Hu Shih (Chinese: 胡適, 17 December 1891 – 24 February 1962) was a Chinese philosopher, essayist and diplomat. Hu is widely recognized today as a key contributor to Chinese liberalism and language reform in his advocacy for the use of written vernacular Chinese. He was influential in the May Fourth Movement, one of the leaders of China’s New Culture Movement, was a president of Peking University, and in 1939 was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature. He had a wide range of interests such as literature, history, textual criticism, and pedagogy. He was also an influential redology scholar and held the famous Jiaxu manuscript (Chinese: 甲戌本; pinyin: Jiǎxū běn; Wade–Giles: Chia-hsü pen) for many years until his death.
His ancestors were from Jixi, Anhui. In January 1904, his family established an arranged marriage for Hu with Chiang Tung-hsiu (Chinese: 江冬秀; pinyin: Jiāng Dōngxiù; Wade–Giles: Chiang Tung-hsiu), an illiterate girl with bound feet who was one year older than he was. The marriage took place in December 1917.
Hu became a “national scholar” through funds appropriated from the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program. On 16 August 1910, he was sent to study agriculture at Cornell University in the United States.
He quit New Youth in the 1920s and published several political newspapers and journals with his friends. His most important contribution was the promotion of vernacular Chinese in literature to replace Classical Chinese, which ideally made it easier for the ordinary person to read. The significance of this for Chinese culture was great—as John Fairbank put it, “the tyranny of the classics had been broken”. Hu devoted a great deal of energy, however, to rooting his linguistic reforms in China’s traditional culture rather than relying on imports from the west. As his biographer Jerome Grieder put it, Hu’s approach to China’s “distinctive civilization” was “thoroughly critical but by no means contemptuous.” For instance, he made a major contribution to the textual study of the Chinese classical novel, especially the 18th century novel Dream of the Red Chamber, as a way of establishing the vocabulary for a modern standardized language.
During the Warlord era in the Republic of China, unlike other fellow intellectuals such as Liang Qichao and Chen Duxiu, Hu was a staunch supporter of pragmatism. Hu Shih himself translated it into Chinese as simplified Chinese: 实验主义; traditional Chinese: 實驗主義; pinyin: shíyànzhǔyì, literally meaning experimentalism, since he strived to study both academic and social problems in the scientific approach (in the general sense), and advocated cultural reform under the guidance of pragmatism.
The second translation as simplified Chinese: 实用主义; traditional Chinese: 實用主義; pinyin: shíyòngzhǔyì was crafted long after pragmatism became popular in China at that time due to Hu’s endeavor. This secondary translation has become dominant today, but the intention of such terminology substitution was highly suspected to politically defame Hu for the term 實用 had been evolved into a derogatory sense.