Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS delivers a graduation address in China

14 July 2021
Posted by Study Group

Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS delivers a graduation address at the Beijing Language and Culture University

Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS, Vice-Chair (Academic) at leading international education provider Study Group, recently delivered a graduation address at the Beijing Language and Culture University in China. The full graduation address is available below.

My fellow scholars and teachers. But most importantly, graduates and honoured guests.

I am deeply proud to have been invited to make this address to you, the graduates of Beijing Language and Culture University.

This has been an extraordinary year. In the face of a pandemic that has changed all our lives, the graduating class of 2021 have had to make great efforts - supported by your wonderful teachers - to successfully make it to this day.

This year nearly 2,000 students from five continents will graduate from Beijing Language and Culture University - that is a remarkable achievement, and you should indeed be very proud.

This University is a wonderful institution and one I have been privileged to know over many years as a British University President and as the Chairman of our Confucius Institute which worked with BLCU to bring an understanding of Chinese language and culture to local people.

In this task, I was also a student. Like you, I have sought to address my own lack of understanding, and this University and its amazing city were two of my teachers.

Once China was a mystery to the world and few had the privilege of knowing its great teachers and to build personal relationships with its people. The image of this great nation was that of the Great Wall, an impressive feat of engineering but also a barrier to foreign invasion.

This graduating class is living proof that times are changing. While misunderstanding between countries and people still plagues our world, each one of you is a living bridge. The knowledge and friendships you have gained during your time as students are a challenge to ignorance and a place of meeting.

Studying language and culture in Beijing

Beijing is a remarkable place to have studied language and culture. Although it is now home to over 21 million people, the history of the city stretches back for three millennia.

People across the world know of Beijing’s Forbidden City complex, which was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. I first visited this extraordinary site with the British academic Dame Jessica Rawson from Oxford University who was a scholar of its many treasures.

That first visit to Beijing ignited my own desire to understand more of China and its people. I visited Mao Zedong’s mausoleum and wondered at The Great Hall of the People. I saw modern skyscrapers, roads, apartment blocks and shopping centres. And I stood in its great station and saw the high-speed trains that connected the capital city to wider China.

I was amazed and I realised I had so much to learn. I needed to understand more of the language and culture of this place. And so, I began to learn Chinese, which would be a bridge between me and this city and its people.

Language as a bridge

A few years ago I came across a novel by the Yugoslav writer and Nobel Laureate Ivo Andrić.

The Bridge on the Drina is a historical novel in which the main character is not a person but the bridge itself. The novel tells the harrowing history of the building of the bridge, but it also reminds us that bridges are places of trade, of meeting, of conversation and connection.

You could say that Beijing Language and Culture University specialises in a particular kind of bridge - for language and culture are at the core of our efforts to engage with one another as human beings. This is how we share our hopes and seek to solve our problems.

Language and culture at their best are the means of transmitting to one another the things we most cherish. They embed our knowledge and the values we cherish. They speak of our dreams.

Yet it is also right that language and culture should be subject to scholarship. Without critically considering these most powerful of human experiences, we may fail to notice when they can be vehicles for misunderstanding or even prejudice and cruelty.

The great British writer John Le Carre once said that “learning a language is an act of friendship.” Each of you graduating here today has brought to that task your efforts as a student at this place of learning in one of the world’s great cities.

Learning from one another

I am told that the Beijing Language and Culture University is often called a "Little United Nations" in China because of the very large number of international students from various countries who come here. This means BLCU has a very special ability to help us learn not only about our subject specialisms but about one another.

The challenge ahead of you now is to use all you have learned for good.

Graduates of this institution have become authors and diplomats, experts in new technological languages and teachers. That is a proud tradition. Now it is your turn.

You should thank your teachers and your families for all they have done to help bring you to this point. And you should honour that effort by now putting all you have learned to work in the world.

Today is a great day. You have worked hard to reach this point and we wish you every happiness and success in your future endeavours.

Congratulations to each and every one of you. I urge you now to use your precious education to make the world a better place, where you will build your own bridges of understanding. This is your time. In the words of the national anthem of China... “Arise, arise!” .

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