CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


Hu Shih: An Appreciation | China Heritage Quarterly

Hu Shih: An Appreciation

Jerome B. Grieder

The following essay was written shortly after the death fifty years ago of Hu Shi (胡適 17 December 1891-24 February 1962).

At a time when what Hu Shi had called 'the turmoil of the newspaper' marks once more the understanding of China, it is timely to reconsider the work and contribution of this important liberal thinker and extraordinary cosmopolitan.

This essay originally appeared in The China Quarterly, no.12 (October-December 1962): 92-101. Jerome B. Grieder is the author of Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970.—The Editor

The sudden death of Dr. Hu Shih in Taiwan on February 24, 1962, inflicted on many of the people of that island a sense of irreparable loss. This was not because the present situation in Nationalist China is likely to be much affected by Dr. Hu's passing, for in spite of his great reputation as a scholar, his considerable personal popularity and the prestige of his position as President of the Academia Sinica, he remained a peripheral figure there. He was, however, the last surviving representative of the great generation of revolutionary intellectuals who, nearly half a century ago, undertook the enormous task of creating a cultural " renaissance" in China, and with his death a final link with that optimistic era was forever severed.

The "New Culture Movement" of the 1920s was the product of diverse inspirations and convictions. The one thing held in common by all who contributed to it was the hope that they could fashion a strong and enduring nation and people out of the chaos of the past. If Hu Shih's death occasioned regret both in Taiwan and among his many friends in the United States it was because it served as a reminder that the intellectual revolution for which he worked has had an outcome far more harsh and oppressive than he had envisioned. Today we see in the Chinese revolution not a renaissance, but the birth of something unprecedented and disquieting.

Fig.1 Hu Shi

For Westerners, accustomed in fancy if not in fact to the idea of oriental inscrutability, Hu Shih was a rare and pleasant phenomenon, a Chinese intellectual whom we had little difficulty in understanding. Urbane, sophisticated and affable, he spoke readily and with authority, and he smiled easily. His command of English was flawless. He first came to the United States as a student in 1910, and he lived in this country for nearly half of the more than fifty years that have elapsed since then, as a student at Cornell and Columbia universities, as China's first wartime ambassador to Washington, and as a visitor after the collapse of the Nationalist regime on the mainland in 1949. Hu Shih did more than learn to speak the language of the West and move with assurance in its alien society. Very early he came to esteem the social and political ideals embodied in the Western tradition, and it was this that endeared him to his friends in this country and earned him the sympathy of many Americans in China who knew at first hand the situation he faced there.

Many influences, Chinese as well as Western, helped to shape his opinions. From his father, a minor official during the declining years of the Ch'ing dynasty, he inherited an appreciation of the humanistic tradition of orthodox Confucian thought, and this contributed to the growth of a mature scepticism in which he incorporated also ideas borrowed from such Western sources as T. H. Huxley. His view of the relationship that should exist between the individual and society owed much to the dramatic works of Hauptmann and, particularly, Ibsen. The writings of John Morley, the doctrines of Woodrow Wilson, and Hu's personal friendship with Norman Angell, the British pacifist, all influenced the development of his standards of national and international political behaviour. By far the most important single influence on him, however, came from Professor John Dewey, whose student he was at Columbia from 1915 to 1917. The methodology of Dewey's pragmatism appealed to him because it provided an intellectual sequence through which to approach the problems of social change without necessitating specific assumptions as to the context within which change must occur. It was, in short, the application of scientific methods and attitudes to new areas of investigation, and throughout his life Hu emphasized this aspect of Dewey's thought by referring to himself as an "experimentalist," in politics as well as in scholarship.

