Hu Shih

Last updated
Hu Shih
Hu Shih 1960 color.jpg
Chinese Ambassador to the United States
In office
29 October 1938 1 September 1942
Preceded by Wang Zhengting
Succeeded by Wei Tao-ming
Personal details
Born(1891-12-17)17 December 1891
Chuansha County, Jiangsu Province, Qing Empire
Died24 February 1962(1962-02-24) (aged 70)
Taipei County, Taiwan
Alma mater Cornell University
Teachers College, Columbia University

Philosophy career
School Pragmatism, experimentalism
Main interests
Liberalism, redology, philosophy of education
Occupationphilosopher, essayist, scholar, diplomat, reformer
Signature ECCP - 1943 - Hu Shih signature.png
Hu Shih
Traditional Chinese 胡適
Simplified Chinese 胡适

Hu Shih [1] [2] [3] [4] (Chinese : ; pinyin :Hú Shì; Wade–Giles :Hu2 Shih4; 17 December 1891 – 24 February 1962), also known as Hu Suh in early references, [5] [6] was a Chinese philosopher, essayist and diplomat. Hu is widely recognized today as a key contributor to Chinese liberalism and language reform in his advocacy for the use of written vernacular Chinese. He was influential in the May Fourth Movement, one of the leaders of China's New Culture Movement, was a president of Peking University, and in 1939 was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature. [7] He had a wide range of interests such as literature, philosophy, history, textual criticism, and pedagogy. He was also an influential redology scholar and held the famous Jiaxu manuscript (甲戌本; Jiǎxū běn) for many years until his death.



Hu Shih as pictured in The Most Recent Biographies of Important Chinese People Hu Shi.jpg
Hu Shih as pictured in The Most Recent Biographies of Important Chinese People
Hu Shih (left) and Chiang Kai-shek in April 1958 Hu Shih and Chiang Kai-shek at Academia Sinica 19580410.jpg
Hu Shih (left) and Chiang Kai-shek in April 1958

Hu was born in Shanghai, China to Hu Chuan (胡傳; Hú Chuán) and Feng Shundi (馮順弟; Féng Shùndì), with ancestry from Jixi County in Anhui province. Family legend has it that Hu Shih's ancestors were descended from the last teenage Emperor of Tang China (being different in origin from the rest of the Hu clan), who fled in disguise with a loyal minister of court in 907 to Anhui and eventually took the name as his son. In January 1904, his family arranged his marriage to Chiang Tung-hsiu (江冬秀; Jiāng Dōngxiù), an illiterate girl with bound feet who was one year older than he was. The marriage took place in December 1917. Hu received his fundamental education in Jixi and Shanghai.

Hu became a "national scholar" through funds appropriated from the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program. On 16 August 1910, he was sent to study agriculture at Cornell University in the U.S. In 1912 he changed his major to philosophy and literature, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he went to study philosophy at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he was greatly influenced by his professor, John Dewey. Hu became Dewey's translator and a lifelong advocate of pragmatic evolutionary change, helping Dewey in his 1919–1921 lectures series in China. He returned to lecture in Peking University. During his tenure there, he received support from Chen Duxiu, editor of the influential journal New Youth , quickly gaining much attention and influence. Hu soon became one of the leading and influential intellectuals during the May Fourth Movement and later the New Culture Movement.

He quit New Youth in the 1920s and published several political newspapers and journals with his friends. His most important contribution was the promotion of vernacular Chinese in literature to replace Classical Chinese, which was intended to make it easier for the ordinary person to read. [8] The significance of this for Chinese culture was great—as John Fairbank put it, "the tyranny of the classics had been broken". [9] Hu devoted a great deal of energy, however, to rooting his linguistic reforms in China's traditional culture rather than relying on imports from the West. As his biographer Jerome Grieder put it, Hu's approach to China's "distinctive civilization" was "thoroughly critical but by no means contemptuous." [10] For instance, he made a major contribution to the textual study of the Chinese classical novel, especially the 18th century novel Dream of the Red Chamber , as a way of establishing the vocabulary for a modern standardized language. [11] His Peking University colleague Wen Yuan-ning dubbed Hu a "philosophe" for his wide-ranging humanistic interests and expertise. [12]

Hu Shih's tombstone in the park named after him, near Academia Sinica in Taiwan Bust of Hu Shih in Hu Shih Park 20061125.jpg
Hu Shih's tombstone in the park named after him, near Academia Sinica in Taiwan

Hu was the ROC ambassador to the U.S. between 1938 [13] and 1942. [14] [15] He was recalled in September 1942 and was replaced by Wei Tao-ming. Hu then served as chancellor of Peking University, which was then called National Peking University, between 1946 and 1948. In 1957, he became the third president of the Academia Sinica in Taipei, a post he retained until his death. He was also chief executive of the Free China Journal , which was eventually shut down for criticizing Chiang Kai-shek.

