Hu Shi: “A Preliminary Discussion of Literary Reform”
Bary, William Theodore. "The New Culture Movement." In Sources of East Asian Tradition, 706-07. Vol. 2. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
(Taken from Hu, “Wenxue gailiang chuyi,” in Hu Shi wencun collection 1, ch. 1, pp. 5-16; original version in Xin Qingnian 2, no. 5 (January 1917): 1-11; WTC)
The author of this work was the Chinese philosopher, essayist, and diplomat Hu Shi (胡适). Mr. Hu was born in Anhui, China, in 1891. In 1910 he went to the United States to study agriculture at Cornell University. Later, went on to study philosophy at Columbia University and was greatly influenced by his professor John Dewey. After his studied he returned to China and began teaching at Peking University. There he met Chen Duxiu, the author of New Youth journal, in which this particular primary source work was published. He became one of the leading intellectuals in the New Culture Movement in China and was very influential in advocating for the use of vernacular in Chinese literature, as well as advocating for a new Chinese writing system. He was a great and influential intellectual, and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize. Later in life he became the diplomat for the Republic of China to the United States. After the Chinese Civil War, he fled to Taiwan and resided in Taipei, where he then passed away in 1962 at the age of 70.
This primary source is an opinion essay regarding certain aspects of literary reform in China; it is not a personal or historical account. It was originally written in the Xin Qingnian as part of New Culture Movement literature specifically to improve Chinese culture and literature.
Date of Source Creation:
This essay was originally published January 1917 in the Chinese Xin Qingnian (New Youth) journal. In our textbook, Sources, this essay was translated into English by Wing-tsit Chan, who attended Dartmouth College and Colombia University and was a world-renowned translator of Chinese philosophical texts. The manuscript from which this translation comes from is the original and was written by Hu Shi himself. Because this text is taken from the original manuscript and not handed down or copied by others, there is no lapse in time that would impact the interpretation of the source. This was also published only during the New Culture Movement, which lasted from roughly 1915-1921 and was one of the most influential journals in spreading New Culture Movement thought, and likely had a great influence on the May Fourth Movement that culminated in student demonstrations on May Fourth, 1919 in Beijing.
The text comes from the Xin Qingnian journal (New Youth), a New Culture Movement journal, published by Chen Duxiu who was head of the literature department at Peking University in January 1917. Sources authors transcribed this work from the original journal, and we know Hu Shi himself wrote it because it was directly published from his hand into the Xin Qingnian journal, so this publication is very trustworthy and true to the original author.
Hu Shi seems to have been writing this essay to a literate and educated Chinese public audience who had knowledge of ancient texts and literature forms, but more specifically to the Chinese literati and younger authors who were writing and publishing at that time. His audience would have had a background in Confucian literary tradition as well as political measures. This audience affects how the material is presented because Hu Shi dives right into the faults of the Chinese written tradition, assuming that his audience already has a background in the aspects of literature that he talks about. The Xin Qingnian journal would have reached an intellectual audience as well as a younger audience that could change the future of Chinese literary tradition; because Hu Shi wrote this in the Xin Qingnian journal, he most likely assumes that his audience is seeking to improve Chinese culture and literature. He mentions specifically what changes should be made in the writing tradition so that the Chinese writers he is talking writing to can implement these changes. The author is also very candid and clear on what he thinks should be reformed in Chinese literature, so he can reach and effect as many people as possible in order to persuade them to change the current writing and literature norms of the time. It seems that he is also especially appealing to Chinese literati and the government, because only they would have the power to implement the changes in Chinese literature and education that he mentions in the paper.
The author seems to be in an ideal situation to give an opinion on Chinese literary reform because he was schooled in China as well as in universities in the United States, so he has firsthand knowledge of the strengths of western literature and the deficiencies of Chinese literature. Many of the arguments that he makes have to do with incorporating the strengths of western literature into Chinese literature. However received degrees in agriculture and philosophy, so perhaps there would be others more qualified than him to write an opinion paper on this subject, for instance Chinese scholars that had degrees in literature. Hu Shi may not have had the full credentials needed to make a completely informed and comprehensive appeal to reform the Chinese literary system. Although his background of schooling both in China and the U.S. qualifies him to share a unique opinion regarding Chinese literary reform, someone with literature degrees from both China and the west would be more qualified to write such an opinion essay.
In this primary source, it is clear that the author Hu Shi is suggesting ways in which the Chinese literary tradition can improve. He gives 8 theses to reform literature: “(1) write with substance, (2) do not imitate the ancients, (3) emphasize grammar, (4) reject melancholy, (5) eliminate old clichés, (6) do not use allusions, (7) do not use couplets or parallelisms, (8) do not avoid popular expressions or forms of characters.” It is clear that he wants to change Chinese writing through these key points. He makes his points very clear and is very open about his opinions. Also he explains these points thoroughly to make sure his readers know what exactly his theses mean.
This text is meant to persuade Chinese literary scholars as well as the literate public at large that the Chinese literary tradition needs reform. Hu Shi does this by pointing out the deficiencies of Chinese literature using modern and ancient examples of these deficiencies. He says that every dynastic period had its own unique literature and that now Chinese writers should be writing material unique to their time instead of just imitating the ancients. He goes on to argue that the best literature comes from the heart and isn’t just a copy of the past, and this is how literature becomes great. Although he may not be the most appropriate scholar to address these issues, as mentioned above (he did not have a degree in literature), he still makes very clear and logical statements that were supported by the Chinese reformist community and helped to further the cause of the literary renaissance. Publishing the essay in the “New Youth” journal helped to spread these ideas faster and with more power than could otherwise be attained.
Hu Shi did have an agenda when writing this: he was part of the greater New Culture Movement and literary revolution. His colleague Chen Duxiu ran the Xin Qingnian (New Youth) journal, which was supportive of the New Culture Movement and its progressive ideals, and encouraged him to publish this essay in the journal. His goals in writing this essay were to reform the Chinese literary tradition by writing in vernacular, writing unique and new things, and to improve the writing system in general so it would be easier to learn and understand. This included discontinuing the use of ancient Chinese grammar and structure in literature.
Hu Shi assumes his audience is literate and intellectual, and has read ancient classics, literary works, and even had experience written a few of their own works. He also assumes, by publishing his work in Xin Qingnian, that his audience is interested in the New Culture Movement and Chinese cultural reform. The values and issues of the time strongly influenced Hu Shi in writing this essay; the New Culture Movement and the fall of the Qing dynasty were catalysts of reform that tried to push China out of its dark and stagnant intellectual and political situation. Many other intellectuals, such as Chen Duxiu and Lu Xun, stood behind Hu Shi in promoting a literary and cultural renaissance. In addition, the stigma of being seen as the “sick man of Asia” by other Asian countries surely pushed China and its people toward progression. Seeing the technological and social advancements of other nations such as Japan would have surely spurred nationalism and competition within China. Literary reform was an obvious place to start because it was in many ways less efficient than western literature. Overall, this primary source article seems to have been greatly influential and persuasive in pushing the Chinese literary renaissance of the early 20th century.
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