Hu Shih Essay

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Hu Shih (known in Mandarin Chinese as Hu Shi) was among the main liberal thinkers in the Chinese Revolution in the decades of the 1920s and 1930s. A philosopher and educator, Hu Shih played a critical role in introducing Western philosophical ideas into Chinese culture, in particular the pragmatist theories of the American philosopher John Dewey.

In July 1910, Hu Shih passed the American sponsored Boxer Indemnity scholarship examinations. Late in 1910, he sailed to the United States, where he remained to study until 1917. In September 1910, he enrolled in the College of Agriculture at Cornell University following the then-prevalent Chinese belief that literature and philosophy were not of any practical use. Abandoning his work in the sciences, he transferred in 1912 to the College of Arts and Sciences, where he majored in philosophy. Completing his bachelor’s degree in early 1914, he moved on the following fall to the Sage School at Cornell to graduate studies in philosophy.

Discovering John Dewey’s work in 1915, Hu Shih decided to move to Columbia University to continue his studies under Dewey’s guidance, thus beginning his lifelong interest in pragmatic evolutionary change. His dissertation, titled “The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China,” was clearly influenced by Dewey.

In June 1917, Hu Shih returned to China. There he accepted a professorship in philosophy at the prestigious Peking National University (now known as Beijing University)—the leading center for China’s intellectual revolutionaries. Hu Shih was interested in the search for a “practical philosophy.” Beginning in 1917, he wrote for New Youth, the most influential, avant-garde review of the period. He campaigned for a “literary revolution,” calling public attention to supplementing the obscurely styled classical literature with spoken language.

Hu Shih’s work contributed significantly to the New Culture Movement, which started in the early republican period (1911). The movement had as its purpose introducing to China Western concepts such as democracy, equality, and liberty. In addition, it also introduced a modern system of writing and the latest scientific and technological discoveries of the period. The period from 1917 to 1923, which saw the New Culture Movement at its height, has been called by some “The Chinese Renaissance.” For many, it represents one of the most intellectually revolutionary periods in Chinese history since the time of Confucius.

The New Culture thinkers like Hu Shih were prolific, publishing their theories of government, education, culture, economics, and Western science in books and journals. Never before in Chinese history had political and social issues been discussed so openly and so publicly. Soon, Chinese students were publishing their own journals and attacking all the traditions of China: Confucianism, hsiao (filial piety), the Chinese classics, and Neo-Confucian science. In the journals of the New Culture Movement and their student followers, few sectors of Chinese culture were free from ridicule or criticism.

Although Hu Shih continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s to participate actively in culture and politics, his influence went into gradual decline as his ideas lost relevance in the escalating fever of revolution. However, his contribution to scholarship regarding China’s literature and history continued to play an important role, particularly in the inspiration of other writers.

Dewey thought highly of the literary reforms initiated by Hu Shih and others, praising the resolution by the Federation of Educational Associations in 1919 to use spoken language for textbooks in elementary schools. He and his followers in China felt that the school should be the basic unit in the reconstruction of China. Modern education in China needed to begin from the child’s interests and emphasize individual development through the child-centered curriculum. Socialization in the school would select appropriate elements of the present society for incorporation into school life to promote social progress. These characteristics of progressive education were aimed at preparing the child for participation in and helping to build a democratic society.

The educational ideas of Dewey and Hu Shih had a lasting influence on Chinese education for thirty years, and their social philosophy and general philosophy also influenced part of the Chinese people. However, in 1951, the People’s Education Press in Shanghai published “The Introduction to the Criticism of Dewey,” which not only deplored Dewey’s influence but also attacked Hu Shih as Dewey’s spokesman. In 1954 and 1955, more than 3 million words were published by the Communists for purging both Hu Shih’s and Dewey’s ideas.


  1. Keenan, B. (1977). The Dewey experiment in China: Educational reform and political power in the early republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Ou, T. C. (1978). Dewey’s influence on China’s efforts for modernization. Jamaica, NY: St. John’s University Press.

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