Upon his return to China in 1917, Hu became a professor at Peking National University (Pei-Ta); his association with it lasted until 1949, interrupted for a decade during the war and for a briefer period in the late twenties when he resided in Shanghai. Throughout much of this time, Pei-Ta was the uncontested centre of China's new intellectual life, and Hu's position there brought him into direct contact with many of the most brilliant personalities of those years. A philosopher by education, a devoted student of Chinese literary history, a man whose quick mind and wide-ranging interests touched upon almost every aspect of China's intellectual heritage, he was influential in directing and training such younger scholars as Ku Chieh-kang, the historian and folklorist, Yü P'ing-po, the literary critic, and Lo Erh-kang, a specialist in the history of the Taiping Rebellion. (In 1949 all these men remained on the mainland, and in the course of the last few years each has repudiated his former teacher.) Apart from his activity as a scholar, Hu also sought to shape the views of his countrymen on contemporary problems, and his opinions on a broad range of social and political issues were published in essays that he contributed to a number of influential periodicals during the twenties and the thirties. It is possible that no other writer of his generation was read more widely, and in the minds of some he remains, even now, the greatest of the many who participated in the struggle to bring to China the benefits of enlightenment.

This was in large part a struggle against the deadweight of tradition, involving, among other things, a redefinition of the individual's place in society, his emancipation from the claims of family, clan or native place, from the authoritarian hierarchy of inherited relationships, and from the beliefs of a bygone age. Thus Hu ceaselessly exhorted the young people of China, the middle-school and university students, to assume the responsibilities that the times urged upon them, to develop their individual personalities, to think critically and independently, and to remain mindful of their obligation to tolerate the ideas of others.

Hu Shih was not a political activist, nor even primarily a political thinker. He was convinced that a stable political settlement could be achieved only after the social patterns and intellectual assumptions of the past had been swept away, and his chief concern was the introduction of new methods of research and modes of thought by means of which he hoped to liberate the Chinese mind from the coercion of traditional attitudes and values. But the times through which he lived would not permit him the privilege of isolating himself from the political life of the nation, and it was repeatedly necessary for him to define his political views. His moderate or evolutionary approach to the problems of social change, his beliefs concerning the function of law as a political instrument, and his view of the role of the individual in society and government combined together to make him, in the broadest sense of the term, a political liberal. He was among the most articulate and consistent members of the relatively small group of publicists and scholars who attempted, in an environment of revolutionary tensions, to create an attitude of mind capable of, and a political climate favourable to, effective use of the instruments of democratic government.

Hu Shih affirmed the importance of the individual as a social and political end in himself, and he asserted that institutions have no legitimate purpose other than to promote the realisation of individual personality. He steadfastly believed that through education the individual could be made to comprehend the workings of his own society and enabled to participate usefully in the tasks of self-government. He envisioned a society less homogeneous than that idealised by Confucian theorists, and in it law-traditionally a negative factor in Confucian political philosophy-must play an important part, as the instrument by means of which opportunities for self-expression are created and protected. Thus Hu was a firm advocate of constitutionalism, which he viewed as a prerequisite to the political education of the people, and he insisted that only legally defined and defended liberties would enable an enlightened public opinion, the conscience of the nation, to function as it should.

Concerning the nature of the current crisis and the shape of the future, Hu Shih was at odds with many of his contemporaries. In an era of steadily increasing nationalistic sentiment he remained an avowed 'cosmopolitan.' He rejected, on the one hand, the argument of those who laid the blame for China's plight on foreign encroachment and the designs of "capitalist imperialism," for if China was facing disaster, as he wrote in 1928, it was because her people were poverty-stricken, disease-ridden and haunted by ignorance. But on the other hand he jeered at the view expressed by certain traditionalist thinkers that China's "spiritual" inheritance was morally superior to the "materialistic" civilisation of the West and destined ultimately to triumph over it. Time and again he argued that insofar as traditional ideas and attitudes had impeded the achievement of material well-being for the Chinese people, they had stunted the spiritual growth of Chinese society and culture as well. He denied, in effect, that human progress can be measured by a double standard, and he insisted that China must abandon her pretensions to uniqueness and accept the position assigned to her when judged against the evolution of humanity as a whole. He sought to push China out into the march of world history, where the pace was set by Western achievement, both technological and intellectual.