He died of a heart attack in Nankang, Taipei at the age of 70, and was entombed in Hu Shih Park, adjacent to the Academia Sinica campus. That December, Hu Shih Memorial Hall was established in his memory. [16] It is an affiliate of the Institute of Modern History at the Academia Sinica, and includes a museum, his residence, and the park. Hu Shih Memorial Hall offers audio tour guides in Chinese and English for visitors.

Hu Shih's work fell into disrepute in mainland China until a 1986 article, written by Ji Xianlin, "A Few Words for Hu Shih" (为胡适说几句话), advocated acknowledging not only Hu Shih's mistakes, but also his contributions to modern Chinese literature. This article was sufficiently convincing to many scholars that it led to a re-evaluation of the development of modern Chinese literature and the role of Hu Shih. [17] Selection 15 of the Putonghua Proficiency Test is a story about Hu Shih debating the merits of Written vernacular Chinese over Classical Chinese. [18]

Philosophical Contributions


During his time at Columbia, Hu studied with John Dewey and became a staunch supporter of the Pragmatism school. After returning to China, Hu first coined the word traditional Chinese: 實驗主義; pinyin: shíyànzhǔyì, experimentalism in literal translation. Today, the word Pragmatism is more commonly translated as traditional Chinese: 實用主義; pinyin: shíyòngzhǔyì.[ citation needed ]

Hu Shih's adoption of Pragmatism is, in fact, a reflection of his own philosophical appeals. Before he encountered Dewey's works, he wrote in his diary that he was in a search of "practical philosophy," instead of deep and obscure philosophies for the survival of the Chinese people. Instead of abstract theories, he was more interested in methodologies (術, shù). [19] Hu viewed Pragmatism as a scientific methodology for the study of philosophy. He greatly appreciated the universality of such a scientific approach because he believed that such a methodology transcends the boundary of culture and therefore can be applied anywhere, including China during his time. Hu Shih was not so interested in the content of Dewey's philosophy, caring rather about the method, the attitude, and the scientific spirit. [20]

Hu Shih saw all ideologies and abstract theories only as hypotheses waiting to be tested. The content of ideologies, Hu believed, was shaped by the background, political environment, and even the personality of the theorist. Thus these theories were confined within their temporality. Hu felt that only the attitude and spirit of an ideology could be universally applied. Therefore, Hu criticized any dogmatic application of ideologies. After Hu took over as the chief editor at Weekly Commentary (每周評論) in 1919, he and Li Dazhao engaged in a heated debate regarding ideology and problem (問題與主義論戰) that was influential among Chinese intellectuals at that time. Hu writes in "A Third Discussion of Problems and Isms" (三問題與主義):

"Every isms and every theory should be studied, but they can only be viewed as hypothesis, not dogmatic credo; they can only be viewed as a source of reference, not as rules of religion; they can only be viewed as inspiring tools, not as absolute truth that halts any further critical thinkings. Only in this way can people cultivate creative intelligence, become able to solve specific problems, and emancipate from the superstition of abstract words." [21]

Throughout the literary works and other scholarships of Hu Shih, the presence of Pragmatism as a method is prevalent. In fact, Hu saw his life work as a consistent project of practicing the scientific spirit of Pragmatism since science is an attitude, a lifestyle that must be lived.


For Hu Shih, Skepticism and Pragmatism are inseparable. In his essay "Introducing My Thoughts" (介紹我自己的思想), he states that Thomas H. Huxley is the one person, other than Dewey, who most heavily influenced his thoughts. [22] Huxley's Agnosticism is the negative precondition to the practical, active problem-solving of Dewey's Pragmatism. Huxley's "genetic method" in Hu's writing becomes a "historical attitude," an attitude that ensures one's intellectual independence which also leads to individual emancipation and political freedom.

Chinese Intellectual History

Hu Shih brought the scientific method and the spirit of Skepticism into traditional Chinese textual study (Kaozheng), laying the groundwork for contemporary studies of Chinese intellectual history.

