Hu Shi (1891–1962)

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Hu Shi, the Chinese pragmatist, was educated in China, at Cornell University, and at Columbia University under John Dewey. He was successively professor, chancellor of Peking National University, ambassador to the United States, and president of Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan.

In 1916 he inaugurated the Literary Revolution in China by advocating the use of the vernacular style for writing instead of the formal, classical style, which, radically different from the spoken language, had become rigid and decadent. He succeeded in spite of strong opposition and thus set Chinese literature free. Since freedom of expression means also freedom of thought, the new literature led to the Intellectual Renaissance in China in 1917.

Hu did not claim to be a philosopher, but his own credo represented a new philosophy in China at the time. According to Hu Shi the universe, infinite in space and time, was not supernaturally created but is naturalistic and is governed by natural laws. All things, including psychological phenomena, have a scientific basis and can therefore be scientifically understood. Immortality is not personal but the sum total of individual achievement living on in the Larger Self. Truth must be historically and scientifically tested and is best expressed in democracy, freedom, progress, and social action.

His contributions to Chinese philosophy are important. As the leading disciple of Dewey in China, in 1919 he introduced pragmatism, which exerted tremendous influence and became the first concerted philosophical movement in twentieth-century China. Although the philosophy declined in influence in the later 1920s, its spirit of practical application, emphasis on problems instead of theories, the insistence on results, the critical approach, and the scientific method had become the generally accepted outlook in China.

In his writings on Chinese philosophy Hu Shi was the first to give it a clear outline, free from religious beliefs and legendary philosophy. He provided it with a historical and social environment. Laozi, for example, was presented as a rebel against oppressive government and hypocritical society. Hu Shi discovered the methodology in Chinese philosophy, notably the "rectification of names" in Confucianism, the "three standards" or "laws of reasoning" in Mohism, and the method of "names and actuality" in other philosophers. He removed the mysticism of Laozi and Zhuangzi, whom he regarded as realists championing the cause of complete individual freedom. While these views are extreme, he created an entirely new atmosphere in Chinese philosophy.

See also Chinese Philosophy; Dewey, John; Laozi; Pragmatism; Zhuangzi.


For a complete listing of his works in both Chinese and English, see Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, Vol. 28 (Taipei, Taiwan, 1957), 889914. For literature on Hu Shi, see Wing-tsit Chan, "Hu Shih and Chinese Philosophy," in Philosophy East and West, Vol. 6, No. 1 (April 1956), 312.

Fan, Kuang-huan. "A Study of Hu Shih's Thought." Ph.D. New York University, 1963.

Hu, Shi. The Chinese Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.

Hu, Shi. The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China. Shanghai: The Oriental Book Co., 1922.

Wing-tsit Chan (1967)

Bibliography updated by Huichieh Loy (2005)