It is easy for Westerners to sympathise with Hu Shih's efforts, for he spoke the language of a Western-oriented liberal intellectual. But this was not a language comprehensible to many Chinese, nor easily accommodated to the political and social conditions prevalent in China in the twenties and thirties. If Hu's description of the problems China faced differed from the descriptions offered by others, so did the programme he put forward as a means of solving these problems. He was convinced that the only realistic and reliable approach lay in gradual and undramatic reform which would aim at the isolation of specific difficulties and then seek to resolve them "bit by bit, drop by drop." For this reason he preferred to speak in terms of evolutionary change rather than revolution, and he was profoundly distrustful of emotional responses to any crisis, lest what he once called "the turmoil of the newspaper" divert attention from the fundamental tasks of intellectual reconstruction. While others preached extreme and all-encompassing solutions, Hu was a consistent advocate of moderation.

When we study this position against the unfolding history of China during those troubled years it is difficult to escape the conclusion that intellectuals of Hu's persuasion were condemned to frustration and impotence by their own convictions. Until 1928 China was ruled by a succession of warlord regimes, all of which made some show of respect for parliamentary government but were in fact supported only by armed force of a most brutal and cynical kind. For Hu Shih and like-minded men, no participation in any of these governments was possible, nor did they possess any means of influencing governments so constituted. Their only recourse was to public opinion, by which they set great store. They did their best to arouse public opinion against the abuses of militarist politics by publishing demands for "good government" and for "government with a plan'—meaning, among other things, a published budget, public accounting, a civil service selected in accordance with well-defined standards of merit and rigorously controlled as to size, revision of gross injustices in the electoral process, and the disbanding of private armies. Such demands are themselves an indication of the political climate of the period, which doomed them to failure. The hopelessness of their situation was well demonstrated in 1923 when Ts'ao K'un, the warlord whose armies at that time supported the "central" government in Peking, bought from parliament his election to the presidency of the Republic in spite of a vigorous campaign waged against him in the pages of The Endeavor (Nu-li Chou-pao), a small weekly paper founded by Hu Shih, V. K. Ting and others partly as an attempt to frustrate Ts'ao's ambitions.

After the unification of most of the country by the Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek in 1927-28, China's liberal intellectuals were faced with a new situation, and initially the prospects may have seemed brighter. The Nationalist government established in Nanking was, in fact, a "government with a plan." Sun Yat-sen had committed his party to the eventual implementation of constitutional democracy when the people had attained a level of education and political experience sufficient to make democratic forms meaningful, and he had also left behind a schedule to be followed in the achievement of this end, a three-stage progression from military reunification through an ill-defined period of "political tutelage " to the ultimate condition of democracy.

Under the Nanking régime, however, a new element emerged to complicate further the relationship between the intellectuals and those who exercised political power. Sun Yat-sen's writings, vague and inconsistent as they were on some points, became after his death in 1925 the sacred texts of the Nationalist revolution, against which no appeal was possible, and no criticism tolerated. Instead of a "government with a plan," China had inherited a government with an ideology. Taking Sun's theory of political tutelage as its justification, the Nationalist government remained obdurately hostile to demands for the introduction of constitutional restraint on its powers, contending that political sovereignty could not be given over to the people until they had been instructed in its use. Hu Shih took the contrary view, asserting that only through experience could the people ever acquire the political understanding necessary to the proper functioning of a democratic nation. In 1928 and 1929 he published a series of "Essays on human rights" in which he criticised the logic of Sun's philosophy and accused the Nanking government in pointed terms of insincerity and subterfuge in this regard. The government responded with a barrage of official rebukes and warnings, reprimanding Hu for "misleading such of our people as have not yet gained a firm belief in our ideology." In an era when the due process of law seldom interfered with the permanent settlement of political differences, Hu got off lightly. In later years, under the pressure of changing problems and new dangers, a modus vivendi between Hu Shih and the Party leadership was achieved, but the issue was never resolved and Hu remained to the end of his life a representative of the independent intellectuals who belonged to "no party, no clique."

