Hu Shih and Chinese language reform

This year, 2017, marks the beginning a momentous centenary for Chinese culture and the Sinophone world. Although the New Culture Movement 新文化運動 is conventionally dated from the founding by Chen Duxiu 陳獨秀 in Shanghai of the journal La Jeunesse 青年 in May 1915 (renamed 新青年 the following year), for many January 1917 is an equally important watershed. It was at that time that Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培 was appointed President of Peking University. Cai in turn invited Chen Duxiu to join the university faculty as dean. Chen then relocated to the old dynastic capital along with La Jeunesse.

Dr Hu Shih.

It was also in January 1917 that La Jeunesse published an essay by a young Chinese scholar studying at Columbia University. Hu Shi’s ‘A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform’ inaugurated a wave of advocacy for a transformation of written Chinese and expository prose.

It is with great pleasure that we reprint here, with the author’s kind permission, Hu Shih and Chinese language reform by Victor Mair in which this leading international scholar of Chinese literature and language commemorates Hu Shi’s truly revolutionary manifesto. 

This essay originally appeared in Language Log on 4 February 2017. Minor changes have been made in accordance with China Heritage style. See also Sino-Platonic Papers.


Over the next week we will reprint two other works related to cultural and linguistic change in China. The first, on academic practice in the People’s Republic today is by the outspoken critic Rong Jian 榮劍; the second is my own reflections on New China Newspeak 新華文體. It is here that I would note that Hu Shi’s ‘A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform’ was followed in the February 1917 issue of La Jeunesse by Chen Duxiu’s more radical ‘On Revolutionary Literature’ 文學革命論. As I observe in ‘New China Newspeak’, the extremist impetus in Chinese politics and culture would soon foster a new kind of vacuous and cliché-ridden language. This turgid form of Chinese continues to thrive in Official China; it is inimical to the báihuà 白话 (‘plain speech’) that Hu Shi championed a hundred years ago.

Geremie R. Barmé, Editor

Victor Mair

Hu Shih 胡適 (Pinyin Hú Shì [1891-1962]) is widely regarded as one of the most important Chinese intellectuals of the 20th century. As such, he is known as the “Father of the Chinese Renaissance”. In my estimation, Hu Shih was the single most influential post-imperial thinker and writer in China. His accomplishments were so numerous and multifarious that it is hard to imagine how one man could have been responsible for all of them.

Before proceeding, I would like to call attention to “Hu Shih: An Appreciation” by Jerome B. Grieder, which gives a sensitive assessment of the man and his enormous impact on Chinese thought and culture. Another poignant recollection is Mark Swofford’s “Remembering Hu Shih: 1891-1962“, which focuses on aspects of Hu’s monumental advancement of literary and linguistic transformation in China. For those who want to learn more about this giant of a thinker and writer, I recommend Grieder’s biography, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance: Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937 (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1970) and A Pragmatist and His Free Spirit:  the half-century romance of Hu Shi & Edith Clifford Williams (Hong Kong:  Chinese University Press, 2009) by Susan Chan Egan and Chih-p’ing Chou.

To name just a few of Hu Shih’s countless achievements, he made fundamental contributions to the study of the history of Chan / Zen in China, he was responsible for pathbreaking clarifications resulting from textual research on The Dream of the Red Chamber (China’s most famous novel), and he was the first scholar to comprehensively examine the evolution of Chinese philosophy from a nontraditional standpoint. As someone whose interests straddle India and China, I was particularly struck by Hu’s radically insightful chapter on “The Indianization of China: A Case Study in Cultural Borrowing”, which may be found in the volume of Harvard Tercentenary Publications titled Independence, Convergence, and Borrowing in Institutions, Thought, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard College, 1937), pp.219–247. As a Chinese scholar of the modern era, Hu Shih was unmatched for his breadth of knowledge and boldness in formulating new approaches to old problems.

Hu Shih was also a diplomat, having served as China’s ambassador to the United States from 1938-1942 and to the United Nations (1957). Speaking flawless English, Hu was an excellent representative of the Republic of China. He was chancellor of Peking University (1946-1948) and president of Academia Sinica from 1958 until his death in 1962.

In the test of time, however, I predict that Hu Shih’s most lasting and transformative gift to China will be his elaboration of a theoretical and practical basis for the establishment of the vernacular as the national language for all the people, in contrast to Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, which belonged to the tiny percentage of literati who had mastered it during the previous two millennia and more before his time. Naturally, there were other reformers (such as Chen Duxiu [1879-1942]; like Hu Shih, he was also from Anhui Province) who were promoting language reform around the same time as Hu Shih, but his statements concerning the essential problems that had to be faced and the requisite solutions for overcoming them were the clearest and most systematic program for creating China’s new national language.

