Illustration by Derek Zheng
April is National Poetry Month, and to commemorate, we’ll be taking a look at famous Chinese poets this month in our Chinese Lives series.
Hu Shih (胡適 Hú Shì) never judged a book by its cover. Although he had been reading the loftiest works of classical Chinese (文言 wényán) before the age of 8, it was at age 9 that he became fascinated by a battered volume he found in the waste bin in his uncle’s house.
Its pages were written in vernacular Chinese, or báihuà (白话, “plain speech”), the guttural “vulgar” tongue of the common people, reserved for street performers and markets rather than classrooms and palaces. But this battered book was a feast for his imagination, bursting with characters who spoke in the language of the everyday. Despite being looked down on, he later wrote that reading in baihua “taught me life, for good and for evil.”
Who was Hu Shih?
Hu Shih (1891 – 1962) was one of the most prolific writers of the May Fourth Movement, the “Father of the Chinese Renaissance.” He had a star-studded career as diplomat and academic — Chinese ambassador to the U.S. during World War II, chancellor of Peking University, penning landmark studies of Chinese philosophy, literature, and history. But his most important work was his efforts to abolish the use of classical Chinese, making modern Chinese poetry and literature possible.
Hu Shih had grown up in the twilight years of the Qing Dynasty, given a traditional education in Anhui Province. He learned to recite the Confucian classics in wenyan like his father before him, rolling along the education conveyor belt toward the Imperial Exams. Most never understood what they were learning, but Hu’s mother paid extra to make sure he was told what each sentence meant in baihua. He found himself drawn toward baihua, writing short stories for publication in small Shanghai magazines.
Chinese literati spoke baihua but spurned writing in it. Wenyan had been the language of knowledge, power, and status for millennia. It favored style over practicality, elegance over meaning, and conciseness over clarity. Sometimes the writer’s idea had to be changed if it didn’t fit the intricate patterns of rhythm, tonal harmony, or parallelism. Words were monosyllabic but had complex grammar, verbs turned to nouns or vice versa for that all-important brevity. Using as few characters as possible led to vagaries, a sentence having multiple interpretations.
Hu Shih began to question the lingual status quo while studying in the U.S. over seven years between 1910-17. He debated language reform with fellow Chinese expats abroad. Some wanted to abolish Chinese characters, but that would have involved a lot of upheaval. Hu believed the solution was substituting a “dead language” with a live one.
Like Latin in the West, wenyan was admired yet irrelevant, alien to 99% of Chinese. Hu felt each age of China needed its own unique literary voice, channeling the feelings of the writer and reflecting the world they lived in. Wenyan twisted modern ideas to fit 2,000-year old phrases and concepts. As Hu Shih explained later, “the old bottles cannot hold the new wine.”
In 1916, Hu Shih announced he would only be writing verse in baihua. Today, it would be like the poet laureate declaring they’ll only write in emoji.
Many friends thought him mad to use a language that “had never been polished and refined.” Like many educated Chinese, Hu Shih was a keen writer of poetry. But in 1916, he announced he would only be writing verse in baihua. Today, it would be like the poet laureate declaring they’ll only write in emoji. But Hu’s declaration was an important step toward ridding baihua of its stigma of “low culture.”
In 1920, he voyaged into the unknown with A Book of Experiments, the first book of Chinese poetry written in baihua. But before this, he was actually shy about his eccentric ideas. In January 1917, he quietly wrote, “Some Tentative Suggestions for the Reform of Chinese Literature”: Writers should stop clouding their meaning with old clichés — one poem he’d recently read endowed the roof of a contemporary American house with the interlocking “butterfly-tiles” of a Tang Dynasty mansion. Neither should they use obscure allusions — “Let us no longer write literary works that require five carts of books to understand them.” If they were to create the poetry and prose of the now, modern Chinese writers should use their own words in a language everyone could understand.
Hu’s list could have passed unnoticed had it not been trumpeted by Chén Dúxiù 陈独秀, founder of the CCP. It was a template for abolishing the “painted, powdered” language of the old elites and the “pedantic, unintelligible” words of Confucian scholars.
Abolishing wenyan looked to be a struggle. It was a medium connecting present and past, the verses of China’s greatest poets all written in wenyan. It threaded together an Imperial patchwork of dialects and languages in a script every bureaucrat could read. It was a key to Chinese identity.
But reform was swift. Abolishing the Imperial Exams in 1905 meant there was no real need for scholars to learn wenyan. May Fourth academics, eager to spread their message, transferred to the language the masses understood. By 1921, baihua was officially recognized as the “National Language of China.”
It was an important milestone. According to Susan Egan and Chih-p’ing Chou in A Pragmatist and His Free Spirit, it gave the modernizers a true voice for revolution — “being able to speak from their heart without constant allusions to the past gave them the confidence to challenge their elders.”
Why is he known?
Although he was just as prominent in the May Fourth Movement as the famous modernist writer Lǔ Xùn 鲁迅, Hu’s liberal ideology has (until recently) erased him in mainland China. He vocally attacked the CCP, arguing for democracy, free speech, and individualism, allying himself with Chang Kai-shek (蒋介石 Jiǎng Jièshí). As a result, he is deployed by those fearing Chinese assimilation. In Taiwan he became well-known, with a memorial hall in the grounds of Academia Sinica where he was chancellor from 1958 until his death in 1962. A few of his essays are still set texts in Taiwanese middle schools, like the 1924 short story, “The Life of Mr. Close-Enough,” which scolds a national culture of championing mediocrity.
The Hong Kong protests sport the social media hashtag “better to die with a voice than to live in silence” (宁鸣而死, 不默而生 níng míng ér sǐ, bù mò ér shēng), the title of a 1955 Hu essay. As unrest continues in Hong Kong, “I think there is a good chance for us to see a revived interest in some of Hu Shih’s writings — particularly those concerned with politics,” says Dr. Carlos Lin of City University of Hong Kong, co-author of Remembering May Fourth: The Movement and its Centennial Legacy.
Although Hu’s forays into baihua poetry are of little literary value, they created an atmosphere where literary experiments were acceptable. It was only after A Book of Experiments that Lu Xun began to experiment with baihua poetry, eventually creating the masterpiece Wild Grass. Although not as prominent as Lu Xun, all modern Chinese writers live in Hu’s shadow.
Hu’s revolution is easily overlooked. It goes without saying that today’s 840 million native users of Mandarin speak and write in the same language. We forget they tread a path laid down by Hu Shih.
Chinese Lives is a weekly series. Previously: