Born Hu Hóngxīng (洪騂) in Hui-chou, Anhui to Hu Chuan (胡傳, courtesy name Tiehua 鐵花) and Feng Shundi (馮順弟), Hu's ancestors were from Jixi (績溪). In his youth, Hu read many of the famous vernacular novels of the past, which may have contributed to his later push for use of the vernacular in modern Chinese literature. During his teenager years, Hu moved to Shanghai. In January 1904, his family established an arranged marriage for Hu with Jiang Dongxiu (江冬秀), an illiterate girl with bound feet who was one year older than he was. The marriage took place in December 1917. Hu received his basic education in Jixi and Shanghai.
Hu became a "national scholar" through funds appropriated from the Boxer Indemnity grant. On August 16 1910, Hu was sent to study agriculture at Cornell University in the USA. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he went to Columbia University to study philosophy. At Columbia he was greatly influenced by his professor, John Dewey, and Hu became Dewey's translator and a lifelong advocate of pragmatic evolutionary change. He received his Ph.D in philosophy in 1917 and returned to lecture in Peking University. Hu later described the atmosphere before the May Fourth Movement as being characterized by "the transvaluation of all values", the impulse to reevaluate all of the historically prevailing values. During his tenure at Peking University, he began to receive support from Chen Duxiu, editor of the influential journal New Youth, quickly gaining much attention and influence. Hu soon became one of the leading and influential intellectuals during the May Fourth Movement and later the New Culture Movement. He left New Youth in the 1920s and published several political newspapers and journals with his friends. His most important contribution was the promotion of vernacular literature (Baihua) to replace classic literature (see Classical Chinese): the significance of this for Chinese Culture was great — as John Fairbank put it: "the tyranny of the classics had been broken".
Hu was ambassador from the Republic of China to the United States of America (1938–1941)(Cheng and Lestz 1999, 373) and chancellor of Peking University from 1946 to 1948. In 1958, he became president of the 'Academia Sinica' in Taiwan. Upon his inauguration to this post, he was praised for his high moral character, which others said made him suitable for the position. He responded that intellectual quality, and not moral integrity, was the key to success in academia. where he remained until his death by heart attack in Nangang at the age of seventy-one. He was chief executive of the Free China Journal, which was eventually shut down for criticizing Chiang Kai-shek.
Unlike other figures of the Warlord Era in the Republic of China, Hu was a staunch supporter of just one main current of thought: pragmatism. Many of his writings used these ideas to advocate for changes in China.
Hu was well known as the primary advocate for the literary revolution of the era, a movement with the aim of the replacement of scholarly classical Chinese in writing with the vernacular spoken language, as well as the cultivation and stimulation of new forms of literature. In an article originally published in New Youth in January 1917 called "A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform", Hu originally emphasized eight guidelines that all Chinese writers should take to heart in writing:
- Write with substance. 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.
- Do not imitate the ancients. Literature should not be written in the styles of long ago, but rather in the modern style of the present era.
- Emphasize grammar. Hu did not elaborate at length on this point, merely stating that some recent forms of poetry had neglected proper grammar.
- Reject melancholy. 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.
- Eliminate old clichés. 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.\
- Do not use allusions. By this, Hu was referring to the practice of comparing present events to events in the past, even when such events are not entirely applicable.
- Do not use couplets or parallelism. 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.
- Do not avoid popular expressions or popular forms of characters. This rule, perhaps the best known, ties in directly with Hu's believe that modern literature should be written in the vernacular, rather than in Classical Chinese. He believed that this practice had historical precedence, and led to greater understanding of important texts.
In April 1918, Hu published a second article in New Youth, this one titled "Constructive Literary Revolution — a Literature of National Speech". In it, he simplified the original eight points into only four:
- Speak only when you have something to say. This is analogous to the first point above.
- Speak what you want to say and say it in the way you want to say it. This combines points two through six above.
- Speak what is your own and not that of someone else. This is a rewording of point seven.
- Speak in the language of the time in which you live. This refers again to the replacement of Classical Chinese with the vernacular language.
- (English translation of a poem by Hu, published in New Youth magazine, China 1915-1926, vol.5 no.3.)
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- Fairbank, John King (1979 (c1948)). The United States and China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 4th edition, pp 232–233, 334.
- "Hu Shih", in (1931) Living philosophies. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Li, Ao ([1964-]). Biography of Hu Shih [Hu Shih p'ing chuan]. Taipei [T'ai-pei shih] [臺北市]: [Wen hsing shu tien, Min kuo 53-]. Series : [Wen hsing ts'ung k'an 50] [文星叢刊 50].
- Yang, Ch'eng-pin (c1986). The political thoughts of Dr. Hu Shih [Hu Shih ti cheng chih ssu hsiang]. Taipei, Taiwan: Bookman Books. in English.
- Chou, Min-chih (c1984). Hu Shih and intellectual choice in modern China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-10039-4. Series : Michigan studies on China.
- Hu, Shih (c1934). The Chinese renaissance : the Haskell lectures, 1933. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (see online Resource listed below)
- Grieder, Jerome B. (1970). Hu Shih and the Chinese renaissance; liberalism in the Chinese revolution, 1917-1937. Cambridge [US]: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-41250-8. Series : Harvard East Asian series 46.
- Cheng, Pei-Kai; Michael Lestz (c1999). The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 373.
- de Bary, W.M Theodore; Richard Lufrano (2000). Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume Two, Second Edition. New York Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 636.
- Shih, Vincent Y.C. (1962). A Talk with Hu Shih. The China Quarterly, No. 10. (April - June 1962), pp. 149-165., 636.