From the time I began studying Chinese language and literature, I was keenly aware of Hu Shih’s awesome essays on how to remake written Chinese. The first that I became familiar with was his “A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform” 文學改良芻議, which was published in New Youth in January, 1917.  In it Hu laid out eight guidelines for effective writing:

  1. Write with substance (xū yán zhī yǒu wù 須言之有物). By this, Hu meant that literature should contain real feeling and human thought. This was intended to be a contrast to the recent poetry with rhymes and phrases that Hu saw as being empty.
  2. Do not imitate the ancients (bù mófǎng gǔrén 不摹仿古人). Literature should not be written in the styles of long ago, but rather in the modern style of the present era.
  3. Respect grammar (xū jiǎngqiú wénfǎ 須講求文法). Hu did not elaborate at length on this point, merely stating that some recent forms of poetry had neglected proper grammar.
  4. Reject melancholy (bùzuò wú bìng zhī shēnyín 不作無病之呻吟).Recent young authors often chose grave pen names, and wrote on such topics as death. Hu rejected this way of thinking as being unproductive in solving modern problems.
  5. Eliminate old clichés (wù qù làndiào tàoyǔ 務去濫調套語). The Chinese language has always had numerous four-character sayings and phrases* used to describe events. Hu implored writers to use their own words in descriptions, and deplored those who did not. *(VHM:  chéngyǔ 成語 [“set phrase”].)
  6. Do not use allusions (bùyòng diǎn 不用典). By this, Hu was referring to the practice of comparing present events with historical events even when there is no meaningful analogy.
  7. Do not use couplets or parallelism (bù jiǎng duìzhàng 不講對仗). Though these forms had been pursued by earlier writers, Hu believed that modern writers first needed to learn the basics of substance and quality, before returning to these matters of subtlety and delicacy.
  8. Do not avoid popular expressions or popular forms of characters (bù bì súzì súyǔ 不避俗字俗語). This rule, perhaps the most well-known, ties in directly with Hu’s belief that modern literature should be written in the vernacular, rather than in Classical Chinese. He believed that this practice had historical precedents, and led to greater understanding of important texts.

In April of 1918, Hu published a second article in New Youth, this one titled “Constructive Literary Revolution – A Literature of National Speech” 建設的文學革命論. In it, he simplified the original eight points into just four:

  1. Speak only when you have something to say (yào yǒu huà shuō, fāngcái shuōhuà 要有话说, 方才说话). This is analogous to the first point above.
  2. Speak what you want to say and say it in the way you want to say it (yǒu shéme huà, shuō shénme huà; huà zěnme shuō, jiù zěnme shuō 有什么话, 说什么话; 话怎么说, 就怎么说). This combines points two through six above.
  3. Speak what is your own and not that of someone else (yào shuō wǒ zìjǐ de huà, bié shuō biérén de huà 要说我自己的话, 别说别人的话). This is a rewording of point seven.
  4. Speak in the language of the time in which you live (shì shénme shídài de rén, shuō shénme shídài de huà 是什么时代的人, 说什么时代的话). This refers again to the replacement of Classical Chinese with the vernacular language.

Sourceshere, here and here.

Shortly after I began the study of Chinese in 1967, I became thoroughly familiar with these succinct, programmatic statements by Hu Shih on how to go about the important task of vernacularizing written Chinese. I studied these two essays of his intently, and they constituted an integral part of my own approach to Chinese. But it was only five days ago when listening to a talk by Carlos Lin that I was made aware of an even earlier essay by Hu Shih on the matter of how to reshape Chinese language in the modern age. This was his “The Teaching of Chinese as It Is”, which is part III (the conclusion) of “The Problem of the Chinese Language”. It appeared in The Chinese Students’ Monthly, 11.8 (June, 1916), 567-572. The journal was published by The Chinese Students’ Alliance in the United States of America and was distributed from Ithaca, New York.

In 1910, at the age of 19, Hu Shih had been selected as a “national scholar” and sent to Cornell University to study agriculture with funds from the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program. In 1912 he switched majors to philosophy and literature.  After graduating from Cornell, he went to Columbia to study philosophy under John Dewey, which accounts for his lifelong attachment to the concept of pragmatic evolutionary change.

Here are the opening three paragraphs of his 1916 article:

I am of the opinion that most of the faults which have been attributed to our language are due to the fact that it has never been properly and scientifically taught. Its critics have been too hasty in their condemnations, and have failed to realize that languages are more conservative than religions and cannot be made and remade by sensational agitations and destructive criticisms. I readily admit that an alphabetical language may have greater advantages than our own language and that the alphabetization of Chinese is a problem worthy of scientific study. But it is highly improbable that we and even our second and third generations will live to see the adoption of an alphabetized Chinese, although we may work for it. In the meanwhile, the teaching of Chinese as it is constitutes a far more urgent problem, because it is the language which records our past and present civilization, which is the only means of inter-provincial communication, and which is the only available instrument of national education.

