Hu Shi

From New World Encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Hu Shi or Hu Shih (Traditional Chinese: 胡適; Simplified Chinese: 胡适; pinyin: Hú Shì, December 17, 1891—February 24 1962), born Hu Hongxing (胡洪騂), courtesy name was Shizhi (適之) was a Chinese philosopher and essayist who is widely recognized today as a key contributor to Chinese liberalism. In 1910, Hu was sent as a "national scholar" to study in the United States, where he came under the influence of John Dewey and became a lifelong advocate of pragmatic evolutionary change. When he returned to China in 1917, Hu immediately began to promote the use of vernacular Chinese in literature, instead of the classical Chinese which had been in use for centuries. In 1920, Hu published a book of poetry written in the vernacular, A Book of Experiments (Ch'ang-shih chi), unleashing a flood of new literature in the vernacular which eventually resulted in the development of new literary forms. By 1922 the government had proclaimed the vernacular as the national language.


Hu became one of the leading and most influential intellectuals during the May Fourth Movement (五四運動; 五四运动; wǔ sì yùn dòng) and later the New Culture Movement. He advocated the careful study of individual problems and political issues, as well as experimentation in order to discover the best practical solution, rather than the adoption of abstract political theories such as Marxism.



Hu was born December 17, 1891, in Shanghai to Hu Chuan (胡傳), a scholar official from from Jixi, Anhui (绩溪县.安徽), and Feng Shundi (馮順弟). Hu’s father died when he was three years old, but his mother, though uneducated herself, insisted on educating her son for the civil service examinations so that he could become an official like his father. Hu began learning the Chinese Classics and the old vernacular stories and novels at the age of four, under the tutelage of his uncle and cousin. He attended a village school, and at the age of 13 he went to Shanghai where he completed high school at a so-called modern school. (Eber 2005) In January 1904, his family arranged a marriage for Hu with Jiang Dongxiu (江冬秀), an illiterate girl with bound feet who was one year older than he was. The actual marriage did not take place until December 1917. Hu became a "national scholar" through funds appropriated from the Boxer Indemnity grant. On August 16, 1910, Hu was sent to study agriculture at Cornell University in the United States. In 1912 he changed his major to philosophy and literature. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he went to Columbia University to study philosophy. At Columbia he was greatly influenced by his professor, John Dewey, and became Dewey's translator and a lifelong advocate of pragmatic evolutionary change. Hu remained close to his mentor, serving as Dewey’s translator when he visited China in April 1919 for a two-year lecture tour of eleven provinces. He offered a tribute at Dewey’s ninetieth birthday dinner, and returned periodically to Columbia as a guest lecturer. (Columbia University 250).

Return to China

In 1917, after completing his doctoral dissertation under John Dewey, Hu returned to China to lecture at Peking (Beijing) University. (He received his doctorate in philosophy several years later.) Even though the Revolution of 1911 had abolished the monarchy and established a Western-style republic, Hu found that China not changed radically from the nation he had left seven years before. Provincial warlords were still fighting for dominance; the old conservative intellectual bureaucracy was still powerful; two attempts had been made to restore the monarchy; China's political and economic sovereignty were threatened by foreign powers; and ninety percent of the Chinese people were still illiterate and obedient to ancient traditions. Hu Shih and other intellectuals who had returned from study abroad concluded that there must be a total re-generation of traditional Chinese culture in order for the new Western-style government to succeed. Peking National University became the center of this movement. Hu explained that in 1917, all the Peking intellectuals agreed “to keep away from politics for 20 years and to be devoted only to educational, intellectual, and cultural activities, to build a political foundation by way of non-political factors.”

In 1917, Hu's “Wen-hsüeh kai-liang ch'u-i” (“Tentative Proposal for Literary Reform”) was published in New Youth(新青年; Pinyin: Xīn Qīngnián), an influential journal established and edited by Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀, Ch'en Tu-hsiu), a fellow-professor at Peking University. The article proposed a new, living literature, liberated from the tyranny of “dead” language and style, which would be accessible to the people and flexible enough to express new ideas, and made Hu a champion of the pai-hua movement. In 1920, Hu published a book of poetry written in the vernacular, “A Book of Experiments” (Ch'ang-shih chi), unleashing a flood of new literature in the vernacular which eventually resulted in the development of new forms of the short-story and essay, new drama and the translation of European literature into Chinese. In spite of the attacks of traditionalists, vernacular literature, as Hu said, ““spread as though it wore seven-league boots.” By 1922 the government had proclaimed the vernacular as the national language.