During the 1930s the Nationalist government was confronted by the double challenge of Japanese aggression from without and increasingly bitter dissension within the nation. Unsuccessful in his attempts to exterminate the Chinese Communists in the mountains of Kiangsi, or later in their strongholds in the north-west, Chiang Kai-shek became convinced, almost to the point of unreason, that this internal dispute must be settled before the threat posed by Japan could be met. To this end the Nationalists increased the military pressure on Communist-held areas. At the same time they intensified their campaign against subversion among the intellectuals still within their reach and attempted to counteract the appeal of Communism by patching together a mass ideology of their own, a hodge-podge of refurbished Confucian maxims and pointers on personal hygiene which they called, hopefully, "The New Life Movement." However perspicacious the Nationalist assessment of the situation at that time may seem to us now, the effect of its policies thirty years ago was only to increase resentment against it and to permit the Chinese Communists to appear more and more convincingly as spokesmen for the cause of national independence and political freedom. Throughout those anxious years Chinese writers and students and intellectuals-the men and women who shaped and gave expression to the "public opinion" in which Hu Shih had such great faith-drifted toward the political Left.

Among the factors that drew the Chinese mind toward the Left in the twenties and thirties was the recent history of China's great neighbour to the north. Hu Shih himself was not immune to the appeal of the dramatic events taking place in the Soviet Union after 1917. His own firsthand experience with the Russian revolution was limited to a brief stopover in Moscow en route to Europe in 1926, but even this was sufficient to inspire his admiration for the sense of purpose and the willingness to experiment that he perceived there. In 1933 he went so far as to suggest—to an American audience—that Russian Communism should be regarded as "an integral part" of Western civilisation and "the logical consequence in the fulfilment of its democratic ideal."

In spite of this, however, Hu's break with Marxism-Leninism in China itself came early and was never compromised. At the time of the May Fourth Movement in 1919, when in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution and the humiliating outcome of the Versailles Conference, Marxist thought was gaining its first adherents among the intellectuals of Peking and Shanghai, Hu recognised in it the antithesis of the mental attitudes and intellectual methods he himself wished to inculcate. In his view, Marxism-Leninism gave misleadingly easy answers to China's problems, while with its talk of "feudalism," "capitalism" and "imperialism " it obscured their true nature. Its promise of a quick solution to all the difficulties China faced was founded on what Hu felt to be false assumptions as to the nature of society and of the revolutionary process. Hu's distrust of the Marxist programme for China thus arose initially not so much out of a fear of its ultimate incompatibility with the cause of political liberty as from the conviction that it was based on intellectually authoritarian and "unscientific " principles. The same conviction turned him, some years later, against the Nationalists' attempts to establish standards of ideological orthodoxy.

As an "experimentalist," Hu Shih was committed to the belief that truth is not absolute and that the correctness of any course of action can be determined only by reference to its consequences. Such beliefs lay a heavy burden on the mind of a would-be reformer in times of disorder and uncertainty. Hu Shih was better able to support this burden than were many of his contemporaries, for he viewed events in China with a remarkable degree of optimistic detachment. We may, perhaps, attribute this to his profound faith in human reason, even in a chaotic age. He did not believe that men are the instruments of economic or social or spiritual forces that lie beyond their control. He held instead that they are capable of shaping their own destinies if only they are permitted to think for themselves, unimpeded by the prejudices of the past or by erroneous impressions of the present. Because of this belief, Hu may justifiably be called a liberal thinker, and it endows his contributions to the intellectual life of modern China with a certain nobility.

But there are risks involved in remaining passionless in an impassioned age. Anger, frustration and despair can generate more heat than a cool appeal to reason can dispel. The sense of detachment, of emotional disengagement, necessarily maintained as a precondition of independent and critical thought may easily be mistaken for, if it does not in fact become, indifference to manifest abuses. Perhaps it was for this reason that Hu Shih, despite his reputation and his popularity, never seemed able to describe his beliefs to Chinese intellectuals in terms that could satisfy not only their minds but also the restless and inchoate yearnings of their hearts.

Early in 1916, at the time when Yuan Shih-k'ai, the President of the Republic, was engaged in his abortive attempt to overthrow republicanism and have himself inaugurated as the first emperor of a new dynasty, Hu Shih wrote a letter to an American friend that aptly foreshadowed the argument he would make throughout his life. Commenting on the course of events in China, he wrote with characteristic coolness:

I have come to hold that there is no short-cut to political decency and efficiency. … Good government cannot be secured without certain necessary prerequisites. ... Neither a monarchy nor a republic will save China without what I call the "necessary prerequisites." It is our business to provide for these necessary prerequisites—to "Create new Causes."

