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Letter to Lingnanians

30 August 2022

Leonard K Cheng

Leonard K Cheng
President

Dear Lingnanians,

 

The new academic year is all set to start. I hope every one of you is ready for the long-awaited teaching and learning activities and looks forward to enjoying face-to-face interactions on campus, something you have regrettably missed in the past months.

 

For Lingnan, 2021/22 has been a fruitful year with many remarkable achievements. In early April this year, Times Higher Education (THE) announced that Lingnan ranked third out of 1,180 participating institutions in the world for “Quality Education” in their Impact Rankings 2022, following the same honour in the year before. The THE Impact Rankings measure university performance according to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are very proud of this remarkable feat, and will keep up our good work in providing quality education to all of our students.

 

Our research excellence has also been affirmed in the 2022 Top Universities and Top Scientists Rankings conducted by Research.com, which assessed the quantity and quality of publications according to bibliometric indicators. Lingnan ranks in the top 10 in Psychology, Economics and Finance, and Business and Management among all universities in China. Meanwhile, our Translation came first in Hong Kong and second among Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan universities according to the Chinese University Translation Ability Index 2021 released by the National Translation Competence Research Center of Beijing Foreign Studies University in May this year.

 

In the latest Research Grants Council funds bidding exercise, Lingnan has broken records both in the number of funded projects (37) and in the amount of funding ($16 million) from the General Research Fund (GRF), Early Career Scheme (ECS), and Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme (HSSPFS). This represents a nearly 70 per cent increase from last year, with Lingnan securing a place in both of the highly competitive ECS and HSSPFS, where only 7 and 10 projects, respectively, were awarded to the entire University Grants Committee (UGC) sector this year.

 

The UGC has confirmed the allocation of our student places and recurrent grants for the 2022-25 triennium -- a shot in the arm for our implementation of the new Strategic Plan 2022-28, following LegCo’s approval of the Government’s budget request in May 2022. Our favourable allocation was very much the result of our efforts and achievements in providing quality education and obtaining research project awards over the past several years as well as our remarkable improvement in the Research Assessment Exercise 2020 outcomes.

 

The accomplishments of our students and staff not only have been directly recognised by local authorities and international peers alike, but also have been indirectly reflected in the number of prospective students from all over the world who seek admissions to our undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes. For 2022/23, the trend of an increasing number of students in our programmes has continued. Despite a decline in the total number of HKDSE applicants for the entire UGC sector, Lingnan’s overall First-Year-First-Degree (FYFD) quotas have been filled with an additional over-enrolment of 10.37% against the original FYFD quotas allocated by the UGC. The total number of applicants for Taught Postgraduate Programmes has also gone up by more than 150%, resulting in an increase of total enrolment from 1,500 last year to 1,800 this year.

 

On the success of our global faculty recruitment, I am very pleased to report that this year we welcome over 70 new scholars to Lingnan, with the majority of them coming from top universities in the US, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

 

The above good news and others indicate that our University is clearly on a steady upward trend. I would like to thank all Lingnanians for their devotion and contributions that are behind our successes in the past years.

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. To commemorate this historic occasion, President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong and emphasised the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” and Hong Kong’s unique role in the region. I believe that Hong Kong’s geographical, demographic and educational advantages will offer our people diverse and dynamic career and entrepreneurial opportunities. 

 

As President Xi has stressed in his speech, “Hong Kong will prosper only when its young people thrive” and Hong Kong’s development and future are defined by the development and future of its young people. So students, you have a key role to play in building Hong Kong’s future, and you also have a unique opportunity because both Hong Kong and your motherland will be at your side to give you the support you need. I encourage you to cherish your study here and equip yourselves for the challenges and opportunities ahead with the 21st century skills that include Critical thinking, Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration (the 4Cs), as well as other soft skills and desirable traits such as eagerness to learn (or curiosity), generosity, empathy, equality, and emotional intelligence.