The vernacular revolution was only one aspect of a broader campaign to liberate Chinese culture from ancient traditional values. Hu advocated the use of Dewey’s pragmatic methodology to reappraise China's cultural heritage, and in 1919 proposed a slogan which generated much enthusiasm among intellectuals: “Boldness in suggesting hypotheses coupled with a most solicitous regard for control and verification.” “Outline of the History of Chinese Philosophy” (Chung-kuo che-hsüeh shih ta-kang, 1919), an examination of the logic of the ancient philosophers, and Hu’s later studies which verified authorship and authenticity of the old vernacular literature, demonstrated how the scientific method could be applied in the study of traditional Chinese literature.

May Fourth Movement

Hu became one of the leading and most influential intellectuals during the May Fourth Movement (五四運動; 五四运动; wǔ sì yùn dòng) and later the New Culture Movement (新文化運動; 新文化运动; xīn wén huà yùn dòng). Escape from politics was not long-lived. The May Fourth incident in 1919, when the Versailles Peace Conference’s decision to support Japan's claims to Shantung province provoked a violent student demonstration, emphasized a widening division between leftist intellectuals, who had become political activists, and the liberal intellectuals, who wished to avoid political activism.

On July 20, 1919, Hu broke with the leftists by challenging them in an article entitled “More Study of Problems, Less Talk of 'Isms'.” He advocated gradual change and the solution of individual problems through cool and reflective study and deliberation. He believed that it was futile to hope that the adoption of abstract formulas such as Marxism and anarchism would solve all of China's problems, and that they would probably lead to disastrous results when applied to real issues.

During the 1920s, Hu quit New Youth and published several political newspapers and journals with his friends. His pragmatist position not only made him a declared antagonist of the Chinese Communist Party, but also made his relationship with the Nationalists tenuous. When the war with Japan broke out in 1937, however, he became reconciled with the Nationalist government. Hu served as ambassador from the Republic of China to the United States of America between 1938-1941, (Cheng and Lestz 1999, 373) chancellor of Peking University between 1946-1948. After the establishment of the Communist government in China in 1949, Hu lived in New York City, and served as Nationalist China’s representative to the United Nations. In 1958 he went to Taiwan to take up the presidency of the Academia Sinica, and remained there until his death by heart attack in Nangang on February 24, 1962. He was chief executive of the Free China Journal, which was eventually shut down for criticizing Chiang Kai-shek.

Thought and Works


Unlike other figures of the Warlord Era in the Republic of China, Hu was a staunch supporter of just one main current of thought: pragmatism. The philosophy of John Dewey, Hu’s mentor at Columbia University, discouraged the quest for absolute truths and recommended instead that whatever worked in a particular set of circumstances should be accepted as true. Dewey held that man should believe in nothing which had not been subjected to the “test of consequences.” Hu Shih adopted this approach as a means of helping China free itself from blind submission to ancient tradition.

In literature, pragmatism encouraged the use of the language actually spoken by the people, and the development of forms which adequately expressed the thoughts and concerns of modern Chinese. In politics, it meant the careful study of individual problems and issues, and experimentation to discover the best solution in practice, rather than the adoption of an abstract formula such as Marxism.

Vernacular Chinese

Hu's most important contribution to Chinese culture was the promotion of vernacular Chinese in literature to replace classical Chinese, which made it easier for the ordinary person to read. (Luo 2004) At the time of the Revolution of 1911, Chinese education was still largely concentrated on the content of the civil service examinations. Scholars and writers were expected to write in classical Chinese and to conform to the orthodox literary forms of the Confucian Classics. The use of classical Chinese hampered the development of new ideas, and was so difficult to learn that illiteracy was widespread in China. Hu’s publication of works in vernacular Chinese and his promotion of new forms of literature stimulated the rapid development of vernacular literature in China. As John Fairbank put said, "the tyranny of the classics had been broken." (Fairbank 1979, 232-233, 334).

In an article originally published in New Youth in January 1917 titled "A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform," Hu emphasized eight guidelines that all Chinese writers should take to heart in writing:

1. Write with substance. By this, Hu meant that literature should contain real feeling and human thought. This was intended to be a contrast to the recent poetry with rhymes and phrases that Hu perceived as being empty of meaning.

2. Do not imitate the ancients. Literature should not be written in the styles of long ago, but rather in the modern style of the present era.

