The Chinese philosopher Hu Shih (1891-1962) was in the literary and intellectual avant-garde during the New Thought movement of 1915-1919. As the premier Chinese disciple of John Dewey, he applied the principles of instrumentalism to scholarship and politics.
Hu Shih was born in Shanghai, where his father, a literatus from Anhwei, was serving as a government official. When Hu Shih was 4 years old, his father died. By this time the child prodigy already knew 1,000 Chinese characters. While in primary school, Hu received an education in the Chinese classics and was an avid reader of vernacular fiction.
Determined to obtain a modern education, Hu spent 4 years studying English, mathematics, and science, as well as traditional subjects, at several schools in Shanghai. From 1906 to 1908 he was enrolled at the China National Institute, where he edited a student newspaper. In 1908 he found himself financially unable to continue his schooling but remained in Shanghai teaching English and doing editorial work. During his years in Shanghai, Hu read, in translation, T. H. Huxley's Evolution and Ethics, J. S. Mill's On Liberty, and Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws, as well as Liang Ch'i-ch'ao's essays on Western history and thought. In 1910 Hu went to Peking and passed the examination for a Boxer Indemnity scholarship to the United States.
Believing technical skills to be essential for China's salvation, Hu enrolled in the College of Agriculture at Cornell University. In 1912, however, he transferred to the College of Arts and Sciences, where he majored in philosophy. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1913 and graduated in 1914. During his first year of graduate study in philosophy at Cornell, Hu discovered John Dewey's writings on experimentalism. He entered Columbia University in 1915 to study under Dewey and received a doctorate in 1917. In his dissertation, "The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China," Hu explored "pragmatic" tendencies in early Chinese thought.
While in the United States, Hu's basic political attitudes developed apace with his philosophical ideas. He was a member of the Cornell Cosmopolitan Club and the International Federation of Students and of several pacifist groups. When fellow Chinese students responded to Japan's "Twenty-one Demands" by urging a massive return to China, Hu urged them to seek national salvation through study rather than by precipitous political action. This remained his basic attitude toward student activism.
Professor at Peita
Through his writings while in the United States, Hu became well known in China for his intellectual individualism and especially for his advocacy of the replacement of the traditional wen-yen style in Chinese literature with the vernacular pai-hua. Upon his return in 1917, he was appointed professor of philosophy at National Peking University (Peita).
Except for brief absences, Hu remained in Peking until 1926. During this decade he gained fame as a champion of instrumentalism in both scholarship and politics. Between January 1917 and April 1918 three of his essays on literary reform appeared in Ch'en Tu-hsiu's prestigious periodical Hsin ch'ing-nien (New Youth). As a member of the Hsin ch'ing-nien circle, he also participated in the discussion of overall cultural change. An essay on Ibsenism in June 1918 raised the issue of the relationship between the individual and society. This was followed by essays on feminism, immortality, and experimentalism. The last, published in February 1919 in anticipation of Dewey's arrival, introduced Chinese to the principles of pragmatism. Hu served as an interpreter during Dewey's lecture tour (1919-1921). He also took advantage of his master's presence to promote a rational, scientific, gradualistic approach to social problems.
In his essay "Problems and Isms" (summer 1919) Hu advocated this approach over the totalistic ideological solutions of Marxism. He continued to expound a non-revolutionary attitude toward politics in the magazine Nu-li choupao (Endeavor), which he and others founded in May 1922. His manifesto, "Our Political Proposals," published in its second issue, attracted a wide range of signators, including Li Ta-chao, a founder of the Chinese Communist party. As an advocate of continuity in the midst of change, Hu found himself at one with neoconservatives such as Liang Ch'ich'ao. However, in the great debate of the mid-1920s over science and Western civilization, Hu argued that Western "materialism" was basically more humane than Eastern "spiritualism."
