Hu Shi (or Hu Shih, 1891–1962), styled Shizhi (Shih-chih), was born in Jixi county, Anhui province. As a pioneer of China’s New Culture Movement, he founded several newspapers and served as Chinese ambassador to the United States during the Second Sino-Japanese War. His seminal contributions to several disciplines made him one of China’s most influential philosophers and scholars in the twentieth century.
Living in a transitional era of rapid changes, young Hu Shi studied at a traditional private school in his hometown, transferred to a modern school in Shanghai at fourteen, and went on to further his studies in the United States at age nineteen. After graduating from Cornell University, he earned a doctorate at age twenty-seven from Columbia University under the guidance of the eminent philosopher John Dewey before returning to China. The fusion of Chinese and Western education laid a solid foundation for his future study and advocacy of intellectual emancipation.
In 1917 after his return, Hu Shi began to teach at Peking University and to edit the periodical New Youth. He ushered in China’s modern literary revolution by publishing “A Preliminary Discussion of Literary Reform.” He also encouraged personal liberation through works such as “Ibsenism” and “The non-individualist new life”. In his article “Study the problems more, talk about ‘isms’ less,” Hu Shi proposed the pragmatic methodology “make bold hypotheses and meticulously seek evidence.” Committed to educational reforms, he proposed to establish the course credit system, professors’ consultation committees, and professorial governance in universities, which had a profound influence in the realm of Chinese higher education. His advocacy of literary, intellectual, and educational reforms gained him public recognition as a leader of the New Culture Movement. Later, he participated in almost all major intellectual and cultural debates in China. He was praised as the “doctor of mind” by Qian Xuantong (1887–1939).
After the July Seventh Incident (Marco Polo Bridge Incident), Hu Shi was assigned by Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) in September 1937 to visit the United States and European countries to publicize China’s resistance against Japanese aggression and lobby for foreign aid. The next year, he was appointed ambassador to the U.S. To seek American aid and promote their understanding of China, Hu Shi established a close personal relationship with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and other high-ranking officials. In this way, he succeeded in gaining U.S. support for China’s fight against Japan. He also won respect from President Roosevelt and leading figures from various sectors. For about half a century, Hu Shi stood out as one of the most accomplished sponsors of Chinese culture to the West.
In September 1942, Hu Shi resigned as ambassador to the U. S. In the following two decades, apart from serving briefly as president of Peking University, director of Gest Oriental Library of Princeton University, and president of Academia Sinica, he devoted most efforts to reexamining an outdated academic debate involving the geographical writing Shuijing zhu (Commentary on the Waterways Classic). Seemingly a puzzle to many, this decision was in fact a diversion from his frustration caused by the political climate.
As a scholar, Hu Shi made groundbreaking contributions in many fields. In literature, he put forward a systematic theory and methodology to create China’s “new literature,” pioneered in composing free form poems in vernacular Chinese, and consolidated the history of Chinese literature by applying modern scientific methods. His Baihua wenxue shi (A history of vernacular Chinese literature) was China’s first new literature history written with fresh concepts, novel techniques, and in the plainest style. As for philosophy, he comprehensively sorted and analyzed the philosophical history of the pre-Qin period (times before 221 bce) by adopting brand-new concepts and empirical methods. His systematic review of the methodologies used in studying the history of Chinese philosophy exerted profound influence on how to systematically study this subject. It is generally agreed in academia that his work Zhongguo zhexue shi dagang (An outline history of Chinese philosophy) marked the founding of Chinese philosophical history as a discipline. In the field of history, he focused on academic history and especially biography. Hu Shi remained an advocate of biographical literature through his lifetime, and proposed a series of new concepts and approaches, which were exemplified by his Ding Wenjiang zhuan (Biography of Ding Wenjiang).
In 1962, the great scholar passed away due to illness in Taipei.