Wǒmen | Welcome Address by Dean Yuan Ming at the Opening Ceremony of 2019 Yenching Global Symposium

Good morning, distinguished guests and friends, welcome to Yenching Academy of Peking University for the 4th annual Yenching Global Symposium. And welcome to Beida, welcome to Beijing, and welcome to China.

Welcome to our very own Yenching Scholars, and, of course, a warm welcome to the over 100 delegates joining us from outside the Yenching Academy. I am informed that a team of more than 30 Yenching Scholars stayed up all night to finish reviewing a record-breaking 5,600 applications. Their efforts have been well-rewarded: The best of these applicants are sitting with us right now in this room.


However, when I say “best”, I do not mean having the most impressive resumes, individual ability, or leadership skills—although you all certainly do have these characteristics.

Here at Yenching Academy, we define best, first, by looking beyond your qualifications, focusing on your ability to convey a personal, unique China story, whether it be a hands-on or  secondhand experience. This is the reason we have chosen you, and now here you are. By the end of YGS, you will all have new conceptions and hands-on experiences to share.

Second, you are willing to use your individual ability in collaboration with others. You are the type of people who will actively take advantage of every opportunity provided over the next 3 days, and stay connected with the Yenching community for years to come. That is to say, you are both path-blazers and community builders.

Finally, in addition to displaying leadership potential, we saw in you a certain desire -- even a passion -- to make an impact for good in your home country and the world. Leadership without values is much worse than no leadership at all.


Over the course of four years and now in its fifth, I have seen the academy grow.  Our scholars hail from 73 countries and regions, and come from diverse backgrounds, including politics, literature, history, economics, and philosophy.  Our aim is to provide these scholars with the freedom and support to let them create their own path. Our job is only to facilitate these journeys. And we invite you into our community to join this pursuit.


Studying at the Academy is an exceptional opportunity to take part in intercultural exchanges and interdisciplinary learning, developing both personally and professionally. My young YCA fellows once told me a phrase to describe studying here as “an all you can eat buffet.” This brought a smile to my face. And they extended the metaphor, writing: ”How will you customize your meal? What new foods will you see? Are you courageous enough to try the new food? To carry this analogy further, do you know what the downside to a buffet is? “ I think this is indeed an interesting metaphor. But I would like to add one sentence: It seems there is no downside to this buffet. The buffet table extends from Yenching Academy , the classrooms of Peking University, to the field studies, to the learning trips all over China. Meanwhile, it is difficult to even find names for some of the new dishes in the buffet here. 

Let me give you some examples. Think about the titles of the YGS conferences in the last two years. Please look at the screen.


The Yenching scholars, very creatively reached a new level in integrating the elements of the cultures of east and west. They created some ingenious multi-level wordplay by combining Chinese and English, thus providing us with something novel, marvelous, wonderful and intriguing. Here the key is language, or that is to say, the real meaning of languages. Can we find the deeper meaning of a very important language – say, the Chinese language--to reveal to the world its beauty? Let me tell you another story.


The Yenching Scholars are a group of young people who never cease in their journey to reach new levels of understanding about China. This year, for the fourth annual YGS, they have created this title “Women”.

Following the mission of YGS, the Executive Committee seeks to build on the previous events this year with the theme “Women: Retelling the China stories.” Their goal is to show that there is not just one China story, but many China stories. It is not just a play on words, spelling the English word “women” and the Chinese word “we, us, our” in Pinyin. It is much more than that. It gives rise to a new perspective, by mobilzing these language codes, to retell the China stories. Here I would like to share with you my grandmother’s story.


My maternal grandmother was born and grew up during the late Qing dynasty in the 19th century. China was very different in those days. It was a feudal society that lacked what we would call a “modern education” system. The majority of women of in the population, together with men, were illiterate, but of course the women's situation was even worse. When she was 6 or 7 years old, she was urged to have her feet “bound”, as was the custom. She refused, with the support of her mother, my great grandmother, who had suffered deeply from this kind of physical torture. Then came another challenge. She wanted to go to school.

At that time, some new type of schools were set up, which were very different from the traditional provincial teaching houses called “Si-shu”, which were dedicated to the learning of the traditional Classics. To pursuit the new way of learning became quite a phenomenon at the turn of the century. This was quite an extraordinary period in Chinese modern history, but for the time being allow me to focus on my grandmother.


My great grandfather, her father had already written her life's story. She was to be a good wife and a good mother, and in his opinion, an education would only impede those goals. But my grandma wanted to write a different story.

At the age of 14, her mother heard her pleas and decided to offer help. So my grandma left the family without telling anyone except her mother. She went all the way on foot from Nanchang to Jiujiang, walking for two whole days, and arrived at the doorstep of a school operated by a woman who had been educated in Japan. Another fascinating story. My grandma told the principal “I want an education”. All well and good, but how are you going to pay for this? “I'll do anything”, she said. Finally she negotiated a bargain with the principle: she would braid her daughter's hair every morning to pay for her education. That arrangement lasted 3 years, and at age 17, she finished her education.

My grandma is my inspiration. While studying at Berkeley in the 1980s, there were very few Chinese women in the kind of role I was filling, and I often thought of her. Indeed, her health began to decline while I was abroad, and she insisted I stay and obtain my education. She wrote to me: “Do your job. I will take good care of myself and wait for your return, wait for your contribution to society, and winning dignity for the women in China”. I can see her telling me to write my story. She passed away while I was abroad. I still remember the moment when I heard the sad news, and I missed her terribly, especially when I stood by the shore of the Pacific Ocean. My grandma is the reason I stand here today. This is her story, which is now part of your story.

China is full of rich stories. These stories must be cross-cultural, as any good education is. Again, I thank you for joining us on this fascinating journey, sharing stories, not only of the past, but of the present and the future.

Thank you very much.


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