From the time of his return to China a year later Hu dedicated himself to this task, seeking to instil into his people new habits of thought and action and in this way to mould the history of his nation.

The Chinese revolution was the first in this century of revolutions, and the longest. It remains today the least understood. Now, with the problems of underdeveloped nations so much at the forefront of our thinking we are perhaps better able to comprehend the complex interaction of social, political, economic and intellectual forces that have contributed to the transformation of China than we were forty-five years ago when Hu Shih set out "to create new causes." Then it was still possible to conceive of revolution as an intellectual rebirth from which all things would follow in their own time and pattern. Hu Shih was not alone in emphasising this aspect of the revolutionary process, for one of the striking characteristics of the Chinese revolutionary experience has been the importance attached by all participants to the need for widespread intellectual involvement in it. This fact suggests that something of the Confucian belief that knowledge and action are inseparably linked, that action is impossible unless it is understood, has survived in the Chinese mind. In dynastic China such a belief was made tenable by the elitist nature of political leadership and by the politically passive role assigned to the peasantry. One of the features of the process of modernisation, however, is the need it creates for wider participation in the national cause, and in countries like China the chasm separating the enlightened few from the inertly ignorant many has become a problem of major proportions. The Nationalists had no answer to this problem. The Communists have attempted to meet it not only through regimentation of the population but also by means of unprecedented programmes for mass education and indoctrination.

Hu Shih and other moderates, taking the long view, were content to place their hopes on a future time when, by the slow and uncoerced diffusion of skills and ideas over a period of decades, a level of enlightenment sufficient to permit purposeful action by all would have become the common possession of all. Had this approach triumphed the result might well have been a more liberal society, but in effect the attitude adopted by these men tended to emphasise the present cleavage between the intellectual elite and the masses of the people. Hu Shih and others like him came to occupy a position similar in many respects to that of the scholar-officials of traditional China: sincere, humane and responsible men, obligated by reason of their superior endowments to protest against tyranny and speak on behalf of the people's welfare, though never themselves of the people. They were the voice of mankind's better nature, not the spokesmen of a popular cause.

Today the Nationalist government in Formosa, justifying its right to survive, claims that it alone represents and defends the great tradition that is China's gift to civilisation. There is truth in this, certainly, for much that was humane and gentle and sophisticated in the Chinese way of life has been eradicated by the Communists in the last twelve years along with much that was unjust and cruel. The Nationalist claim, however, acts to obscure the character of China's recent past and to distort the nature of individual contributions to her modern history, and it points up as well the intellectual and psychological dilemma confronting this remnant of a nation at the present time. After Hu Shih's death Chiang Kai-shek composed and wrote out in his own hand a memorial scroll summarising the accomplishments of the man who had been one of his most reasonable, and at times his most perceptive, critics. Hu Shih, wrote the President, was

A model of the old virtues within the New Culture—
An example of the new thought within the framework of old moral principles.

There is no reason to assume that Chiang was doing more than paying his sincere respects to the dead. He was, perhaps, unaware of the fact that he had in a certain sense described the position into which Hu Shih had been forced by the circumstances of his own temperament and beliefs and of the times in which he lived. And surely Chiang Kai-shek had not intended to remind us, as he did nevertheless, that if his small realm is indeed the repository of what is good and true from China's past, it is also the repository of the intellectual frustrations of the last several decades. Unable to forsake the past, unable to praise except in terms of ancient beliefs and values, it is the victim of a crisis of identity which may yet destroy it.

Westerners, and Americans particularly, cannot forget that much of what Hu Shih had hoped to do for China was what we ourselves would have wanted done. His death may rightly prompt us to ask ourselves again what may be the ultimate fate of the ideals of moderation, tolerance, the rule of law and individual liberty in a world torn by immoderate and brutal revolutions.