Hu Shih: Sage of Modern China


OF all the men who have been sent from the four corners of the earth to Washington during the past hundred and fifty years to represent their various governments, none, it is a safe surmise, is more representative of his people and his time than the present Ambassador of China. His Excellency Dr. Hu Shih has lived the transformation of his country, its agonies, its torments, its bitterly won achievements, the terror and the shock, the long, painful travail. And in his short, solid body, in his scholarly, farranging mind, in the clear, unwavering humanity of his outlook, is a faith he has finally won to, formed out of the old and the new, the good and the bad.

That is why for America in the present crisis Hu Shih is more than an ambassador. He is a symbol of steadfast courage, of patience, of faith and good will, of intelligence, the virtues that Americans must now draw upon. His hope in the ultimate victory of his nation and the democratic ideal it embodies has never faltered, even though the capital of his country is a beleaguered outpost in the foothills of Tibet, accessible only over a difficult and tortuous road more than a thousand miles from the sea. We of the West who have taken the privileges and prerogatives of democracy so lightly for granted have not a little to learn from this scholar whom China has so generously sent us.

Honors have been heaped upon him by the universities of the world. His published works in English and Chinese fill several shelves. He was instrumental in giving his people a new and simpler language, a democratic tool to replace the complex classical language. But in his life perhaps as much as in his achievements is Hu Shih’s contribution.

At twelve he was already a scholar for whom the future seemed to hold great promise. For that matter, before he was three years old he knew 800 characters of the classical language, taught him by his father, who wrote them on slips of pink paper. In his twelfth year his mother, daughter of a peasant farmer, contracted for his marriage to the child of a family that had long been close in friendship. This custom of child engagement went back many centuries. It occurred to no one, least of all to the boy whose future was being signed away, to question it.

Shortly afterward he left his province of Anweih to study the ‘new learning’ in Shanghai. His mother, although she could neither read nor write, had been unsparing in her effort, to perfect his education. She paid his teacher three times the usual fee of $2 silver a year so that the classics he memorized were explained to him, while ordinary pupils merely learned them by rote. Kept from play with the village children, at five he had earned the nickname ‘Shien-seng,’ the Master.

Shanghai was a vast new world. Hu Shih worked with the extraordinary concentration which has enabled him to excel in so many fields. He read incessantly in the classics of the West. And so impressed was he with the ‘new learning’ that he took a western name. Shih means ‘fittest,’ a name taken from the Darwinian phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’

But in his teens came a period of disillusionment, characteristic of a highly precocious adolescent, and typical, too, of the brilliant young Chinese of the time, who felt that progress was hopelessly slow. At the same time, misfortunes overwhelmed his family and he was forced to give up his studies in order to teach English and so support himself and his mother. Hu Shih and his friends wrote gloomy poetry. They drank and dissipated. One rainy night, he relates in his autobiography, when he was deadly drunk, he fought with a policeman and landed in jail.

At home the next morning, a line from the poetry of the great Li Po came into his mind: ‘Some use might yet be made of this material born in me.’ Hu Shih stopped teaching, gave up his friends, and after a month of intensive study went to Peking to take the examination for one of the university scholarships in America financed by the Boxer Indemnity fund. He passed the examination, and toward the end of his eighteenth year sailed for San Francisco.

For seven years, first at Cornell and then at Columbia, he studied philosophy, having found that he could not force himself to pursue a course in scientific agriculture. With the culture and the science of the West added to his knowledge of China’s ancient wisdom, he went home to fulfill his marriage contract. His bride was a woman with bound feet, virtually illiterate. Why did he go through with this marriage, so contrary to all that he had learned from the time that he signed the contract? The answer is simple. To have failed to live up to the contract would have brought sorrow and disgrace to several people.

Two sons were born to the wife of Hu Shih. Of the loyalty and devotion that have grown up in this marriage there have been many manifestations. When the Japanese were about to take Peking, Hu Shih’s wife was alone in their home. She resolved to save what she knew was most precious to her husband — his books and manuscripts. Somehow, Hu Shih says he will never understand how, she managed to have seventy big boxes containing many thousands of volumes transported to the comparative safety of a treaty port. In the confusion and uncertainty of war-torn China that was a minor miracle.