 

Meanwhile, to promote national education among our students and increase their sense of national identity, since January 2022 we have started to fly the national flag on campus daily,  conduct weekly flag raising ceremonies and hold special flag raising ceremonies on specific occasions. Last week’s New Student Orientation witnessed such a special ceremony at that event for the first time. You are encouraged to participate in these solemn ceremonies to be conducted by our Student Flag Raising Team. I am sure you will find the ceremonies a uniquely exciting and emotional experience.

 

In previous Letters I occasionally shared my own experiences that were unrelated to my position as President or my profession as an economist. Hopefully, that will make the Letter a little less business-like and a little more personal. In this Letter, I would like to share three things that I did during the summer.

 

The first thing to share has to do with the Heart Sutra (Maha Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra),  the most widely read Buddhist scripture through translation into many languages in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. A little more than a year ago I started to practise mindfulness meditation, a breathing and mental exercise that is closely related to traditional mental practices of Buddhist monks, which among other things improves relaxation and the quality of sleep. From not quite a year ago I begin the exercise by reciting in Putonghua the particular Chinese translation of the Heart Sutra said to be done by Hsuan-tsang (玄奘) during the Tang Dynasty:《摩訶般若波羅蜜多心經》, which is comprised of only 260 Chinese words not counting the title. Since some of the words are not for daily use, I watched videos of its recitation to get my pronunciation right.

 

As I later found out, 69 of the 260 Chinese words are phonetic representation of the scripture which was originally in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. Translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese has enabled Chinese people to learn about Buddhism. Phonetic representation was adopted to prevent distortion of original meanings because Chinese words and terms did not exist to capture deep Buddhist concepts such as “prajna” (Western phonetic representation of the Sanskrit term that means “Buddhist wisdom and enlightenment”) and “paramita” (“to cross the river to reach the bank of enlightenment”). To find out which of the Chinese words in Heart Sutra are there to capture the Sanskrit pronunciation, I listened to the Sanskrit pronunciation and recitation of the Heart Sutra and compare it with the Putonghua pronunciation of Heart Sutra. In case of doubt I looked up the meaning of the Sanskrit words from online Sanskrit dictionaries. For example, the word “三” in “三世諸佛” is a number, but the same word in “三藐三菩提” is just phonetic translation.

 

I have discovered that 波羅蜜多 in Putonghua sounds close enough to “paramita”, but surprisingly 般若 as a Buddhist term and pronounced as “bo-re” in Putonghua is a far cry from “prajna”, a three syllables word where “j” in the middle sounds close to “ge” as in “judge”. This is an apparent anomaly staring right at any reader given the paramount importance of this particular term which also defines the influential Prajnaparamita School of Buddhism. I am ready to admit that how 般若 is pronounced would be of no significance whatsoever to Buddhist wisdom and enlightenment, but one would still be curious why it has happened and whether some Chinese dialects will do better and why.

 

The Cantonese (whose origin is believed to be Tang Dynasty Chinese) pronunciation of 般若 as a Buddhist term is “bo-ye” (as in波野) and the Teochew (潮州) pronunciation is “bo-ziac”.  However, its pronunciation according the Miang Nam (Southern Fujian) dialect (閩南語) is something like “bwaan-na”, which is quite close to that of “prajna” except that the latter’s middle syllable “j” is missing, as two single syllable Chinese words can never capture fully a three syllables Sanskrit term. Furthermore in the Teochew dialect (a derivative of the Miang Nam dialect) 般若 can be pronounced as “bwaan-na” too because the ordinary pronunciation of the single word 般 is indeed “bwaan” instead of “bo” and according to a linguist who is familiar with all the above three dialects “na” is an older pronunciation of 若 that continues to be used in some parts of the Chaozhao-Shantou region today. 

 

In case you think that the Miang Nam pronunciation of 般若 being closer to “prajna” could be random and fortuitous, you may be interested in knowing the following facts. First, the term 般若 appeared in as early as the late East Han (東漢) period when Buddhism was thought to have just reached China.1  Second, according to the above-mentioned linguist, the origin of the Miang Nam dialect was ancient Chinese used during the period of the East Han and West Jin (西晉) periods, and as such it is an older vintage of ancient Chinese than Cantonese.