3. Emphasize grammar. Hu did not elaborate at length on this point, merely stating that some recent forms of poetry had neglected proper grammar.

4. Reject melancholy. Recent young authors often chose grave pen names, and wrote on such topics as death. Hu rejected this way of thinking as being unproductive in solving modern problems.

5. Eliminate old clichés. The Chinese language has always had numerous four-character sayings and phrases used to describe events. Hu implored writers to use their own words in descriptions, and deplored those who did not.

6. Do not use allusions. By this, Hu was referring to the practice of comparing present events to events in the past, even when such events were not entirely applicable.

7. Do not use couplets or parallelism. Though these forms had been pursued by earlier writers, Hu believed that modern writers first needed to learn the basics of substance and quality, before returning to these matters of subtlety and delicacy.

8. Do not avoid popular expressions or popular forms of characters. This rule, perhaps the most well known, tied in directly with Hu's belief that modern literature should be written in the vernacular, rather than in Classical Chinese. He believed that this practice had historical precedence, and led to greater understanding of important texts.

In April of 1918, Hu published a second article in New Youth, entitled "Constructive Literary Revolution - A Literature of National Speech." In it, he simplified the original eight points into only four:

1. Speak only when you have something to say. 2. Speak what you want to say and say it in the way you want to say it. 3. Speak what is your own and not that of someone else. 4. Speak in the language of the time in which you live.

Sample Poem

Don't You Forget
(English translation of a poem by Hu, published in New Youth magazine, China 1915-1926, 5 (3)
Over twenty years I taught you to love this country,
But God tell me how!
Don't you forget:
It's our country's soldiers,
That made your Aunt suicide in shame,
And did the same to Ah Shing,
And to your wife,
And shot Gao Sheng to death!
Don't you forget:
Who cut off your finger,
Who beat your father to a mess like this!
Who burned this village?
Shit! The fire is coming!
Go, for your own sake! Don't die with me!
Don't you forget:
Your dying father only wished this country occupied,
By the Cossacks,
Or the Prussians,
Any life ever worse than—this !?
Original poem: "你莫忘記"


  • Bary, W. M. Theodore de, and Richard Lufrano. 2000. Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 2, 2nd Ed. New York, Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 636. ISBN 0231109385 ISBN 9780231109383 ISBN 0231109393 ISBN 9780231109390 ISBN 023111270X ISBN 9780231112703
  • Cheng, Pei-Kai, and Michael Lestz. 1999. The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 373. ISBN 0393973727 ISBN 9780393973723
  • Chou, Min-chih. 1984. Hu Shih and intellectual choice in modern China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Michigan studies on China. ISBN 0472100394
  • Hu Shih, Columbia University 250 Online. Retrieved August 18, 2007.
  • Eber, Irene. 2005. "Hu Shi", Claremont Graduate University, Pettus Archival Project, 2005, SES, CGU. Retrieved August 18, 2007.</ref>
  • Geng, Yunzhi. Hu Shi. Encyclopedia of China (Chinese History Edition), 1st ed.(in Chinese)
  • Fairbank, John King. 1979 [1948] The United States and China, 4th ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 232-233, 334. ISBN 9780674924369 ISBN 0674924363
  • Grieder, Jerome B. 1970. Hu Shih and the Chinese renaissance; liberalism in the Chinese revolution, 1917-1937. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Series: Harvard East Asian series, 46. ISBN 0674412508
  • Hu, Shih. 1934. The Chinese renaissance: the Haskell lectures, 1933. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. see online Resource listed below
  • Li [李], Ao [敖]. 1964-. Biography of Hu Shih [Hu Shih p'ing chuan] [胡適評傳]. Taipei [T'ai-pei shih] [臺北市]: [Wen hsing shu tien, Min kuo 53-] [文星書店, 民國53-]. Series: [Wen hsing ts'ung k'an 50] [文星叢刊 50]. (in Chinese)
  • Luo, Jing. 2004. Over a cup of tea: An Introduction to Chinese Life and Culture. University Press of America, ISBN 9780761829379 ISBN 0761829377.
  • Yang, Ch'eng-pin. 1986. The political thoughts of Dr. Hu Shih [Hu Shih ti cheng chih ssu hsiang]. Taipei, Taiwan: Bookman Books. (in English).

External links

All links retrieved March 25, 2014.

Preceded by:
Wang Zhengting
China's Ambassador to the United States
Succeeded by:
Wei Daoming
Research begins here...