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Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance

January 29, 2010

Jerome B. Grieder. Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Sigrid Schmalzer (2000)

This is an exploration first of Hu Shi as a liberal philosopher, and secondly of the inherent problems posed by the application of liberal philosophy to China in the early twentieth century. As such, it is both an intellectual biography and the history of a larger struggle over politics and culture. The narrative begins with Hu Shi’s childhood in a fatherless house and the contradictory influences of his mother, who was at once a “traditional” Chinese woman and a supporter of a “modern” education for her son. To achieve this education, Hu moved to Shanghai where he learned skepticism from the Song-dynasty writer Sima Guang and was exposed to the West through Liang Qichao and Yan Fu.

By this time already committed to the quest of modernizing China, in 1910 Hu won a Boxer Indemnity scholarship to enroll at Cornell, where he quickly came under the influence of liberal political philosophy in general and John Dewey’s experimentalism in particular. Upon his return to China in 1917, Hu Shi became a leader in the New Culture movement, his most celebrated historical role. While he continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s to participate actively in culture and politics, his influence went into a slow decline as his ideas lost relevance in the escalating fever of revolution. However, Grieder notes that his contribution to scholarship on China’s literature and history continued to play an important role, particularly in the inspiration of other writers. Grieder suggests further research in two interesting appendices: one on “the women in Hu’s life,” and the other on the 1950s attack on Hu in the PRC.

Grieder’s ultimate concern is the evaluation of Hu Shi’s liberal thought in light of its incontrovertible failure. It failed not because Hu sought blindly to apply Western ideas without concern for China’s own traditions. Rather, Hu proposed that the Hanxue scholarship arising in the early Qing dynasty rested on the same methods as Western science, a strategy similar to the later Communist invocation of a “popular tradition” in Chinese history. Nor was the failure due to a lack of concern for political process, despite Hu’s aversion to narrowly defined political action. Rather, an interest in governmental institutions as a means to protect the rights of individuals once the nation-state had been built was what distinguished Hu and his contemporary liberals from earlier political thinkers like Liang Qichao and Yen Fu.

Hu himself failed, in Grieder’s analysis, in his elitist conflation of his own understanding of “freedom” (that of individual thought) with the desires of the people for freedom from hunger and oppression. The failure of the greater cause of liberal reform in China failed for related though different reasons. The gradual process of social evolution, while perhaps relevant to literary reform and other intellectual movements, could not provide the solution to China’s pressing needs for social transformation. Liberalism is itself paradoxical in this respect: democracy can only arise from a democratic society; it offers no source of power other than public opinion, which cannot be effective in a system driven by brute force. Tragically, China’s liberals were forced either to abandon their liberalism for the politically more realistic cause of revolution or, as Hu Shi, to hold on to their liberalism and become increasingly irrelevant. This is the same dilemma with which Chow Tse-tsung and James Thomson (among others) have wrestled, and their conclusions, though differing in particulars, are largely in agreement.

Grieder found inspiration for this study, begun in 1955, in the communist attack on Hu Shi then in full swing. Despite his conclusion that liberalism could not have succeeded in revolutionary China, he is saddened by this failure of “what we ourselves might have hoped to see done” (p. 347). This sentiment clearly resonated with reviewers of the time, who had little but praise for Grieder’s sensitive and detailed approach for this vitally important figure.

See Edward Rhoads (The American Historical Review, 76.4:1207-8), C. P. Fitzgerald (Pacific Affairs, 44.3:432), and David Roy (Journal of Asian Studies, 30.2:440-2) for contemporary reviews.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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