Hu Shi (Hu Shih)

Hu Shi (Hu Shih)
Hu Shi (Hu Shih)

Hu Shi was the son of an official of modest means. At 13 he switched from a traditional Chinese school to a modern school in Shanghai, where he was introduced to Western learning. In 1910 he won a scholarship to study in the United States, where he was influenced by John Dewey's pragmatism and earned a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University.

While a student he became interested in Chinese language reform, writing an article titled "Some Tentative Suggestions for the Reform of Chinese Literature," that argued in favor of a new literature that used the vernacular instead of classical Chinese. The enthusiastic response from students and intellectuals led to a wide-ranging reevaluation of Chinese literary and ethical traditions that became known as the New Culture Movement.

A leading academic amid these cultural and political crosscurrents, Hu Shi spoke out on a wide range of topics as editor and cofounder of several magazines during the 1920s and 1930s. He opposed the obsession with political ideology during the warlord era and advocated the concept of "good government."

After 1928 he criticized the newly established Nationalist (Kuomintang) government for its authoritarianism and called for the protection of human rights and free speech. He served as ambassador to the United States between 1938 and 1942, lobbying the Roosevelt administration and the American public to eschew their isolationist policies and to aid China's war of resistance.

He was president of National Beijing (Peking) University for two years after the end of World War II but went to the United States in 1949 when the Nationalist government lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party.

He lived in semiretirement in New York until 1958, writing and speaking out as a loyal but critical friend of the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC) and an adamant foe of communism. He returned to Taiwan in 1958 to preside over the Academic Sinica, the ROC's leading research institution, until his death in 1962.

Hu Shi was unquestionably the best-known Western-oriented Chinese liberal intellectual in the 20th century. During the long years of political strife in China, his optimistic faith in nationalism, moderation, and democracy was a beacon for a brighter future. Singled out for harsh criticism by the Chinese Communist government in the 1950s, his reputation has had an unparalleled rehabilitation in China since the 1980s.