In 1919, Hu Shih published the first volume of An Outline History of Chinese Philosophy; the later portion was never finished. Later scholars of Chinese intellectual history including Feng Youlan and Yu Yingshi agree that Hu's work was revolutionary. Cai Yuanpei, president of Peking University where Hu was teaching at the time, wrote the preface for Outline and pointed out four key features that make Hu's work distinct:

  1. Method of proving for dates, validity, and perspectives of methodology
  2. "Cutting off the many schools" (截斷衆流), meaning that remove[ clarification needed ] all schools before the time of the Warring States and starting with Laozi and Confucius
  3. Equal treatment for Confucianism, Mohism, Mencius, and Xunzi
  4. Systematic studies with chronological orders and juxtaposition that present the evolution of theories

Without a doubt, Hu's organisation of classical Chinese philosophy imitated Western philosophical history, but the influence of textual study since the time of the Qing dynasty is still present. Especially for the second point, "cutting off the many schools" is a result of the continuous effort of Qing scholarship around ancient textual studies. Since the validity of the ancient texts is questionable and the content of them obscure, Hu decided to leave them out. In fact, before the publication of Outline, Hu was appointed to be the lecturer of History of Classical Chinese Philosophy. His decision of leaving out pre-Warring States philosophy almost caused a riot among students. [23] [ clarification needed ]

In Outline, other philosophical schools of the Warring States were first treated as equal. Hu did not hold Confucianism as the paradigm while treating other schools as heresy. Rather, Hu saw philosophical values within other schools, even those considered to be anti-Confucian, like Mohism. In 1919, this was considered a significant revolutionary act among intellectuals. Yu Yingshi, a prominent Taiwanese historian on intellectual history even praised Hu for setting up a new paradigm according to Thomas Kuhn's Enlightenment theory. [24]

Despite recognising the revolutionary nature of Hu's work. Feng Youlan, the author of A History of Chinese Philosophy, criticises Hu for adopting a pragmatist framework in Outline. Instead of simply laying out the history of Chinese philosophy, Feng claims that Hu criticises these schools from a pragmatist perspective which makes the reader feel as if "the whole Chinese civilisation is entirely on the wrong track." [25] Feng also disagrees with Hu's extensive effort on researching the validity of the resource text. Feng believes that as long as the work itself is philosophically valuable, its validity is not as significant. [26]

Political views

Individualism, Liberalism, and Democracy

Unlike many of his contemporaries who later joined the Socialist camp, liberalism and democracy had been Hu's political beliefs throughout his life. He firmly believed that the world as a whole was heading toward democracy, despite the changing political landscape. [27] [28] Hu defines democracy as a lifestyle in which everyone's value is recognized, and everyone has the freedom to develop a lifestyle of individualism. [29] For Hu, individual achievement does not contradict societal good. In fact, individual achievement contributes to overall social progress, a view that differs from the so-called "selfish individualism." [30] In his essay, "Immortality–My Religion," Hu stresses that although individuals eventually perish physically, one's soul and the effect one has on society are immortal. [31] Therefore, Hu's individualism is a lifestyle in which people are independent and yet social. [32]

Hu sees individual contributions as crucial and beneficial to the system of democracy. In "A Second Discussion on Nation-Building and Autocracy" (再談建國與專治), Hu comments that an autocratic system needs professionals to manage it while democracy relies on the wisdom of the people. When different people's lived experiences come together, no elite politician is needed for coordination, and therefore democracy is, in fact, easy to practice with people who lack political experience. He calls democracy "naive politics" (幼稚政治), a political system that can help cultivate those who participate in it. [33]

Hu also equates democracy with freedom, a freedom that is made possible by tolerance. In a democratic system, people should be free from any political persecution as well as any public pressure. In his 1959 essay "Tolerance and Freedom," Hu Shih stressed the importance of tolerance and claimed that "tolerance is the basis of freedom." In a democratic society, the existence of opposition must be tolerated. Minority rights are respected and protected. People must not destroy or silence the opposition. [34]

The Chinese Root of Democracy

A large portion of Hu Shih's scholarship in his later years is dedicated to finding a Chinese root for democracy and liberalism. Many of his writings, including Historic "Tradition for a Democratic China,"[ clarification needed ] "The Right to Doubt in Ancient Chinese Thought," "Authority and Freedom in the Ancient Asian World" make a similar claim that the democratic spirit is always present within the Chinese tradition. [35] Some of his claims[ clarification needed ] include:

  1. A thoroughly democratized social structure by an equal inheritance system among sons and the right to rebel under oppressive regimes.
  2. Widespread accessibility of political participation through civil service exams.
  3. Intragovernmental criticism and censorial control formalized by governmental institutions and the Confucian tradition of political criticism.

