Hu Shih (Chinese: 胡適, 17 December 1891 – 24 February 1962) 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.[1] He had a wide range of interests such as literature, 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, around 1940
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. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he went to study philosophy at 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 ideally made it easier for the ordinary person to read.[2] The significance of this for Chinese culture was great—as John Fairbank put it, "the tyranny of the classics had been broken".[3] 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."[4] 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.[5] His Peking University colleague Wen Yuan-ning dubbed Hu a "philosophe" for his wide-ranging humanistic interests and expertise.[6]

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 and 1942.[7] He was recalled in September 1942 and was replaced by Wei Tao-ming. Hu then served as chancellor of Peking University, then called National Peking University between 1946 and 1948. In 1957, he became the third president of the Academia Sinica in Taipei, where he remained 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. 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 Shi", advocated acknowledging not only Hu Shih's mistakes, but also his contributions to modern Chinese literature. His article was sufficiently convincing to many scholars that it caused a re-evaluation of the development of modern Chinese literature and the role of Hu Shih.[8] Selection 15 of the Putonghua Proficiency Test is a story about Hu Shi debating the merits of Written vernacular Chinese over Classical Chinese.[9]


During the Warlord Era in the Republic of China, unlike other fellow intellectuals such as Liang Qichao and Chen Duxiu, Hu was a staunch supporter of pragmatism. Hu Shih himself translated it into Chinese as simplified Chinese: 实验主义; traditional Chinese: 實驗主義; pinyin: shíyànzhǔyì "experimentalism", since he strived to study both academic and social problems in the scientific approach (in the general sense), and advocated cultural reform under the guidance of pragmatism.[citation needed]

The second translation as simplified Chinese: 实用主义; traditional Chinese: 實用主義; pinyin: shíyòngzhǔyì was crafted long after pragmatism became popular in China at that time due to Hu's endeavor. This secondary translation has become dominant today, but the intention of such terminology substitution was highly suspected to politically defame Hu for the term 實用 had been evolved into a derogatory sense.[citation needed]


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[10][11]


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.

See also


  1. ^ "Nomination Database – Literature". Nobelprize.org. Retrieved 2012-02-03. 
  2. ^ Luo, Jing (2004). Over a Cup of Tea: An Introduction to Chinese Life and Culture. University Press of America. ISBN 0-7618-2937-7
  3. ^ Fairbank, John King (1979) [1948]. The United States and China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 232–3, 334. 
  4. ^ Jerome B. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917–1937 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), pp. 161–162. ACLS Humanities E-Book. URL: http://www.humanitiesebook.org/
  5. ^ "Vale: David Hawkes, Liu Ts'un-yan, Alaistair Morrison". China Heritage Quarterly of the Australian National University. 
  6. ^ Wen Yuan-ning, and others. Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities. Edited by Christopher Rea (Amherst, MA: Cambria Press, 2018), pp. 41-44.
  7. ^ Cheng & Lestz (1999), p. 373.
  8. ^ "Ji Xianlin: A Gentle Academic Giant", china.org, August 19, 2005
  9. ^ Putonghua Shuiping Ceshi Gangyao. 2004. Beijing. pp.362-363. ISBN 7-100-03996-7
  10. ^ Lloyd Haft, A selective guide to Chinese literature: 1900–1949. The Poem, Volume 3 page 137
  11. ^ English translation by Kai-Yu Hsu


  • "Hu Shih", in Living Philosophies. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1931. 
  • Lǐ [李], Áo [敖] (1964). 胡適評傳. 文星叢刊, 50. Taipei: 文星書店. 
  • Yang, Ch'eng-pin (c. 1986). The political thoughts of Dr. Hu Shih [Hu Shih ti cheng chih ssu hsiang]. Taipei, Taiwan: Bookman Books.  in English.
  • Chou, Min-chih (c. 1984). Hu Shih and intellectual choice in modern China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-10039-4.  Series : Michigan studies on China.
  • Hu, Shih (c. 1934). The Chinese renaissance : the Haskell lectures, 1933. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  (see online Resource listed below)
  • Grieder, Jerome B. (1970). Hu Shih and the Chinese renaissance: liberalism in the Chinese revolution, 1917–1937. Cambridge [US]: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-41250-8.  Series : Harvard East Asian series 46.
  • Cheng, Pei-Kai; Lestz, Michael (1999). The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company. p. 373. ISBN 0393973727. 
  • de Bary, W.M Theodore; Richard Lufrano (2000). Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume Two, Second Edition. New York Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press. p. 636. 
  • Wang, Jingshan, "Hu Shi". Encyclopedia of China (Chinese Literature Edition), 1st ed.
  • Shi, Jun, "Hu Shi". Encyclopedia of China (Philosophy Edition), 1st ed.
  • Xie, Qingkui, "Hu Shi". Encyclopedia of China (Political Science Edition), 1st ed.
  • Geng, Yunzhi, "Hu Shi". Encyclopedia of China (Chinese History Edition), 1st ed.

Further reading

External links

  • "The Chinese Renaissance": a series of lectures Hu Shih delivered at the University of Chicago in the summer of 1933. (see print Reference listed above)
  • "Hu Shih Study" at newconcept.com (in Chinese)
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