There are a few generalizations which I consider to be of great importance in discussing the problem of teaching Chinese as it is. The first of these is that what we call our literary language is an almost entirely dead language. Dead it is, because it is no longer spoken by the people. It is like Latin in Mediaeval Europe; in fact, it is more dead (if mortality admits of a comparative degree), than Latin, because Latin is still capable of being spoken and understood, while literary Chinese is no longer auditorily intelligible even among the scholarly class except when the phrases are familiar, or when the listener has already some idea as to what the speaker is going to say.

The second generalization is that we must free ourselves from the traditional view that the spoken words and the spoken syntax are “vulgar.” The Chinese word vulgar (see chart 2 (44) [VHM: there he prints 俗]) means simply “customary” and implies no intrinsic vulgarity. As a matter of fact, many of the words and phrases of our daily use are extremely expressive and therefore beautiful. The criterion for judging words and expressions should be their vitality and adequacy of expression, not their conformity to orthodox standards. The spoken language of our people is a living language: it represents the daily needs of the people, is intrinsically beautiful, and possesses every possibility of producing a great and living literature as is shown in our great novels written in the vulgate. [VHM: emphasis added.]

Hu Shih not only composed these succinct platforms for revitalizing written Chinese, he wrote a pathbreaking history of vernacular literature which demonstrated that China all along had the potential makings for written vernacular, but that it was continuously repressed by the towering prestige of the literary language.

Hu Shih also exemplified the principles he laid out for readily comprehensible writing in Chinese by penning his own pellucid prose. I still remember vividly how it was always a breath of fresh air to read something by Hu Shih that was written in pure báihuà 白话 (lit., “plain speech”) after slogging through the tortured, turgid bànwénbànbái 半文半白 (“semiliterary-semivernacular”) of typical pedants.

Above all, I had the greatest admiration for Hu Shih for having written poetry in báihuà, and I memorized one of them that was titled “Lóng niǎo 籠鳥” (“Caged bird”) that had this line, “Wǒ yào chūlái 我要出來” (“I want to get out!”), and I always felt that this was a metaphor for the constrainment of the Chinese people for the past two millennia and more. (Unfortunately, I can’t find this poem online now, but I did memorize it and I always thought it was by Hu Shih.)

I also recall a passage from one of Hu Shih’s essays on how to live a meaningful “new life” in which he described a white bear (báixióng 白熊) in a zoo pacing back and forth (bǎiláibǎiqù 摆来摆去) all day long. It was so easy to understand essays and poems written in báihuà (the vernacular) because they sounded like what one heard around one all the time. That is why literacy is so much more readily achieved in báihuà than in Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese, because everything you hear about you reinforces what you read, unlike LS / CC where you have to learn a separate, dead language that you never hear in daily speech.

Thus we see that, from the very beginning of his efforts to infuse new life into Chinese civilization, Hu Shih astutely recognized the centrality of living vernacular language. An apt summation of how he viewed the key role of language in the rebirth of Chinese civilization may be found in his The Chinese Renaissance: The Haskell Lectures, 1933, published by The University of Chicago Press and Cambridge University Press in 1934.

Many of the most celebrated Chinese scholars of the 20th century expressed thoughtful and informed opposition to the written language they had inherited. In its place, they advocated alphabetization and the vernacular. Hu Shih and his colleagues were doing this long before any Chinese government had adopted an official romanization and even before the adoption of vernacular as the official written medium. This advocacy transcended political inclinations, with distinguished scholars like Hu Shih in the Republic of China and outstanding authors such as Lu Xun all pushing for fundamental language reform, and doing so on the basis of profound knowledge of history, literature, and linguistics, such as Hu Shih’s Báihuà wénxué shǐ 白話文學史 (A History of Vernacular Literature) and Lu Xun’s (1881-1936) Ménwài wén tán 門外文談 (An Outsider’s Chats about Written Language).

It has been a full century since Hu Shih uttered these words:

I readily admit that an alphabetical language may have greater advantages than our own language and that the alphabetization of Chinese is a problem worthy of scientific study. But it is highly improbable that we and even our second and third generations will live to see the adoption of an alphabetized Chinese, although we may work for it.

We are now into the third generation since Hu Shih penned those remarks, but it has only been half a century since the People’s Republic promulgated Hanyu Pinyin, devised by Zhou Youguang (1906-2017) and his colleagues, as the official romanization of China. Where do we stand now with regard to Hu Shih’s prediction concerning alphabetization? Does emerging digraphia count as partial alphabetization?