Constitutionalism and Human Rights Movement

In 1928, Hu along with Xu Zhimo, Wen Yiduo, Chen Yuan and Liang Shiqiu founded the monthly journal Crescent Moon, named after Tagore's prose verse. In March 1929, Shanghai Special Representatives of National Party Chen De proposed to punish any "anti-revolutionary" without due process. Hu Shih responded fiercely with an article in Crescent Moon titled "Human Rights and Law" (人權與約法). In the article, Hu called for the establishment of a written constitution that protects the rights of citizens, especially from the ruling government. The government must be held accountable to the constitution. Later in "When Can We Have Constitution–A Question for The Outline of National Reconstruction" (我們什麼時候才可有憲法? —— 對於《建國大綱》的疑問), Hu criticized the Nationalist government for betraying the ideal of Constitutionalism in The Outline of National Reconstruction. Rejecting Sun Yat-sen's claim that people are incapable of self-rule, Hu considered democracy itself a form of political education. The legitimacy and the competency of people participating in the political process comes from their lived experience.

Criticism of the Chinese Communist Party after 1949

In the early 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party launched a years-long campaign criticizing Hu Shih's thoughts. In response, Hu published many essays in English attacking the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. [36]

Hu's opposition to the Chinese Communist Party was essentially an ideological conflict. As a supporter of Pragmatism, Hu believed that social changes can only happen incrementally. Revolution or any ideologies that claim to solve social problems once and for all are not possible. Such a perspective was present in his early writing, as in the problem versus isms debate. He often quotes from John Dewey: "progress is not a wholesale matter, but a retail job, to be contracted for and executed in section." Another ideological conflict is with his individualism.[ clarification needed ] Hu affirms the right of the individual as independent from the collective. The individual has the right to develop freely and diversely without political suppression in the name of uniformity. He writes in "The Conflict of Ideologies":

"The desire for uniformity leads to suppression of individual initiative, to the dwarfing of personality and creative effort, to intolerance, oppression, and slavery, and, worst of all, to intellectual dishonesty and moral hypocrisy." [37]

In contrast to a Marxist conception of history, Hu's conception of history is pluralistic and particular. In his talk with American economist Charles A. Beard, recorded in his diary, Hu believed the making of history is only coincidental. Therefore, as a proponent of reformism, pluralism, individualism, and skepticism, Hu's philosophy is irreconcilable with Communist ideologies. Hu's later scholarship around the Chinese root of liberalism and democracy is very consistent with his anti-CCP writings. In a later manuscript titled "Communism, Democracy, and Cultural Pattern," Hu constructs three arguments from Chinese intellectual history, especially from Confucian and Taoist tradition, to combat the authoritative rule of the Chinese Communist Party:

1. An almost anarchistic aversion of all governmental interference.
2. A long tradition of love for freedom and fight for freedom–especially for intellectual freedom and religious freedom, but also for the freedom of political criticism.
3. A traditional exaltation of the individual's right to doubt and question things–even the most sacred things. [38]

Therefore, Hu regards the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party as not only "unhistorical," but also "un-Chinese."


Hu was well known as the primary advocate for the literary revolution of the era, a movement which aimed to replace scholarly classical Chinese in writing with the vernacular spoken language, and to cultivate and stimulate new forms of literature. In an article originally published in New Youth in January 1917 titled "A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform", Hu originally 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 saw as being empty.
  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. Respect 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 with historical events even when there is no meaningful analogy.
  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, ties 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 precedents, and led to greater understanding of important texts.

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

  1. Speak only when you have something to say. This is analogous to the first point above.
  2. Speak what you want to say and say it in the way you want to say it. This combines points two through six above.
  3. Speak what is your own and not that of someone else. This is a rewording of point seven.
  4. Speak in the language of the time in which you live. This refers again to the replacement of Classical Chinese with the vernacular language.

The following excerpt is from a poem titled Dream and Poetry, written in vernacular Chinese by Hu. It illustrates how he applied those guidelines to his own work.

Chinese original

English Translation [39] [40]


It’s all ordinary feelings,
All ordinary words.
By chance they encounter a poet,
Turning out infinite new verses.


Once intoxicated, one learns the strength of wine,
Once smitten, one learns the power of love:
You cannot write my poems
Just as I cannot dream your dreams.

