Speech by Wang Dong at the 2020 Graduation Ceremony of Yenching Academy


President Wang, Dean Yuan, Faculty, Teachers, Parents and Fellow Friends, Good morning!

“Staying foolish” is one suggestion that Steve Jobs made to conclude his speech at Stanford commencement in 2005. Although I’ve known the words since junior high school, not until coming to Yenching Academy did I realize its true meaning. Overall, “staying foolish” has become the main theme of my growth here. Allow me to illustrate with the following stories.

Staying foolish begins with a changing attitude.

Before Yenching Academy, I studied Chinese Language and Literature, through which I knew China was a great nation with a long civilization. For a long time, I had little exposure, or even interest in other nations, until Yenching Academy opened a new door for me.

I was lent different eyes to see the world. One was from an Israeli, Harel. Before coming here, I had played ping-pong for 12 years and hadn’t expected that someone without special training could beat me at all. But Harel did. In our first term I claimed victory with ease; in the second, we were neck and neck; but by the third, I’d have to catch my breath as the underdog. If Harel lost, on the second day, he would challenge me to a rematch using the new techniques he developed. But once he won, he would take a victory lap in Shanghai, so I couldn’t exact my revenge at all.

Ping-pong brought us close. We shared stories and discussed all manner of topics. Watching the film, Schindler's List, I was confused about what triggered the gravest Jewish disaster in World War II. Harel told me that many of them were victims of their own success – as you know, the Jewish only represent 0.2% of the world’s population, but account for one fifth of Nobel Prize laureates.

His words led me to reflection. Chinese constitute one fifth of the world’s population, but how many Nobel Prize laureates do we have? Our civilization has much to offer the world, but it’s also only one of the many diverse civilizations. For the first time, the world map unfurled in front of me. It told me: never stand still, never be conceited, never be complacent.

Staying foolish allows me to break down stereotypes.

In Yenching Academy, I shared a wonderful relationship with my Japanese roommate Kazuki Mayazaki, but one day I was informed that he would not live with me for the second year. Why? He decided to spend the whole year travelling around China, sharing pictures on Instagram and blog posts on website, to introduce China to the youth in Japan.

I thought: if I were 26, I would not travel, but instead find a job. As a Chinese student in Peking University, many aspects of our lives have been highly choreographed: a good secondary school for a good college; a good college for a good job; a good job for a good wife; a good wife for a happy family with kids. Since an early age, we had travelled the well-worn and safe paths toward “success”.

But this idea has been challenged in Yenching Academy. Here I saw too many scholars did “foolish” things.

Miles Graham, my running mate in the Graduate Student Union, liked to hitchhike across China. Once he hitched 15 cars to Shanghai; another time, 20 cars to Chengdu. He could easily buy a train ticket but he believed hitchhiking was an adventure.

Minjoo Noh, heading PR on our GSU committee, elected to volunteer in Mexico after graduation. It was not until last week did she move back to her Korean home and began her quarantine.

Ankur Shah, another of my ping-pong companions, drove 105 nights from Venice to Beijing, to see how the historical Silk Road was being shaped by China’s rise. They all showed me in person, that dreams are realized when we bravely follow our hearts. Break the stereotype and do what you truly want to do; even though it may seem foolish in some ways.

Staying foolish has finally set me upon a different path.

In my first year at Yenching Academy, I studied Higher Education Management. One important event in Chinese Education History was when the 94-year-old Qian Xuesen, one of China’s most respected scientists, posed a question to the Chinese Premier: “Why have our schools been unable to consistently develop the best talents?” For years, the Chinese government has sought to answer that question with a series of education reform.

However, from the eyes of Harel, I strongly felt Qian’s question was not simply a question of the mechanics of education reform. The outstanding Jewish success in Nobel Prize must have had something to do with their traditions. To verify my conjecture, I took a leap of faith and change my concentration to Philosophy and Religion, becoming the only second Chinese student studying this field in the history of Yenching Academy.

It might have been foolish to turn down a coveted Economic diploma, for one that is not seen as valuable. But Yenching Academy has given me confidence that “foolish” decisions will somehow make more difference. So far, I have found preliminary evidence that Nobel Prize winning accomplishments are closely related to the metaphysical character of the religion one nation subscribes to. Now I’m also blessed to have an opportunity to study this further in the Philosophy Department and the Sinology Institute of Peking University.

Today’s world is not at peace. Affected by the virus, established institutions seem fragile, 500,000 people have passed away, millions of workers have lost their jobs, and countless families are broken. Indeed, ordinary people can’t change the world overnight, but starting by changing ourselves, we can make a difference step-by-step. By staying foolish, I took my first step.

Let me conclude my speech with a poem adapted from the Daoist text, Daodejing:

The Bright Way looks obscure;

The Forward Way looks reversed,

The Smooth Way looks rough.

The Great square has no corner,

The Great completion is never complete,

The Great note has no voice.

The Supreme achievement seems to lack;

The Supreme fullness seems empty;

The Supreme straightness seems bent;

The Supreme wit seems foolish.

See? Even the Dao stays foolish. Thank you!

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