It is hard to realize, in talking with the Ambassador on the verandah of his Washington residence, how far back into the past his roots go. He speaks easily, rapidly, with only a slight accent, developing a line of thought with the careful logic that is a result, in part at least, of his study with Professor John Dewey at Columbia University. Hu Shih’s quick sense of humor finds expression in an abrupt, rather startling laugh. His eyes twinkle behind horn-rimmed glasses. Ordinarily his expression is sober. And when he speaks of the sufferings of his countrymen — particularly of the trials of the government at Chungking, where 6000 civilians were killed in a single air raid — a profound sadness is on his face. It is not despair, not hatred, not fear; only a deep sorrow.

In all his work is his humanitarianism. When he was still a student at Cornell, he started the controversy that was to end with adoption of the pai-hua, the common speech, as the official language of China. There had been lengthy discussions of the need to publish books in the pai-hua, so that learning would be available to a larger proportion of the people. But it was taken for granted that this would be for the common people, with the literary language reserved for the literati. Declaring boldly that the pai-hua should serve for all purposes, Hu Shih began to write poetry in the common speech.

This radical break with the past soon produced a storm of criticism. But it also brought ardent followers who agreed with the young student. It was actually the beginning of a Chinese renaissance, a vast flowering of ideas and hopes expressed in the common language. Hu Shih is called the father of this renaissance. His position has been compared to that of Chaucer and Dante, who first were bold enough to write not in Latin but in the living tongue of the common people. Early in his revolt he wrote a ‘Pledge Poem’ that was his declaration of independence. It began: —

No more will I lament the Spring,
No more bewail the Autumn scene —
Here is my ‘Pledge song’!

Forswearing the traditional elements of the highly formalized poetry of his native land, he concluded: —

For poetic materials, have we not at our command this modern world?

In many ways Hu Shih was an innovator. Returning to China after his American studies, he was made professor of Chinese philosophy at Peking National University. There was considerable skepticism about this young upstart who had spent so many years in the materialistic United States. The very first day he walked into the classroom and announced that the course would begin not with the mythical sages, part of the formalized classical learning for nearly 2000 years, but with the first historical events for which there is any substantiating evidence. The effect of this bombshell on the class could scarcely be exaggerated. A young student who was later to become one of Hu Shih’s followers has said that it produced almost a physical revolt in the classroom, so sharp was the break with tradition.

The controversy became increasingly bitter. Classical scholars — particularly Lin Shu, who argued that the classical language was eternal — carried the dispute into the field of politics. A demand came for the dismissal of the Minister of Education, the Chancellor of the University, and all the younger professors who had brought back from the West the new science and the new critical scholarship.

It was not that Hu Shih wanted to supplant Chinese culture with the learning of the West. But he knew that China could not isolate itself from the western world. And he believed passionately that China could never become a democracy so long as the culture of the country was confined to a few scholars. It was no use, he realized, superimposing a western political system on a land made up of illiterate peasants plus a hierarchy of priestly scholars. He was quick to rebuke his young compatriots when he saw them embracing western doctrines with the same uncritical belief in which the old gods had been held.

In the period after the May Fourth Movement of 1919, Hu Shih was a restraining influence on young revolutionists who were seizing on western isms and theories. ‘We should study all “isms” and “theories,”’ he wrote at this time, ‘but these are hypothetical solutions. You should not take them as the golden mean.’ In the same vein a few years later he addressed this warning to young hotheads: ‘You are ashamed to follow blindly Confucius and Chu Hsi, and you should be ashamed, too, when you blindly follow Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.’


Hu Shih had once declared that philosophy was his profession, literature his entertainment, and politics his obligation. The troubled state of China through the twenties compelled him to more active participation. He edited the Nu Li weekly (the literal meaning is ‘Strenuous Effort’) to expose corruption and inefficiency. But his friends protested that his appointed task of fusing and creating a new Chinese culture was far more important than any immediate political reform.

