The first Chinese citizen to give a Harvard graduation speech recalled why his mom lit his hand on fire

He Jiang at the Harvard commencement.
He Jiang at the Harvard commencement.
Image: YouTube
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A biology student from rural China became the first Chinese citizen to deliver a graduation speech at Harvard University this week.

On Wednesday (May 26), He Jiang, a doctoral student in biochemistry, spoke about the time his mother set his hand on fire when he was a boy, after a poisonous spider bit him. The incident inspired him to bring scientific knowledge to where it’s needed the most, he said.

The graduate explained he grew up in a village in central China’s Hunan province. When he was bit by the spider 15 years ago, there was no doctor in the area. So his mother wrapped his hand with layers of cotton, soaked the cotton in wine, and ignited it. The pain made him want to scream, he said, but “all I could do was watch my hand burn—one minute, then two minutes—until mom put out the fire.”

Heat deactivates proteins, which is what a spider’s venom is made of, so his mother’s cure was actually effective. “I now know that better, less painful, and less risky treatments existed… why didn’t I receive one at the time?” he asked in the speech. He said he is “troubled by the unequal distribution of scientific knowledge throughout the world,” and dedicated to communicate what he has learned to those who need it, like “the farmers in my village.”

He was one of the three graduate speakers at Harvard’s 365th commencement. China’s state media outlets bragged he was “making history” and have run many profiles of him leading up to the graduation.

He was the first in his family to attend college. “If you don’t study hard and leave this village, you will be farming your whole life,” he said his father always told him.

Here’s the full text of He’s speech, in both English and Chinese, from financial publisher Caixin.