 

The Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit term represented by “gate” (pronounced as “gac-tee” meaning, “go ahead”) in the prajnaparamita mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra according to the above three dialects and Putonghua shows that the Miang Nam (and Teochew) pronunciation (“gic-de”) is the closest and the Cantonese pronunciation (“kic-dai”) is sufficiently close to the Sanskrit pronunciation, whereas the Putonghua pronunciation (“jie-de”) is the farthest apart. This illustration ends my amateurish digression into the phonetic translation of some Sanskrit terms into Chinese and changes in their mainstream Chinese pronunciation over time.  

 

The second thing I like to share is about my family. After being trapped in our city since early February 2020, I managed to travel overseas for a month from early June this year to visit my children and their families. After spending time with my three grandsons and two granddaughters (who range from 9 months old to six years old), I look forward to having a good time with them after retirement from Lingnan. 

 

The third thing I like to share is about my thinking on quarantine measures at this stage of the coronavirus’ evolution. After arriving in our very quiet and sadly under-utilized airport in the evening of 5 July, I spent a week in a quarantine hotel on the Hong Kong Island, during which time I did the Covid-19 tests (including one nucleic acid test) every day and went on to do two more mandatory  nucleic acid tests after I went home. With my first-hand experience with life in three US cities in three different states and after having personally gone through Hong Kong’s quite stringent quarantine measures, I published five newspaper articles on quarantine measures adopted in Hong Kong and the Mainland.

 

In my article published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 26 July, I argued that given the Mainland’s extremely stringent quarantine measures, Hong Kong should first open its borders to all travellers from overseas who are fully vaccinated and tested negative after landing at our airport. As for the Mainland, Hong Kong will just have to wait for the relaxation of their border crossing measures. While the relaxation from “7-night hotel quarantine + 5-day medical surveillance” to “3+4” beginning from 12 August fell short of my suggestion, it was definitely moving in the right direction, thanks to the vision and leadership of the Secretary for Health.

 

The remaining four articles published in August were on different aspects of the stringent  measures adopted in the Mainland to contain the coronavirus (including lock down of infected areas) and bring the number of infection cases down to zero as soon as possible. The article published on 8 August in Sing Tao Daily touched on these measures’ social costs and incentives that have led local officials to adopt harsher measures than intended by the higher level technocrats. The last three articles were published in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on 23, 26 and 30 of August, focusing respectively on 1) exploring the economic costs of stringent measures, using the lock down of three major cities as examples, 2) showing the fallacy of the argument advanced by some leading epidemiologists that stringent measures intended to wipe out infection cases quickly should continue as long as they yield a positive “economic bonus”, and 3) discussing an expert’s views on the Mainland’s roadmap for a return to normal life against the background of i) many other countries discontinuing their anti-pandemic measures, ii) serious slowdown of the Mainland economy, and iii) past benefits reaped by the Chinese economy from integrating with the world economy.   

 

I have been genuinely concerned that, at a time when most other cities in the world have opened up with zero or minimal quarantine measures, Hong Kong’s stringent quarantine measures toward incoming travellers (including its own returning residents) have not only disadvantaged Hong Kong vis-à-vis Singapore and other regional competitors but also endangered our position as our region’s international financial, transportation, trade and business centres.

 

Let’s hope that the recent relaxation of Hong Kong’s quarantine measures will prove prescient. With the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to be under control despite the relaxed measures and our hospitals maintaining their ability to deal with sicknesses caused by the Omicron variant and any other future variants, I hope to see further relaxation of not only the quarantine measures but also the social distancing measures. With that, I look forward to meeting with many of you on campus and at our off-campus activities.

 

Best regards,

Leonard K Cheng
President

30 August 2022

 

1 One can find information from Buddhist literature websites that there is a scripture translated into Chinese by 支娄迦讖, a Tokharian (月氏) monk from the Xingjiang area,《道行般若經》, and it occurred during the late East Han period.