The years at Peita were creative ones for Hu as a scholar. He applied his experimentalist methodology to the study of the great vernacular novels, the Shui-hu chuan (The Water Margin, translated by Pearl Buck as All Men Are Brothers) and the Hung-lou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). He also published widely on the history of Chinese philosophy, seeking in traditional thought precedents for modern scientific ideas.
Hu and the Kuomintang
In 1926 Hu traveled abroad on behalf of the British Boxer Indemnity Fund Committee. En route to London he visited the Soviet Union, where he was impressed with the accomplishments of the Communist revolution, still in its experimental stage. He was still abroad during the first phase of Chiang Kai-shek's Northern Expedition, and he returned in the spring of 1927 to find China south of the Yangtze in Nationalist hands. For the next 3 years Hu taught philosophy at Kuanghua University and from April 1928 to May 1930 served as president of the China National Institute. During these years he was critical of the Nanking government, and he secured official registration for the institute only by resigning his presidency. In 1930 Hu returned to Peking and in 1931 became dean of the College of Arts at Peita under the university's new president, his old friend, Chiang Monlin. Except for a brief trip to deliver the Haskell Lectures at the University of Chicago in 1933, Hu remained at Peita until the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.
From 1932 to 1937 Hu edited Tu-li tsa-chih (The Independent Critic), the title of which reflected his own political posture. While other intellectuals and students clamored for war against the Japanese aggressor, Hu continued to hope for a peaceful solution that would permit the undisturbed development of China's educational and cultural institutions.
Further Years Abroad
During the last 25 years of Hu's life he spent only 2 years on the Chinese mainland. From September 1938 until September 1942 he served as ambassador to the United States. After his abrupt replacement by Wei Taoming, Hu remained in the United States until 1946 as a lecturer and writer. In 1945 he served, consecutively, as a member of the Chinese delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization and as acting head of the Chinese delegation to the first United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization conference.
Hu was appointed president of Peita after Chiang Monlin's resignation in June 1945. Hu returned to China to assume the post in mid-1946 and remained at Peita until the eve of Communist take-over 2 1/2 years later. In November 1946 he was a delegate to the National Assembly that drafted China's constitution. In 1948 he declined a personal invitation from Chiang Kai-shek to run for the Chinese presidency and spurned an opportunity to serve as premier.
From Nanking, Hu moved to Shanghai and then to New York, where he lived in semiretirement until the autumn of 1958, when he went to Taiwan to become president of the Academia Sinica. While heading this official research institute, Hu continued to lend his weight to governmental critics through sponsorship of Tzu-yu chung-kuo (Free China Fortnightly). However, he was unable to prevent the arrest of the editor, Lei Chen, and the termination of publication in 1960.
During these final years in Taiwan, Hu's intellectual following was confined in large measure to the older generation of mainland refugee intellectuals who had survived from the period of the New Thought movement. His vigorous criticism of the Peking regime, moreover, did not protect him from Kuomintang conservatives, who accused him of undermining China's traditions and opening the gateway to communism. Meanwhile, on the mainland, Hu was vilified as the archetype of the American-trained liberal intellectual and was denounced by his own son. On Feb. 24, 1962, Hu died of a heart attack.
Hu's approach to modern China's problems was gradualistic, experimental, cosmopolitan, and liberal. To the extent that these attitudes have been submerged by revolutionary tides of voluntarism, radicalism, extreme nationalism, and apocalyptic change, Hu may be deemed a failure. However, his contributions to modern China's language and scholarship have had an undeniable impact on his country's 20th-century transformation.
Further Reading on Hu Shih
A major scholarly biography is Jerome B. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937 (1970). For more information on Hu Shih and China see C. P. Fitz Gerald, The Birth of Communist China (1952; rev. ed. 1966); Orville Schell and Franz Schurmann, eds., The China Reader (3 vols., 1967); Henry McAleavy, The Modern History of China (1967); and Immanuel Chung-yueh Hsü, The Rise of Modern China (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Chou, Min-chih, Hu Shih and intellectual choice in modern China, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.