us from moving into the future."
"It's a determined mind, the courage to face reality and action moving toward the future that can enable us to step into the future," he said.
The letter of apology attracted more than 26,000 likes and 10,000 comments on China's official Weibo microblog as of press time.
Some internet users praised the apology. Others expressed disappointment.
"It's not a big deal to mispronounce the words," a 2011 Peking University graduate, who asked to be named Xiaote, told the Global Times.
"But the opinion 'inquiry does not create value' flies contrary to science and is unacceptable."
It was beneficial to have "collision, debate, inquiry and even criticism of different ideas, but it is more important for us to build consensus on value," Lin said in his speech at the ceremony.
"Common value is the cornerstone of society as well as universities."
A ceremony marking the 120th anniversary of the university was held at the Peking University Khoo Teck Puat Gymnasium in Beijing on Friday with famous alumni, including Li Yanhong, chair and CEO of internet giant Baidu attending the ceremony.