Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Hu Shih
Hu Shih "Only when we realize that there is no eternal, unchanging truth or absolute truth can we arouse in ourselves a sense of intellectual responsibility."

Hu Shih (1890-1962)
Philosopher, Educator
PhD 1917
Medal 1929 (hon.)
LLD 1939 (hon.)

A onetime cultural critic who became a leading figure in the emergence of modern China, Hu Shih rose to prominence by promoting the use of the vernacular in literature-a practice that earned him the title "father of the Chinese literary renaissance." During the May Fourth Movement of the late 1910s, he joined other public intellectuals in attacking the classical language that had existed since about 200 BCE and arguing for the popular pai-hua as the written medium for both scholarship and general communication. The effort ushered in an era of mass literacy, relegating ancient Confucian texts to the status of reference works rather than standards to be memorized by every student. Hu's own scholarship helped convert the theretofore standard written language from an ideographic system to an alphabetic one-a "Herculean task" in the words of The New York Times.

Hu's international stature was enhanced by his frequent presence in the United States, particularly his high-profile tenure as Chinese ambassador from 1938 to 1942. During that time, he rallied support for his homeland-then under Japanese assault-and after World War II served as a delegate to the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations. Hu became chancellor of Beijing University in 1946, but after the communist revolution in China two years later relocated to Taiwan, where he eventually would lead the Academia Sinica, a leading research institute. Always outspoken in favor of democracy and human rights, Hu served for a time in the nationalist government's Assembly of Delegates.

Hu came to Columbia in 1914 after graduating from Cornell. He studied under John Dewey, the pragmatic philosopher who propounded learning through experimentation and practice. Hu earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1917, and remained close to his mentor over the years; when Dewey visited China in April 1919 for a two-year lecture tour of 11 provinces, Hu served as his principal translator. Three decades later, Hu offered a testimonial to Dewey at the latter's 90th-birthday tribute dinner. Over the years, Hu returned periodically to Columbia to teach and lecture, and assisted in the 1939 drive to increase the membership of the Alumni Federation. In 1960, he gave Columbia's East Asian Library a 25-volume set of his Chinese writings. Hu died in 1962, shortly after which the University established a graduate fellowship in his memory.

Read more about Hu Shih in the Columbia Encyclopedia.


Philosopher and Hu's mentor


Weatherhead East Asian Institute


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