His prose included works like The Life of Mr. Close Enough (差不多先生傳), a piece criticizing Chinese society which centers around the extremely common Chinese language phrase '差不多' (chābuduō), which means something like "close enough" or "just about right":

As Mr. Chabuduo ("Close Enough") lay dying, he uttered in an uneven breath, "The living and the dead are cha.........cha........buduo (are just about the same), and as long as everything is cha.........cha........buduo, then things will be fine. serious?" Following these final words, he took his last gasp of air. [41]

His works are listed chronologically at the Hu Shih Memorial Hall website. [42]

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  3. "Department of State bulletin". 10 June 1944. p. 537. The representative of the National University of Peking is Dr. Chen-sheng Yang, who has been acting dean of the College of Arts and Literature in the absence of Dr. Hu Shih.1{...}1Chinese Ambassador to the United States, 1938-42.
  4. "Introduction" . Retrieved 27 June 2019. The Hu Shih Memorial Hall located on the Nankang campus was the residence where Dr. Hu Shih (1891-1962) lived from 1958 to 1962, during his tenure as the president of Academia Sinica. It consists of three parts: (1) Dr. Hu Shih’s residence; (2) the exhibition room, including Dr. Hu Shih’s works, photos, and etc; (3) Dr. Hu Shih’s graveyard near the Academia Sinica campus.
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  19. Hu, Shi (1959). 胡適留學日記. Taipei: Commercial Press. pp. 167–168.
  20. Hu Shih, 杜威先生與中國 (Mr. Dewey and China), dated July 11, 1921; 胡適文存 (Collected Essays of Hu Shih), ii, 533-537.
  21. Hu Shih, 三論問題與主義 (A Third Discussion of Problems and Isms), 每週評論 no. 36, (Aug. 24, 1919); 胡適文存 (Collected Essays of Hu Shih), ii, 373.
  22. Hu, Shih (1935). 胡適論學近著 (Hu Shih's Recent Writings on Scholarship). Shanghai: Commercial Press. pp. 630–646.
  23. Yu, Ying-shih (2014). Collected Writings of Yu Ying-shih. Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press. p. 348-355.
  24. Yu, Ying-shih (2014). Collected Writings of Yu Ying-shih. Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press. p. 357.
  25. Yu-lan Fung, "Philosophy in Contemporary China" paper presented in the Eighth International Philosophy Conference, Prague, 1934.
  26. Chou, Chih-p'ing (2012). 光焰不熄:胡适思想与现代中国. Beijing: Jiuzhou Press. p. 36.
  27. Chou, Chih-p'ing (2012). 光焰不熄:胡适思想与现代中国. Beijing: Jiuzhou Press. p. 288.
  28. Hu, Shih (1947), 我们必须选择我们的方向 (We Must Choose Our Own Direction).
  29. Hu, Shih (1955), 四十年来中国文艺复兴运动留下的抗暴消毒力量——中国共产党清算胡适思想的历史意义.
  30. Hu, Shih (1918). 易卜生主义 (Ibsenisim).
  31. Hu, Shih (1919). Immortality–My Religion, New Youth6.2.
  32. Zhou, Zhiping (2012). 光焰不熄:胡适思想与现代中国. Beijing: Jiuzhou Press. p. 290.
  33. "从一党到无党的政治 - 维基文库,自由的图书馆". Retrieved 2019-04-15.
  34. Zhou, Zhiping (2012). 光焰不熄:胡适思想与现代中国. Beijing: Jiuzhou Press. p. 290-292.
  35. Shih, Hu (2013). Chou, Chih-P'ing (ed.). English Writings of Hu Shih. China Academic Library. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-31181-9. ISBN   9783642311802.
  36. Zhou, Zhiping (2012). 光焰不熄:胡适思想与现代中国. Beijing: Jiuzhou Press. p. 202.
  37. Hu, Shih (November 1941). "The Conflicts of Ideologies," in The Annuals of American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 28, p. 32-34.
  38. Hu Shih, "Communism, Democracy, and Cultural Pattern."
  39. Lloyd Haft, A selective guide to Chinese literature: 1900–1949. The Poem, Volume 3 page 137
  40. English translation by Kai-Yu Hsu
  41. Hu Shih (1919). "Chabuduo Xiansheng 差不多先生傳" (PDF). USC US-China Institute (in Chinese and English). Translated by RS Bond. p. 5.
  42. "Selected Bibliography of Hu Shih's Writings in English Language" . Retrieved 27 June 2019.


Further reading


Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Wang Zhengting
China's Ambassador to the United States
Succeeded by
Wei Daoming
Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by
Thornton Wilder
Wartime International Presidential Committee 1941–47 PEN International
Succeeded by
Maurice Maeterlinck