Intercultural rhetoric

MQ VC Prof. Schwartz at the Library Opening Ceremony

I was lucky to be able to join the opening ceremony of Macquarie University’s new library on 28 March. The event impressed me a lot. So many teachers, staff and students braved the rain and voluntarily joined the “human chain” and passed a book hand to hand from the old library building to the new one. Then the vice-chancellor, Professor Steven Schwartz, who wore a stylish polo-neck sweater and jeans, gave a speech. His speech began with an anecdote about his personal work experience in a library many years ago and then introduced the advanced new library system. The speech was light-hearted with spontaneous laughter from the audience and warmly applauded at the end. What a wonderful speech!

In my mind’s eye I saw a similar scene unfold in China. The leader in China would wear a formal suit and tie on such an occasion. The speech would begin like this: “Ladies and gentleman, good morning! I am honored to present a speech here. At this special moment, please allow me to convey the warmest congratulations on this opening ceremony on behalf of the XXX. I would also like to express my sincere greetings to every one here.” After that, the leader would read the typed-out speech word by word, phrase by phrase, page by page, occasionally raising his head and having a look around with his authoritative eyes. The speech would be so stereotyped that everyone could foretell the speech exactly. The audience would think “What a boring speech!” Of course, in order to save the leader’s face and maintain his status, the organizer would try every means to find as large an audience as possible to make the scene at least look spectacular.

How many in that large audience are unwilling to hear the boring and tedious speech? How many applaud reluctantly? How many yearn for something different such as a fresh speech full of enthusiasm, inspiration and sincerity? When it comes to learning from foreign cultures, let’s not focus on learning superficialities such as wearing a suit and tie. Let’s learn the rhetoric! After all, it is the art of public speech that matters!

Liu Hailin is currently a visiting scholar in the Linguistics Department at Macquarie University, where she conducts research in sociolinguistics under the supervision of Ingrid Piller. Her home university is Shanxi Normal University, where she teaches Comprehensive English and Extensive Reading.

Author Liu Hailin 海林 刘

More posts by Liu Hailin 海林 刘
  • stone

    Thank you for your interesting post, Hailin.Your vivid description of the leader is so ironic.
    chinese lecturers should learn how to make public speech.

  • Andy

    I think Hailin’s wry words about the Chinese leaders shows the mendacious propaganda in China.

  • Xiaoxiao Chen

    Hailin, thanks for sharing your interesting reflections on the Chancellor’s speech. I agree that there are some officials, not only in China, who can bore the audience with their speeches. That’s actually something universal in world politics. A comparison between counterparts, however, may make more sense, say the presidents in China’s universities as compared with MQ vice-chancellor. There are lots of university presidents in China who are masters of publich speech too. One of them is Professor Li Peigen, the President of Huazhong (Central China) University of Science and Technology. He has won great popularity among his students owing to his eloquence in each of the six speeches he’s made at the graduation ceremonies. His speech in 2010 moved the students so greatly that it was interrupted by 30 applauses in 16 mins and the students all stood up calling him “Uncle Gen”. For relevant infromatioon , please check out at

    • Liu Hailin 海林 刘

      Li Peigen’s speech recminds the students of their campus life. I know another example, the former president of Peking University, Xu Zhihong, sang a pop song ‘invisible wings’ with students…We hope every lecture is wonderful!

  • vahid

    an interesting read!thank you so much for the post,liu hailin,and hope you enjoy your stay at MQ.

  • Jenny Zhang

    Hailin, thank you for your interesting comments on “intercultural rhetoric.” Without doubt, the vice-chancellor excels as a public speaker with his own style. But, I agree with Xiaoxiao that only a comparison between counterparts can justified. The scenario of giving prepared serious speeches in formal suit and tie might happen anywhere everyday on the political stage, China and Australia alike. Speech genres and styles vary significantly with changing audience, purposes, contents and settings. I cannot, for the present, imagine a political leader (not just Chinese leader) addressing a government working conference by copying the chancellor’s “intercultural rhetoric” of a casual speech for the opening of a new library: wear a “stylish polo-neck sweater and jeans” and start the speech with his/her “light-hearted” personal experience. Our respected vice –chancellor himself might, understandably, change his “rhetoric” in more “formal” occasions. In addition, some Chinese leaders are also articulate public speakers and have a good knowledge of “intercultural rhetoric”. Xiaoxiao provided a good example. Besides, personally, I admire Premier Zhu Rongji for his wits and eloquence, whose speech in interviews with both Chinese and foreign correspondents after China’s National People’s Congress produced a profound impression on the audience and me.

    • Xiaoxiao Chen

      Thanks, Jenny, for the wonderful comments! Yes, the same person can speak very differently for different purposes and on different occasions. Hailin, this might be a good topic for your research:-)