Gradually his intellectual interests claimed him again. One of his objectives was to bring about a recognition of the cultural significance of the popular novels written in the pai-hua that every Chinese, rich and poor alike, has read. The scholars had looked down on them, and, while they read these stirring and all too human epics of Chinese life, it was, as they had been written, clandestinely and with a sense of guilt. Now Hu Shih made his countrymen appreciate their real greatness. Furthermore, with the resources of critical scholarship, he cut through the anonymity surrounding their authorship and proved them to be the work of authors of long-established respectability.

At the same time he was working on his History of Chinese Philosophy, a monumental work he has never completed. With his teaching, his continuing interest in politics, his keen awareness of world events and world trends, Hu Shih’s life was extremely full. He was the modern sage, in the ancient tradition of China but with all the intellectual resources of the twentieth century at his instant command.

Japan’s undeclared war, beginning in 1937 with the ruthless attack on civilian Shanghai, had not been entirely unexpected. Chinese leaders were aware of the Japanese ambition to subjugate China, to stamp out all vestiges of modernism and leave nothing but a slave population dependent on Japanese masters and vitiated by the opium habit. Hu Shih knew that his academic life was over, for how long no one could say. There was no hesitation in his response. Completely independent in his political judgments, he had often been critical of General Chiang Kai-shek. Now he offered to serve the leader who had the nation behind him.

It was recognized at once that Dr. Hu Shih s greatest usefulness would be in America, where, because of his numerous friends and his wide knowledge of the country, he could stimulate interest in the Chinese cause. Shortly after the outbreak of the war he returned to this country, and in 1938 he was named Ambassador. It is an assignment that makes heavy demands on him. Besides carrying on all the negotiations inevitably resulting from a long and costly war, he is under constant request to speak in various parts of the country. This past spring he spoke at nine college commencements. When Hu Shih talks to an American audience it is ordinarily not about the immediate problems of his country but about the democratic ideal and the need to guard that ideal in the world today.

Nothing that is happening in Europe or in Asia has shaken his belief in democracy. Realizing the seriousness of the time we are living through, he nevertheless does not subscribe to the present pessimism. Democracy has been tested, he points out, in many countries and under many circumstances. New forms have been worked out, in Australia, in Sweden, in the United States, in Great Britain. The process is a continuous and evolutionary one, and there will inevitably be interruptions, periods of profound pessimism. It is a coincidence and nothing more, in the view of Hu Shih, that democracy should seem to fail at a time when the economic system which we live under is suffering severe dislocation. But democracy, he insists, is not necessarily dependent on capitalism.

It is a striking fact that, under the pressure of war, China has extended rather than suppressed democratic controls. Faced with shortages of essential material, the Chinese have formed industrial cooperatives and by the most heroic efforts have created factories for the production of munitions, clothing, shoes. In Hu Shih’s opinion this remarkable development was possible because of the underlying sense of democracy that infuses his whole people.

Primarily, he says, it has been the system of examinations for official position, open to everyone without respect to rank or degree, which has made China a classless nation, democratic in the broadest sense of the word. Education was comparatively inexpensive, and preparation for the examinations, based on the old classical learning, was possible for even very humble citizens. Then, too, as long ago as 200 B.C. the law of primogeniture, under which all property passes to the eldest son, was abolished in China, with the result that estates were not closely held for century after century. Likewise the small palace aristocracy changed with each shift in dynasty.

Even more important, perhaps, was the fact that China, of necessity because of its vast area, has always been a loose federation of semi-autonomous provinces. Hu Shih puts especial stress on this. So long as certain minimum requirements were met, there was a wide degree of tolerance. ‘We have a saying,’ the Ambassador explains, ’that “Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away.” That expresses the latitude which has been allowed in Chinese life.’


It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that Hu Shih’s belief in the democratic ideal, with all that it implies for human enlightenment and human decency, is his religion. He has come by his faith over a long and circuitous course that has led past the shrines of the old gods and the loud persuasion of the new dogmas.

Hu Shih’s father, an educated official, held to the rationalist philosophy of Confucius. On the gate of their home, he recalls, was a sign warning away Taoist and Buddhist beggars. His father died when the boy was four years old, and a year later he worked very hard, under his mother’s encouragement, to build a paper temple in honor of the great sage. He hung up the scrolls and the tablets, copied from his books, and burned incense sticks, and his mother believed that surely the spirit of Confucius would look down and help the boy to a scholarly career of rich reward.

But the mother of Hu Shih, no longer under the stern, rationalist eye of her husband, lapsed into worship of the old deities and the ancestor rituals. Her favorite, the son remembers, was Kwanyin, Goddess of Mercy. Once the boy and his mother went on a pilgrimage to a temple dedicated to this benevolent goddess on a mountain top. The mother walked all the way over a stony path in spite of the pain which her bound feet caused her.

As the boy grew older he rebelled against the gaudy idols that he saw around him. The folk versions of Heaven and Hell no longer had power to hold him. In his reading he had come across a brief passage describing a philosopher of the fifth century named Fan Chen, who defended before the whole Imperial Court the theory of the destructibility of the spirit or soul. These sentences summing up Fan Chen’s argument made a deep impression on the boy: —

‘The body is the material basis of the spirit, and the spirit is only the functioning of the body. The spirit is to the body what sharpness is to a sharp knife. We have never known the existence of sharpness after the destruction of the knife. How can we admit the survival of the spirit when the body is gone?’

The young agnostic suggested to his comrades once that they push some ancient images into the village pool, and this greatly distressed his mother. At Shanghai he absorbed Hobbes, Descartes, Rousseau, Bentham, Kant, the sages and prophets of the West. During the first World War, while he was in the United States, he became an ardent pacifist, a believer in nonresistance. (He describes himself today as an expacifist.) He was an internationalist, a student of Ibsen, John Morley, and Huxley. John Dewey’s How We Think and Essays in Experimental Logic made a lasting impression on him, as did the American temper with its irrepressible optimism.

During his boyhood he had cherished the ancient doctrine of the ‘Three Immortalities’ — Virtue, Service, and Wise Speech. For his own use he translated this into the immortality of the three W’s — Worth, Work, and Words. At his mother’s death he pondered this simple doctrine and came to the conclusion that it was too narrow, too restricting, ruling out too much of human activity. Finally, as expressed so perfectly in his own analysis of how he arrived at a philosophy of life, this became his faith: —

‘As I reviewed the life of my dead mother, whose activities had never gone beyond the trivial details of the home but whose influence could be clearly seen on the faces of those men and women who came to mourn her death, and as I recalled the personal influence of my father on her whole life and its lasting effect on myself, I came to the conviction that everything is immortal. Everything that we are, everything that we do, and everything that we say is immortal in the sense that it has its effect somewhere in this world, and that effect in turn will have its results somewhere else and the thing goes on in infinite time and space. . . .

‘Fourteen centuries ago a man wrote an essay on “The Destructibility of the Soul” which was considered so sacrilegious that his Emperor ordered seventy great scholars to refute it, and it was refuted. But five hundred years later a historian recorded a summary of this sacrilegious essay in his great history. And another nine hundred years passed. Then a little boy of eleven chanced upon this brief summary of thirty-five words, and these thirty-five words after being buried for fourteen hundred years suddenly became alive and are living in him and through him in the lives of thousands of men and women.’

Only forty-nine years old, Hu Shih is today looked up to as one of the sages of his time, an oracle. Some of the more radical youngsters are inclined to criticize him as a Victorian oldster with pretty antique ideas. But even among the young he is revered for the great contribution that he has made to China. They are discussing and appraising his work as though he were a philosopher of the time of Confucius. The latest study is a thesis by Miss Ya Fen Hsu, submitted for an advanced degree at Smith College. I have found her study, ‘An Attempt at an Evaluation of Hu Shill’s Work and Influence, 1917-1927,’ very useful in my effort to learn more about the great man China has sent to us.

Instead of the sage’s robe Hu Shih wears a common business suit. He is busy at a desk twelve hours or more each day. He goes to the State Department, to the White House, to dinners and lunches and lectures. He has put aside his researches and his philosophy, his teaching and his writing. But in his heart is an unshakable conviction that he will live to see leisure and freedom restored to his country, and, if not he, then his son or his son’s son or another man’s son’s son. That is the faith of a scholar, an ex-pacifist turned ambassador and man of the world.